denken mit auf Augenhöhe

“Bei aller Strategie bleiben wir menschlich: Wir hören zu, denken mit und kommunizieren auf Augenhöhe.” In English: “Yes, it’s about strategy. But more importantly it’s about people. We are people. We listen. We think with. And we communicate at eye-level.”

Think with. At eye-level. That’s it. The German logic. In black and white. Clear as a bell.

The quote is from gambit. A Germany-based marketing and communications agency. Specialists. Serving companies who build buildings. gambit understands architects and interior designers.

I stumbled across gambit when noticing how superb the Simonswerk website is. Created by gambit. Simonswerk. A German mid-sized company located near Hanover, with a strong presence in France, Italy, and most importantly in the United States.

And why the term gambit as the name of their agency? They provide the definition on their website: “gambit [gæmbit], n. (Schach) einleitender Schachzug, (in conversation) einleitende Bemerkung.”

From MerriamWebster: “A chess opening in which a player risks one or more pawns or a minor piece to gain an advantage in position; a remark intended to start a conversation or make a telling point.”

Beraten vs. Dienen

The Germans use the word service very often, and in many different situations. But, service is not native to the German language. The German equivalent for service is dienen. And the word dienen can be traced back as far as the 8th century. At its root dienen was in connection with Läufer (runner), Bote (messenger) or Knecht (farm laborer or servant). Dienen means simply to be helpful or to be useful. 

But, it also means (and is often felt by Germans to mean) service in the sense of servitude, subjugation or subordination of one person to another person, to the one served, assisted or helped. Especially if one is serving exclusively the individual needs, wishes or interests of another person, one can feel a loss of independence and autonomy. One is captive, no longer free. 

However, if a common goal or common purpose is being served, something for the good of all, then serving is understood as positive. This might provide an indication for why contemporary Germans avoid using the term dienen, and prefer the English word service, or a combination of a German and an English term (i.e. Kundenservice = customer service).

The German term beraten, on the other hand, means to give someone advice about what they should do. The root is Rat, which means counsel. To beraten with another means to discuss and consider together, to hold council on a specific issue, situation or problem. A Berater is a consultant. 

The original definition of beraten means to take precautions, in the sense of food and provisions in a household: Hausrat (household things), Vorrat (supply, reserve, stock), Gerät (tool, utensil, appliance, device). Beraten (to give advice, to consult) is oriented, therefore, towards a future action, something to be done. Beraten serves the purpose of preparing someone for a future or possible situation. 

“Soup Nazi”

The U.S. tv series Seinfeld. Jerry George and Elaine visit a new soup stand. Jerry explains that the owner, Yev Kassem, is known as the “Soup Nazi” due to his insistence on a strict manner of behavior while placing an order, but his soups are so outstandingly delicious that the stand is constantly busy. 

At the soup stand, George complains about not receiving bread with his meal. When he presses the issue, George’s order is taken away and his money returned. On a subsequent visit, George buys soup (with a warning that he is pushing his luck), but Elaine, having scoffed at Jerry’s advice on how to order, draws Kassem’s ire and is banned for a year.

Wait, stop ! We’ll let the video tell the rest of the story.

Beraten

The German word beraten means to provide advice about what another person should do. Its root is Rat or counsel. To advise another person also means to enter into discussion with them about a certain topic, situation or problem. A Berater is a consultant.

The original definition of beraten is to take precautionary steps concerning basic human needs: food, shelter and everything which makes up a household. Rat is the root of Hausrat: Haus, house + rat, things, meaning household things.

More terms: Vorrat: Vor, before + rat, things, meaning supplies; Gerät, meaning tools or instruments. Beraten, therefore, focuses on future actions, on what needs to be done. It is future-looking. Beraten means to prepare another person for a possible situation.

Dienen

As is the case with many English terms, the Germans prefer to use the word service instead of dienen. The term dienen can be traced back to the 8th Century, when it meant runner, messenger, serf. Dienen in today‘s German means to serve, to be helpful, to be useful.

Dienen, however, also implies – and this is what Germans hear – subjugation, to place oneself below the person being served. Germans feel a loss of independence, personal sovereignty, autonomy, when dienen involves focus on the individual needs and wishes of the other person.

In such situations Germans sees themselves almost as slaves, as imprisoned, as unfree. They feel that their free will has been put on hold in order to serve the free will of the other. They no longer have the say over themselves.

Dienen, though, can have a positive meaning in the German context – namely when individuals freely choose to serve a common purpose, which is to the benefit of all, a greater good.

This all gives us a sense for why Germans avoid using the word dienen and instead prefer the English term service or the German-English combination Kundenservice, literally customer service. Germans have no problem subordinating their freedom when it comes to serving a purpose they believe in: Einer guten Sache dienen.

They do have a problem, however: serving exclusively the needs and desires of another individual. Such phrases as Ihr ergebener Diener, your loyal servant, or stets zu Diensten, at your service, have died out in Germany, and with these phrases the thinking behind them.

“Not the consumers’ job“

Harvard Business Review. October 31, 2001. Tom Davenport, Business Professor at Babson College: Was Steve Jobs a Good Decision Maker?

„He (Jobs) also didn’t believe in analytical decisions based on extensive market research.“ Quoting The New York Times’ obituary: „Mr. Jobs’s own research and intuition, not focus groups, were his guide. When asked what market research went into the iPad, Mr. Jobs replied: ‘None. It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.’”

Steve Jobs was not of German descent. It was known, however, that he had great respect for German design and technology. He and his family, it was reported, had debated for weeks what brand of washing machine they should choose. His arguments won out. Miele.

Look at my work

German non-governmental organizations – NGOs – are confronted by the dilemma that they need to function well as organizations, but do not want to give their members the impression that they work for an organization. 

Internal power struggles are poisonous for small, low-budget organizations. Members need to know that they are serving a higher purpose and not an organizational structure, much less specific people within that structure.

For Germans, their work, what they accomplish day in and day out, is very much a part of their personal identity. On the one side this makes it difficult for them to maintain distance from their work. 

On the other, however, it enables them to work very conscientiously and independently. The German logic is: “Do you want to understand who I am? Look at my work.“

With themselves – In themselves

Why do Germans have such difficulty with dienen, serving? 

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Germans in many ways live mit sich – with themselves, and in sich – in themselves, in the sense of how they live, where they live. Their surroundings are very much a part of their personality, their self-understanding. 

Unexpected visitors, regulations or limitations on their private lives are quickly interpreted as almost personal attacks. A boss calling unexpectedly, friends dropping by for a visit, colleagues giving unsolicited advice concerning their private lives make Germans feel uncomfortable.

To serve well, though, means to push to the side one’s own values, beliefs, ways of living. The better one can do that, the better one can serve. And that is the difficult part for Germans. 

Germans prefer far more beraten, to advise, or to complete a task. Beraten involves addressing a topic, subject, or problem. It is impersonal, independent of one‘s values, lifestyle, or belief system.

To serve a good cause

Einer guten Sache dienen. To serve a good cause.

The Germans believe that when you serve another person – dienen – you have to accept the value system of that person. He who serves, has to do things, has to act in a way, which he might otherwise fully reject. Even more, the person serving is obligated to do his very best.

Germans do not consider this a relief, not as a transfer of moral responsibility from the one serving to the one being served. On the contrary, it represents a burden for them, knowing from the very start that they will invariably come into conflict with their conscience.

On the other hand, when Germans are willing to serve a good purpose, a cause they believe in, they are freely submitting to a belief, taking a moral stand, agreeing with a set of arguments. They can formulate those arguments in a way which fits their values. If one can no longer support the cause, there is no obligation to continue contributing time and effort.

Psychologically this means that serving a good cause, whether through action, financial assistance or communicating a message, means serving one’s own value system. One is obligating oneself freely. Independence and self-determination are protected.

Autonomy !

Autonomie. Autonomy. Greek autonomía, independent, free, self-determining; acting based on free will.

Autonomy has a negative connotation in the German culture. Those who demand their autonomy are often seen as being uncooperative, as wanting to be totally free, not connected, not tied to or related to others.

To be autonomous in Germany sounds like not being connected to the whole, not belonging, rejecting it. The term autonomy is often used in a political context. Alarm bells go off in the German head when groups demand more autonomy. A well-known radical group on the left refers to themselves as the Autonomen.

On the other hand, institutions such as universities often seek more autonomy from state regulation. In that sense autonomy stands for independence, self-reliance, and transparency. There is a very fine line in the German culture between autonomy and independence.

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