Red Man. Green Man.

It’s a cliché that Germans are inflexible, that their processes are inflexible. I, too, believed that for many years. This is a complex topic. It depends on the process, of course, and on the particular step within a process. In some cases, Germans, like any other culture, would say: “At this stage of the process stick to the letter of the law. There is little to no room for interpretation.” In other cases, they would say: “Here we have room to interpret, to make our own decision based on the particulars of the situation.”

Now, when the process is documented in black and white, and in detail, it is in the German culture clear that one needs to stick to the process. When, however, it is generally formulated, is not in detail, then it signals that one has the flexibility to interpret. This has to do with the differences between the written and the spoken word in the German context. The written word has a very high level of binding character. The longer, the more detailed, the more restrictive, the less flexible. And the opposite. The shorter, the less detailed, the more flexible. But this is a topic for another day.

2005. I was on a bus from the center of town in Bonn headed home up on the Venusberg. After about twenty minutes we arrived at my stop. I went to the front of the bus and got off. Since more passengers were getting off and on I knew that the bus had a minute or so before it would continue on. So instead of walking twenty feet along the sidewalk to cross the street where the pedestrian crossing was indicated by the wide white stripes, I decided to save a few seconds by walking directly in front of the bus, leaning around it where the driver was sitting in order to see if any cars were coming.

Responsible, according to the German logic

Normally, cars are not allowed to drive around a bus while it is still loading or unloading passengers. Just to be safe, though, I looked. A car was just beginning to maneuver around the bus. Plenty of time for me to scoot across the street with my long legs. I decided to do it. Barely across the street, I heard a very loud screech. The car had come to a very sudden stop, hitting the brakes hard. I pivoted around immediately only to see a young boy, no older than seven or eight years old, standing just in front of that car, trembling, with no more than a foot or two separating them. He then scurried across the street onto the sidewalk.

Had the driver not reacted so quickly, chances are that boy either would not be with us today, or would be in a wheelchair, or worse. It shook me to the core. Time and again, over the years since, I recall that moment. I shudder. According to the German logic – social logic – I was partly responsible for that boy’s behavior, for choosing to cross the street directly in front of the bus and not at the official crossing point. Now, I am not sure if I would have been legally responsible, had he been hit by the car, but that is not the message here.

German thinking goes like this: “You are an adult. You know the rules. There are good reasons why we have official crossing points, and why they are marked with wide white stripes. So that drivers of cars, buses and trucks know to be careful at those points. And so that pedestrians cross at those points and not simply wherever they want. We want to minimize accidents between vehicles and human beings, especially children. So be a role model for children. If you pass at those official points, that will reinforce what they have been taught by their parents, teachers and the crossing guards who volunteer in the mornings and afternoons near the Kindergartens and elementary schools. If you do not stick to the rules, they will be tempted to do the same, possibly with tragic results.”

“They obey the rules no matter what.”

The American in me thinks that children should be responsible for themselves. Their parents, in the end, have to teach them good judgement, and not too simply do what others do. “Am I responsible for the actions of children of other people?” This, too, is certainly a topic for another day. It’s an important one, but far too complex for this story.

Little red man. Little green man. Many of us non-Germans are familiar with the traffic lights in Germany. The cars look for red, yellow, green. Pedestrians crossing streets look for the red man and the green man. The red man signals: “Don’t cross the street. You might come into contact with a car, bus or truck, and it won’t be terribly pleasant.” The green man signals: “Ok, you’re good. Cross the street.”

Many of us have stood at a street-crossing looking at that little red man and at the same time seeing no car, bus or truck far and wide. We look around and notice that the Germans are waiting, many stiff, still, often a grim look on their face. We, at least we Americans, wonder what in the world are they waiting for. Why aren’t they crossing the street? No cars coming. Many of us conclude: “Oh, they’re Germans. They obey the rules no matter what. How ridiculous.”

“Do you think you’re someone special?”

2005. Up until then, after seventeen years in Germany and I’d say that at I had received a comment barked out at me least a dozen times when I crossed the street while that little red man was still shining bright. “Hey you idiot, are you color blind?” or “Do you think you’re someone special?” or “Don’t you see that there are children standing here?”

That last comment is the key one, it goes to the heart of German social logic. For many years, when the target of such barks, I thought: “Mind your own business. Get a life. Get a job. Who made you a policeman?” In some instances I barked such things back, but in a more colorful language. “Those arrogant, busybody, know-it-all Germans”, I thought, “obeying silly rules like mindless slaves.”

Until that day. That day when a boy of seven was almost struck by a multi-ton chunk of steel, on sleek wheels of rubber gripping the concrete, with the power of well over a hundred horses, and often an impatient driver at the wheel. It was on that day that I understood why Germans in some cases are very inflexible.

2005. My son, Daniel, was also seven years old. Average height. Light as a feather. Tender. His grammar school was around the corner from our house. He needed not cross the street when walking from home to school and back. On another day, in another part of Bonn, however, that seven year old boy could have been mine. And that car could have been another car. Not as quick to stop.

Red Man. Green Man.