by Craig Storti

Consider the following exchange between an American and a German:

Susan: Did you see the fourth quarter sales figures yet?
Horst: Yes. Rather bad; down a third from last year.
Susan: We really took a beating.
Horst: Yes. We did very poorly.
Susan: Oh, well. We might as well look on the bright side; things can only go up from here.
Horst: I’m not so sure; the figures could go either way.
Susan: Sure, but no point in being gloomy though, is there?
Horst: What do you mean?

Horst is taken aback by being called “gloomy,” since there is clearly no basis in fact —or in the figuresfor that characterization. Gloomy would mean he’s being negative, looking at the situation as worse than it is. But he’s not.

The situation isn’t very good – Susan herself says “We really took a beating”—and both speakers agree the figures could go either way. The only fair reading of this exchange, then, is to say Horst is being realistic, objective—describing the situation as neither better nor worse than the figures suggest. If you’re going to accuse Horst of something, you could accuse him of being a realist, but you can’t accuse him of being a pessimist, which is why he’s surprised to be labeled gloomy.

“Cultures, for a variety of reasons, tend to fall into one of two camps on this issue: the internalists and the externalists.”

Although there are no facts to support Susan, most American readers would probably agree with her, for one very simple reason: Americans are not realists. In fact, they’re unabashed and unapologetic optimists. There’s nothing wrong with being an optimist, of course, but optimists should never be relied upon to see things the way they are. The truth is the way things are, especially if things aren’t very good, doesn’t interest Americans; they prefer to see things the way they could be. If optimism is your starting point in life—always looking on the bright side, the glass is half full, and every cloud has a silver lining—then naturally people like Horst, who are merely realistic, will come across to you as pessimistic. And true pessimists will no doubt strike you as downright cynics.

Let’s consider how Americans got this way. A good part of the explanation deals with a concept we have discussed earlier in this space, locus of control. Locus of control deals with issues of cause and effect and who or what is ultimately responsible for what happens in life. Cultures, for a variety of reasons, tend to fall into one of two camps on this issue: the internalists and the externalists. Some typical sentiments of these two camps are laid out below:


Activism, interventionism. What happens in life is primarily up to you; the individual is in control in most cases; things happen because you “make” them happen, and if they are not happening, then you “do something” about the situation; there is never any real excuse for why something can’t be done (except laziness or you just gave up). The only limits to what you can achieve are internal, those you impose on yourself; failure means you didn’t try hard enough; there’s no such thing as luck; you make your own luck. Fate and destiny can be transcended by individual will and determination. Life is what I do.


Fatalism, stoicism. Some things are just not meant to be, no matter how hard you try. The individual can influence/control many situations, but there are other things you can’t do anything about and must just accept. Sometimes failure is unavoidable in spite of your efforts; some limits are real and not self-imposed; sometimes your luck is good, sometimes not; some problems do not have a solution; that’s just how it is. Possibilities are circumscribed; you don’t always get another chance. Life is in part what happens to you.

While individuals in a particular culture can end up anywhere along the continuum, it is possible to plot the position of national cultures. I have asked people from all over the world in training events to do just that for their society in general, and the results have been remarkably consistent. Typically, the cultures of the Middle East, southern Europe, and Latin America tend to be medium to strong externalists, while North Americans and most northern Europeans tend to be medium to strong internalists. The Germans, such as our friend Horst, usually fall somewhere in the middle.

If you read the internalist paragraph closely, it’s easy to see why these folks would tend toward optimism. If what happens in life is basically up to you, and if you can always do something even about those things that are not up to you, then there is no excuse not to be positive and optimistic. If anything unfortunate happens, then just do something about it. Indeed, people who don’t do anything about their unfortunate circumstances, who simply lament, are widely regarded as whiners, people who would rather complain than act, and they get very little sympathy from most Americans. If you are ultimately in control of your destiny and you don’t like the destiny you’ve landed in, then take matters into your own hands.

“The American attitude to life,” Bill Bryson has observed, “is remarkably upbeat and lacking in negativity. * Bill Bryson, 1999. I’m A Stranger Here Myself. New York: Broadway Books. pp287-88 If you informed an American that a massive asteroid was hurtling toward earth at 125,000 miles an hour and that in twelve weeks the planet would be blown to smithereens, he would say: ‘Really? In that case, I suppose I’d better sign up for that Mediterranean cooking class now.’”*

Back to Susan and Horst. Germans tend to be a combination of internalist and externalist which makes them neither especially optimistic nor pessimistic. They believe it’s very important to be objective, analyzing all aspects of a situation with cool detachment and a generous dash of skepticism to be on the safe side, since things are almost never as good as they look. And voila: Horst the Gloomy.

“But in a can-do culture like America, we actually don’t have problems; rather, we have opportunities, challenges, and issues.”

In the American workplace, realists don’t fare all that well; they’re “negative,” “skeptical,” “defeatist,” they “bring everybody down.” They’re always looking at why something won’t work instead of figuring out how it could work. Go to an American boss with a problem, and she’ll ask you what the solution is. And if you don’t have one, you’ll be made to feel foolish. In many business cultures, identifying a problem is a significant contribution to the enterprise, whether or not you’ve got a solution. But in a can-do culture like America, we actually don’t have problems; rather, we have opportunities, challenges, and issues. A problem sounds too much like something intractable, a situation that can’t be resolved and just has to be accepted.

So what are the implications of all this for today’s workplaces? Just this: People are judged by the prevailing norms. If you work in an environment where the prevailing norm is to be optimistic, such as many U.S. worksites, and you happen to be a realist, be prepared for taking some flack and even being branded as defeatist or negative. If you work in an environment where the prevailing norm is to be realistic and you’re an optimistic American, you may not be seen as trustworthy, and your views may be discounted.

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Communicating Across Cultures

Craig Storti

Craig Storti

A consultant and trainer in the field of intercultural communications, is the author of seven books. His latest, Speaking of India, describes the common cultural flashpoints when Indians work together with North Americans and western Europeans. He can be contacted at: [email protected] or learn more at his website: