By John Magee
Americans learn at a very early age, in grammar school, that intelligence is the ability to simplify complexity, to break it down into segments, in order to understand and deal with it. Americans are pragmatic. Knowledge has true value when you can do something with it. Knowledge is of no value if it is not actionable. In English composition in school young Americans learn to construct short, clear and logical sentences. This is the pattern, the foundation, for just about all forms of written communication.
I remember all too well an at first surprisingly – but earned – poor grade I received for a paper I wrote on the Prussian King, Frederick the Great. I was a student of History at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. It was the Fall semester of 1980, my senior year, the last of four years. It was a beautiful October day, warm and sunny. Indian Summer. I attended a two semester course on German History, the beginning of my fascination with Germany. I simply could not get enough of it, about Germany and the Germans, articles, books, including Gerhard Ritter’s classic.
Apparently my fascination and excitement got away from me. I produced a ten-page paper of complicated confusion – unstructured and unclear. My professor, Michael Foley, one of the greats at Georgetown, took a knife to it. Red all over it. His commentary at the end: “Magee, what kind of nonsense is this. You write like a German!”
Professor Foley most surely did not mean that Germans can’t think, read or write. As an historian he was quite aware that the German people had produced many of the greatest historians of the modern era, and that the methods of historians originated in Germany. Instead he wanted to convey: “Dear John, first get clarity on what it is you wish to communicate. Then do so in simple, clear and straightforward sentences.”
Keep it simple, stupid!
And he was right! It is part of the American national cultural hard-wiring to believe (and say) that one has truly understood something if and when they can communicate it. “If you can’t explain it, you don’t understand it.” It’s an assumption which every American operates on: “If you can’t explain it to the average Joe, you don’t understand it.” It’s considered a high art form in the U.S. to be able to explain complex matters to the “man on the street.” It’s been said many times that Konrad Adenauer was a master of this art form.
I understood this about Adenauer many years later, during research on my Master‘s thesis about the disagreements between the Kennedy and Adenauer administrations during the Second Berlin Crisis, 1961-63. Through my studies I had become quite familiar with Chancellor Adenauer. His extraordinary ability to communicate with the “average Joe” was particularly effective in the early post-War years in West Germany. During one of the great national debates in the Bundestag about West German foreign policy Adenauer contrasts starkly his policy to that of the opposition Social Democrats by shouting: “Und wir wählen die Freiheit!” (We choose freedom!).
In the U.S. business context people speak of KISS: ‘Keep it simple, stupid!’ There, again, is the American logic about how to deal with complexity: “If you are truly intelligent, then you know how to make it simple, so that simple folks can understand it.” Perhaps this has to do with democracy and market economics. For what use is it to politicians to formulate complex arguments which are not understood by voters? Is it any different with companies marketing their products and services?
Story-telling activates the human imagination
This is also a reason why it is anecdotes, if well-told and -timed, are enormously persuasive in the American cultural context. For Americans anecdotes are empirical. They are reality experienced, the opposite of theory, which is often seen as abstract and unrealistic, separated from reality. An anecdote says: “I know what I’m talking about. I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. This is no theory, it’s reality!” Any American politician, for example, speaking in their legislative district or in the media about a difficult issue, such as the war in Iraq, will come across as especially convincing if they can claim to have visited that region.
Like aphorisms, anecdotes transport deeper-lying wisdom. Isn’t that what the Bible – Old and New Testament – does via one story after the other, communicate the deepest-felt, and therefore most complex, beliefs of a people, of Jews and Christians? Isn’t story-telling the highest, the most sophisticated, form of activating (speaking) to human imagination? Truly persuasive communicators in the U.S. plan very carefully when they draw on anecdotes. This is why we all listen so carefully when our grandparents tell their stories. They have the years of human experience.