November 2001 in the U.S. I am running a three day management workshop with Germans and Americans from a major global German company. All of the colleagues are very capable people, mechanical engineers who have formed a transatlantic team. They work very closely together. Our topic for the three days is processes. Germans say Prozessverständnis. Americans say process philosophy.
We are not addressing specific processes, but how Germans and Americans fundamentally understand and live processes. This is no simple topic. There is lots of potential for misunderstanding, disagreement, internal political battles.
We head to dinner after the first day and sit at a big, long table. Hardly have I begun to eat my salad when the senior-level manager of the team, Thomas, brings up the recent invasion of American-led forces into Afghanistan. I am sitting across from him. We know each other fairly well, have had several conversations in Essen, in the famous German industrial area, the Ruhrgebiet. Thomas is smart, professional, high integrity. He knows me and my work. I know him and his reputation.
U.S. forces were attacking the Taliban in Afghanistan as a reaction to the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11. Or supposedly that was the reason. Who knows? I don’t. I follow politics, but not intensively. I, as an American, certainly do not raise controversial topics with business customers, and never in such a situation.
But this time I decided to respond. For American eyes and ears the brief discussion Thomas and I had was an argument. John arguing with the customer. For German eyes and ears we debated. Thomas has strong arguments. He provokes. I counter with questions. It gets intense. For Thomas. For me.
Fifteeen to twenty minutes into it I need to go to the men’s room. I get up from the table and head over. An American pops up and joins me walking down the hall: “Are you crazy, John, arguing with the customer like that? Just let him make his statements and nod. The workshop is great. You want to continue doing work for us, don’t you?“
In the bathroom, standing next to each other, he continues to warn me. Helpfully. Caringly. I smile. There is no time to explain. He wouldn’t believe me anyway. We head back to the table a few minutes later. Folks have moved on to other topics. Days two and three of the workshop go very well. Thomas is very happy with my work. I go on to serve him, his organization and his colleagues for several years.
Thomas enjoyed our brief discussion about American foreign policy very much. It did not hurt our business relationship. In fact, it helped the relationship. Let‘s not forget. True friends speak their mind, especially when they fear that the other friend is making a mistake which could damage themselves. Thomas was concerned about America‘s invasion of Afghanistan. He wanted to know how we Americans viewed it.