By John Magee
“Nicht über den eigenen Tellerrand hinaus zu schauen,” literally to not look beyond the rim of your own plate, is as negative a criticism as having an underdeveloped Problembewusstsein, problem-consciousness. Such people don’t recognize connections, interconnections, and interdependencies (the complexity). They sort of stumble along without fully grasping the broader context within which they do so. They have plenty of facts at hand, and can tell entertaining stories based on their experience, but fundamentally cannot “put two and two together.”
Germans are no fans of anecdotes in general anyway. They consider anecdotes to be uncertified, unauthenticated pseudo-documents, un-proofed by an official body or organization. Anecdotes are subjective, therefore invalid, worthy of being challenged. Germans expect theory which helps objectify facts and numbers, offering a clean method for understanding complexity.
Germans would roll their eyes when confronted in a typical American bookstore by those tall, narrow kiosk-like stands pushing how-to books with titles such as “10 Easy Steps to a Successful Marriage,“ “5 Simple Ways to Become a Millionaire,“ “Start Your Own Company in 3 Weeks,“ “A Successful Family in Ever Way,“ each of them amounting to no more than 150 pages.
“You stupid Americans, with your bullshit pragmatism!”
Germans are capable of being focused and to-the-point. It’s those “easy steps” which make them nervous. Perhaps it’s a part of Anglo-American pragmatism. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with Georg (yes, yet another anecdote). 1982, my very first year in Germany. He was the boyfriend of the daughter in the family I lived with in a small town south of Bonn.
Hardly had I met him and Georg got right down to business. As a junior officer in the Bundeswehr, the German Army, he asked me if Reagan and the U.S. would defend West Germany if the Russians and the Warsaw Pact attacked. I tried to give him a credible response, but was not exactly prepared for that kind of question as a twenty-two year old who had just graduated from college. I was not persuasive. Georg ended the conversation abruptly and in a huff mumbling under his breath, yet audible enough: “Ihr blöden US-Amerikaner mit Eurem scheiß Pragmatismus!”, literally you stupid Americans, with your bullshit pragmatism!
I shrugged my shoulders and continued on my way in life. In the quarter century since then I have thought often about that interaction. It was the thought that pragmatism could be “scheiße.“ To think and act pragmatically was a principle I had never challenged. What could possibly be wrong with pragmatism?