Focused more on action

“A few years ago she explained in an interview that she simply never believed that ‘a person can touch other people so much with words that they change their minds.’

Accordingly, she has always focused more on actions than words. She almost never gives interviews to foreign news outlets, and those she gives the German media are rarely exciting. She has never supplied the tabloids with even a hint of scandal.”

That’s Serge Schmemann, the decades-long journalist for the New York Times, about Angela Merkel in an article on September 26, 2021, election day in Germany, when Merkel, after sixteen years in office, is not on the ballot.

“I am not convinced!“

Entschuldigen Sie, ich bin nicht überzeugt! – “Excuse me, I am not convinced!“ In 2003, at the International Security Conference in Munich, Joschka Fischer ended the debate against his American colleague Donald Rumsfeld with this reproachful outcry.

But what had happened? Of what was Fischer not convinced? The debate was on the topic of aiding the intervention of U.S. military forces in Iraq. Rumsfeld wanted support from Germany, but the German government under the direction of Schröder and Fischer strictly declined his request.

At the conference, Rumsfeld was making one last attempt at getting the still-doubtful Germans on board with his agenda. Nevertheless, his reasoning that Iraq was working on weapons of mass destruction, supporting terrorist groups, and ignoring the UN, was not enough to convince the German side.

The evidence was too scant, the intervention plans too poorly prepared, and the timing of the operation seemed badly selected. It would be better just to give diplomacy another chance, rather than send German soldiers into an adventure with an uncertain end and questionable justification.

Presumably, Fischer (a former participant in the student protest movement of 1968) was drawing on more recent German history to strengthen his resolve in declining. And in this case, he now has history on his side; the Iraq war indeed evolved into just the disaster which he had always warned it would be.

2003. The Munich Security Conference. Then German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer challenges then U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, “to make the case” for war in Iraq. Watch mins. 1:00 to 1:25, where Fischer speaks directly to Rumsfeld.

Auskunftspflicht

Auskunft, information. Pflicht, obligation. Auskunftspflicht. The obligation to inform.

When persuading (presenting, informing, describing), the Germans believe that they have an obligation to present all of the facts. The good, the bad. What works, what doesn’t work.

They do not believe that they should wait until critical questions are raised, exposing the negative or downside of what they are presenting or proposing. Competent, professional and honest are those who forthrightly reveal the less positive.

Are Germans more honest than others? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Who can judge? Not our topic.

If you are presenting to Germans, and they find that you have not forthrightly addressed serious weaknesses in your argument, proposal, concept, solution, they can draw one of two possible conclusions. Either you are not fully competent. You did not identify and address those weaknesses. Or you are well aware of them, do not have a solution, and have therefore attempted to hide, ignore or avoid the discussion.

Neither conclusion reflects positively on that presenter. The German audience is not persuaded. Worse, the presenter has lost credibility. Germans have a shared logic. The presenter should address both the positive and the negative.

überzeugen, not überreden

The German word überzeugen – literally over-witness or more than enough witnesses – means to persuade or convince with plausible arguments, evidence, proof that something is true, right, correct.

überzeugen for Germans means to use rational arguments only, to appeal to reason, without attempting establish a personal (subjective, emotional) relationship with the target audience.

The German word überreden – literally over-talk or more than enough talk – means to coax, plead, cajole, browbeat, armtwist the other person to do something they originally did not wish to.

überreden for Germans means to use subjective-emotional argumentation, to appeal to the emotions, to the non-rational. Germans reject überreden.

Low Prestige

Sales is given low prestige in Germany. People in general do not like to sell. Germans even less so. High prestige in the German business world is enjoyed by the natural sciences, engineering, manufacturing, law, and until recently, banking and finance. The disciplines of sales, including account management, and marketing enjoy less prestige.

King in Germany is knowledge, research and development, invention, production. Germans in general believe that a product should sell itself. Who needs sales/marketing? Verkaufen – German for selling – begins with ver, the prefix to many German verbs which have a negative meaning.

See Heinz Erhardt, one of post-war West Germany’s most beloved comedians and actors.

“Don’t sell to me”

In Germany, to inform persuasively means to lead, guide, channel listeners to the desired conclusion and decision. It is done indirectly, subtlely, discreetly, signaling, indicating, not selling.

The slightest form of pushiness, of promoting can lead the German audience to suspect that the presenter is hiding something or trying manipulate them. Reserve and restraint is a virtue in the German context and moves the presenter closer towards the goal.

Sales personnel in German stores often greet the customer with Sie kommen zurecht? meaning “You know what you’re looking for?” or Sie schauen nur? meaning “You‘re just taking a look around?”.

This is their way of communicating that they are ready at any time to assist the customer with any questions they might have, but do not want to disturb them, much less try to sell them something.

German customers do not feel comfortable being sold to, certainly not aggressively sold to. Germans who sell know this of themselves, take therefore a hands-off, discreet approach, to persuasion, reacting only if and when the audience gives the corresponding signals.

Power to the engineers!

In the most recent poll on occupational prestige in Germany conducted by the Allensbach Institute engineers and university professors took seventh place, behind physicians and craftsmen, but well ahead of politicians and journalists.

26% of Germans polled noted a high degree of respect for the engineering profession. No wonder, for Germans define individual prestige based on technical (specialized) knowledge.

Almost every third supervisory board member of a DAX30 company is an engineer by training. Industrial heavyweights like Volkswagen and DaimlerBenz have always been run by engineers, to the dismay, as the magazine Spiegel wrote, of those colleagues with a business or legal background.

Of Ducks and Salesmpeople

“We’re like ducks. We’re not good at either swimming or flying.” This was the response of a graduate student in Wirtschaftsingenieurwesens – a kind of combination of business and engineering, each of them in the lighter form – when asked what subject material her studies involved.

The duck metaphor reveals a conflict in German companies. Those working in sales & marketing are still looked down upon a bit as people who go from door-to-door selling a product (vacuum cleaners is the cliché) which they have neither developed nor manufactured. Even more, colleagues in sales & marketing often feel unfairly blamed when the company does not perform well.

Prestige in the German economy still goes to those who invent, develop and make physical products. Engineers and artisans are among the most highly respected disciplines.

The results of their work can be seen, held, put to work, and depending on their sophistication even marveled at. Whereas the success of capable sales & marketing people can be seen only in dry, impersonal numbers.

In addition, almost all professionals in sales & marketing transitioned into that discipline from another one, perhaps even from engineering. In fact, Germany doesn’t have a traditional Berufsgruppe – occupation category – for sales. There is no guild going back to the Middle Ages as there are for almost all other technical occupations. Thus the duck-metaphor. Neither fish nor fowl.

Nonetheless, the importance of the work “ducks” perform continues to increase in today’s global economy, where quality and technical prowess alone are not enough to sell a product.

Bringschuld

When persuading, Germans feel obligated to present the Gesamtbild, the full picture, all of the facts, the pretty as well as the less pretty, what works, what does not.

This is a Bringschuld, literally bring or deliver obligation. The German presenter does not wait until critical questions from the audience pull out or expose the weaknesses of an argument. In Germany it is a sign of competence, professionalism, honesty and integrity to reveal openly the weaknesses of what is being presented.

An attempt to conceal the weaknesses of an argument, offering, concept or solution leaves a German listener with only two possible explanations. The presenter either is not aware of the weaknesses, and is therefore not fully competent, or the presenter is indeed aware but trying to conceal the weaknesses, and therefore dishonest.

Either way the presenter will not persuade the German listener. And worse, the presenter‘s credibility has been damaged severely.

Anstupsen

anstupsen – to nudge, to prod.

In a January 2015 article in DIE ZEIT Tina Hildebrandt writes critically and with irony about the Merkel government engaging experts in order to study what makes the German people happy, and how to move them in that direction. Anstupsen is what the experts call their method.

The experts are developing kleine Entscheidungshilfen – little decision making aids – to prod German citizens in that direction. That is precisely the problem, Hildebrandt writes: “An administration should persuade, not nudge.”

The article demonstrates how quickly Germans get angry when one tries to push them in a certain direction even if only with the help of “little decision making aids.” The slightest suspicion that any action aims to get a decision is immediately counterproductive.

The Germans sense any form of nudge or prod as drängen – as pressure, as pushing. Germans want to be persuaded. And when they make a decision they reject any kind of outside influence.

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