Coconuts and Peaches: A Comparison of German and American Relational Styles

A common metaphor used to describe German and American communication and relationship styles compares the two cultures to “coconuts and peaches”. In this metaphor, the core of the fruit is the private sphere of the self that is only exposed to good friends, and the outer layer is the shell that must be breached in order to reach the core; the shell also describes how individuals behave in the public sphere. Germans are coconuts in this metaphor: the shell representing their public persona is very hard, representing both how serious Germans stereotypically appear to foreigners and also how difficult it is to break into their private sphere. Once someone does break a coconut shell, the interior is very sweet, which represents the loyalty that Germans bring to their close friendships. Americans have a very soft outer layer, like a peach. They appear much more friendly than Germans and are willing to divulge more personal information to others more quickly. But their private sphere is very small and hard. They keep most people at a distance in their public sphere, and will very often break off relationships and form new ones, keeping only a few very close friends.

This can have serious repercussions for how Germans and Americans interact and understand each other. Americans often see Germans as cold and distant, while Germans often see Americans as superficial and insincere. Really, it is just a cultural misunderstanding. In my research, I hope to examine the reasons behind this phenomenon more closely, and thereby better facilitate intercultural collaboration and friendship.

I believe that the difference in how Germans and Americans communicate and form relationships can be explained by a concept called relational mobility. This is the extent to which people perceive they can form new relationships and leave old ones within a given community. Research has found that collectivist cultures such as Japan have very low relational mobility (relationship boundaries are more rigid), and that Americans have a very high degree of relational mobility (relationships are more easily restructured). I believe that Germans also have lower average relational mobility than Americans. Relational mobility has interesting implications for friendships and other relationships. As I have mentioned, high relational mobility makes relationships a lot less stable, as they can be easily replaced. Cultures with high relational mobility also show higher similarity between friends, because there is more choice involved in the process, and people have a preference for similar friends. Additionally, individuals in highly relationally mobile cultures share more information with each other, in an effort to make friendships more stable.

I am interested in testing how similar German friend pairs are to one another, how soon they consider acquaintances to be friends, how much relational mobility they perceive in their society, and to what degree they share information with one another and with strangers. I will collect this data from university students in Aachen, and compare it data I will collect from William & Mary students. It will be interesting to see how it supports or contradicts the “coconut and peach” comparison, and whether the results substantiate my hypothesis about relational mobility. Either way, the results of this study will hopefully contribute to German and American cross-cultural awareness and aid in cross-cultural collaboration.