Red Man. Green Man.

Red Man. Green Man.

It’s a cliché that Germans are inflexible, that their processes are inflexible. I, too, believed that for many years. This is a complex topic. It depends on the process, of course, and on the particular step within a process. In some cases, Germans, like any other culture, would say: “At this stage of the process stick to the letter of the law. There is little to no room for interpretation.” In other cases, they would say: “Here we have room to interpret, to make our own decision based on the particulars of the situation.“

Now, when the process is documented in black and white, and in detail, it is in the German culture clear that one needs to stick to the process. When, however, it is generally formulated, is not in detail, then it signals that one has the flexibility to interpret. This has to do with the differences between the written and the spoken word in the German context. The written word has a very high level of binding character. The longer, the more detailed, the more restrictive, the less flexible. And the opposite. The shorter, the less detailed, the more flexible. But this is a topic for another day.

2005. I was on a bus from the center of town in Bonn headed home up on the Venusberg. After about twenty minutes we arrived at my stop. I went to the front of the bus and got off. Since more passengers were getting off and on I knew that the bus had a minute or so before it would continue on. So instead of walking twenty feet along the sidewalk to cross the street where the pedestrian crossing was indicated by the wide white stripes, I decided to save a few seconds by walking directly in front of the bus, leaning around it where the driver was sitting in order to see if any cars were coming.

Responsible, according to the German logic

Normally, cars are not allowed to drive around a bus while it is still loading or unloading passengers. Just to be safe, though, I looked. A car was just beginning to maneuver around the bus. Plenty of time for me to scoot across the street with my long legs. I decided to do it. Barely across the street, I heard a very loud screech. The car had come to a very sudden stop, hitting the brakes hard. I pivoted around immediately only to see a young boy, no older than seven or eight years old, standing just in front of that car, trembling, with no more than a foot or two separating them. He then scurried across the street onto the sidewalk.

Had the driver not reacted so quickly, chances are that boy either would not be with us today, or would be in a wheelchair, or worse. It shook me to the core. Time and again, over the years since, I recall that moment. I shudder. According to the German logic – social logic – I was partly responsible for that boy’s behavior, for choosing to cross the street directly in front of the bus and not at the official crossing point. Now, I am not sure if I would have been legally responsible, had he been hit by the car, but that is not the message here.

German thinking goes like this: “You are an adult. You know the rules. There are good reasons why we have official crossing points, and why they are marked with wide white stripes. So that drivers of cars, buses and trucks know to be careful at those points. And so that pedestrians cross at those points and not simply wherever they want. We want to minimize accidents between vehicles and human beings, especially children. So be a role model for children. If you pass at those official points, that will reinforce what they have been taught by their parents, teachers and the crossing guards who volunteer in the mornings and afternoons near the Kindergartens and elementary schools. If you do not stick to the rules, they will be tempted to do the same, possibly with tragic results.“

“They obey the rules no matter what.“

The American in me thinks that children should be responsible for themselves. Their parents, in the end, have to teach them good judgement, and not too simply do what others do. “Am I responsible for the actions of children of other people?” This, too, is certainly a topic for another day. It’s an important one, but far too complex for this story.

Little red man. Little green man. Many of us non-Germans are familiar with the traffic lights in Germany. The cars look for red, yellow, green. Pedestrians crossing streets look for the red man and the green man. The red man signals: “Don’t cross the street. You might come into contact with a car, bus or truck, and it won’t be terribly pleasant.” The green man signals: “Ok, you’re good. Cross the street.“

Many of us have stood at a street-crossing looking at that little red man and at the same time seeing no car, bus or truck far and wide. We look around and notice that the Germans are waiting, many stiff, still, often a grim look on their face. We, at least we Americans, wonder what in the world are they waiting for. Why aren’t they crossing the street? No cars coming. Many of us conclude: “Oh, they’re Germans. They obey the rules no matter what. How ridiculous.“

“Do you think you’re someone special?“

2005. Up until then, after seventeen years in Germany and I’d say that at I had received a comment barked out at me least a dozen times when I crossed the street while that little red man was still shining bright. “Hey you idiot, are you color blind?” or “Do you think you’re someone special?” or “Don’t you see that there are children standing here?“

That last comment is the key one, it goes to the heart of German social logic. For many years, when the target of such barks, I thought: “Mind your own business. Get a life. Get a job. Who made you a policeman?” In some instances I barked such things back, but in a more colorful language. “Those arrogant, busybody, know-it-all Germans”, I thought, “obeying silly rules like mindless slaves.”

Until that day. That day when a boy of seven was almost struck by a multi-ton chunk of steel, on sleek wheels of rubber gripping the concrete, with the power of well over a hundred horses, and often an impatient driver at the wheel. It was on that day that I understood why Germans in some cases are very inflexible.

2005. My son, Daniel, was also seven years old. Average height. Light as a feather. Tender. His grammar school was around the corner from our house. He needed not cross the street when walking from home to school and back. On another day, in another part of Bonn, however, that seven year old boy could have been mine. And that car could have been another car. Not as quick to stop.

“Are the Germans holding back?”

Americans and Germans decide to integrate processes. Process harmonization is the term used.  A common experience.

First look at and become familiar with the other side’s processes, procedures, etc. The Americans hand over their binders. Many of them. Long. Detailed. The Germans hand over theirs. Not as many. Not as long. Not as detailed. The Americans wonder where the rest is. “Are the Germans holding back? Not revealing? Playing politics?“

Another misperception. Not as many. Not as long. Not as detailed. In fact. The reason once revealed by a German engineer in the middle of the tension. “We do our best not to write down what we do and how we do it.” And why? “Because if it is written down in a process or a procedure, we are bound to doing it exactly in that way. We want to maintain our freedom and autonomy to choose situationally how we work.“

We Germans protect our knowledge

Is that the only reason? What about protecting your knowledge? He smiles discreetly. Not clever. Not sneaky. But conceding. “Yes. We Germans protect our knowledge as best we can. Not only companies, but also individual employees.” So, if it is documented well, then others can do it, also. Right? „Ja.”

There is a third reason. Who wants to take the time to document how an individual, a department, a division works? Drudgery. By the time all of those activities, all of that work, in all of its complexity has been documented, modifications have already taken place. It’s like painting San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge. Once you’ve completed the job, you have to begin all over again.

Strange Black Man

By John Magee

It was many years ago. I was visiting my uncle who is a Jesuit priest and professor of Theology at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., where I attended. It was a brilliant day, sunny, warm, with a light breeze. Walking across Healy Circle, located at the front of campus, a smallish, skinny black man aged about twenty-five with a heavy backpack weighing him down approached me with a smile. I returned the smile, we greeted each other, he put down his load.

He was from a West African country, from which one I cannot remember. He spoke of the civil war there, the persecution of his tribe, family and of him, and of the good fortune he had in escaping it. How he made it to the U.S. I cannot recall either. He made a sincere and serious impression on me. I listened carefully to his story and felt empathy. The signals then became clear that he would ask me for some kind of help.

Roughly the same age, having recently gone into business for myself in Philadelphia, I was hardly in a position to do anything for him. We continued to talk. He then asked for help. Apologizing for not being able to, I gave him my business card and said: “Well, if you‘re ever in Philadelphia, let’s get together”, hoping it would be a friendly but clear way to remove myself from the conversation, and that he would understand that I cannot help him out of his difficult situation.

“A strange black man waiting at your door”

He studied the card carefully, then with a smile, he said “Thank you, John. Thank you very much”, in an English formal, polite, right out of the textbook he must have learned from many years before, and like so many well-educated Africans. We shook hands. I departed quickly so that he could not continue the conversation. I went on with my activities in the nation’s capital over the next day without ever thinking again about that West African.

Until I returned to Philadelphia, that is. At Ninth and Spruce Streets in Center City, as the Philadelphians call their downtown, is where I lived, in the third floor apartment under the roof of an old townhouse. One of my cousins, Helen, lived with her former college roommate in the apartment just below me. As I walked up the stairs, she opened the door ever so slightly, I suspect after having heard me open the front door. With wide and alarmed eyes Helen whispered: “John, there is a strange black man upstairs waiting for you in front of your apartment.”

A strange black man? I don’t know any strange black men. In fact, I don’t know too many black men at all. Well, I did after about ten more steps. “Oh, no”, I thought, my business card, damn. What do I do now? I put on a happy face, smiled, greeted him heartily and said something like “Great to see you, again. Come on in!” The stairs up to my loft apartment were very steep and narrow. He trudged up schlepping his heavy bag. What was I supposed to do with this guy?

Say yes, mean no

Many of the details I no longer remember. But I do recall that I took him out for dinner, gave him a brief walking tour of Center City including the historical sights, allowed him to sleep in my bed while I made do with the couch. The next day, after some breakfast, I drove him over to 30th Street Station and put him on an Amtrak train up to Boston, where he said he had some contacts from West Africa. I was happy to be rid of him.

His story was certainly bigger than mine. A refugee from civil war in a faraway land, seeking a safe and secure life in America. Hoping for help. From anyone. And my story? A safe and secure white American male with a solid education and the kinds of advantages and opportunities a “strange black man” from Africa could only dream of. Looking back, shameful of me.

But for us, as Americans and Germans collaborating across the Atlantic, this little story is about agreements, about how Americans will communicate a “yes” which is not meant as such. Since we seldom feel comfortable saying “no” to someone – a family member, friend, neighbor, colleague, certainly not to our boss or to a customer, or to a stranger – we find ways to say “yes” in a way which communicates “no.”

Rather clear signals

Why would this guy from West Africa suddenly show up at my door in Philadelphia, a three-hour train ride from Washington, DC? We don’t even know each other. We have nothing in common. We‘re strangers. In our conversation of a few days before I had given no indication that I was in a position to help him. On the contrary, my response to his request was crystal clear. It was short, polite, I gave him my card and got on my way, and rather hastily.

But wait! That’s American thinking. I did give him my card, and did show sincere interest in his situation, then did say to him: “Well, if you‘re ever in Philadelphia, let’s get together.” These were rather clear signals. But from whom and to whom? For any American witnessing the interaction the message was very straightforward: “I am sorry to hear about your plight, but I cannot help you. Good luck.”

But for a person from another culture? From his? Or from Germany? Why should my behavior and statements not be taken literally, sincerely, at face value? Or how about this question: Why would I not simply state what I was thinking – honestly, transparently, from the heart – by saying: “I am sorry to hear about your plight, but I cannot help you. Good luck.”

Well, I did, in fact, say that. In my way. In an American way. But not in his way.

Not arrogant Germans

Bert had meetings in Düsseldorf and he asked me to come up on the train and meet him for dinner. I take the train up from Bonn. It is a quick, comfortable, efficient ride. From the central train station in Düsseldorf it was only twenty minutes with the Strassenbahn, the tram. It was enjoyable winding through the tree-lined streets.

I enter the restaurant, turn left, go up a few steps and see Bert at a table with two men. They are his German business partners, or at least partners in this particular investment project Bert is working on. I sit down, we order food and talk. Bert does most of the talking. 

The two German guys aren’t terribly talkative. After about ten minutes I realize that they’d prefer to be somewhere else. At home with their families. At the gym getting a workout. Or even at their desk working. They made a very professional and focused impression.

Bert doesn’t really notice that they might rather be somewhere else. They’re polite, nodding to what Bert says, asking a question or two. They discreetly glance at their watches. I feel bad for Bert. He isn’t aware. I also become angry at the Germans for not putting a little more effort into the conversation.

Americans like to do business with people they like and who like them. They do not distinguish as clearly as Germans do between business and personal. Getting to know each other on a personal level is important. What could be better than enjoying a dinner together?

Arrogant Germans, I thought. They were being mean to my cousin, who was unknowing and perhaps a bit naive. My anger didn’t last long, though. From their perspective, perhaps it was selfish of Bert to invite them to dinner. 

They were supporting him with their legal expertise, thus not in a position to say no to dinner. Maybe they had a sick child at home or an important report to prepare for the next day. They most likely were good guys, also. Intelligent, open, hard working, good husbands and fathers.

“Get a bike helmet!”

Summer in Germany. My boy is big enough to sit in a seat mounted on the back of my bike. We go for a ride through the pedestrian zone. Saturday. Lots going on. We come to a street crossing. Narrow street, cars moving slowly. Red man showing. I remain standing. Son on bike next to me. Next to him an elderly gentleman. Looks me sternly in the eye. I sense something coming.

“Ihr Kind hat keinen Helm auf. Das ist von Ihnen äußerst unverantwortlich!” –  “Your son does not have a bike helmet on. Very, very irresponsible of you!” Before I can react the red man turns to a green man. Folks move across the street quickly. He was right. My son should have had a bicycle helmet on.

Three years later, while taking him to kindergarten on the bike, it suddenly slipped out from under me. A very slight amount of powdery snow was enough to do it. I heard my son‘s head hit the pavement. A plastic sound. He had his helmet on. That arrogant, cranky old man giving unsolicited advice. I wish I could thank him.

Workshop Breakout – 1

Systematic thinking is one of the strongest of German character traits. It‘s a red thread woven in and through all of the topics CI addresses.

I think of the many Germans in my seminars and workshops. I observe their tendency time and again. I separate the Americans and the Germans into separate breakout groups, pass out their assignments. They have an hour and a half to think, discuss and prepare their presentation on flip-charts, after which they give their presentations and discuss.

The breakout. What do the Germans invariably do? They get very quiet, focused, read the assignment carefully, ask me clarification questions. No detail is unimportant. After they have taken whatever amount of time is needed to read and reflect, they begin to discuss among themselves: respectful, quiet, their body language still. They listen attentively to each other, seldom interrupt. I observe, listen in, stand nearby in case they need help.

Germans analyze from 30k foot perspective

Even though I know how the Germans will proceed, it surprises me, nonetheless. It is foreign to me. It impresses and fascinates me still. The atmosphere in their breakout groups is like a graduate- or Ph.D.-level seminar at an elite university. It could be either in the natural sciences or in the humanities. Or perhaps business students analyzing a case study or mathematicians attacking a problem cracked centuries ago.

Maybe they’re students of theology or history studying the political ramifications of Martin Luther and the 97 theses he nailed to the door of the church in Witterberg in 1517. Perhaps they’re psychology students working on a particularly complex patient to be handled a day later.

The scenario is unimportant, the approach taken by the Germans is always the same. First they get (common) clarity on the case study I have given to them. Then they define the key terms. The scope is then discussed. After that they address approach and method. Then they finally get to the substance.

Isn’t that the case in so many situations in Germany? Analyze the topic from the so-called thirty thousand foot perspective. Identify the key factors in play. Pay attention especially to the interdependencies, the mutual influences. Then slowly but surely, carefully and focused, address the substance.

Like in early versions of Google Earth after one has typed in the address. You start out way up in space. See the Earth as a planet, then the continents. The globe rotates a bit. You recognize immediately if you are zooming down in the right direction. You go further down, stopping and starting as you wish, to get oriented. It’s just a matter of clicks, moving in and directly, north south east or west. Constantly seeing things from different perspectives.

Not without problems, not without mistakes

I imagine, as a metaphor, how much Germans would like to alter the code within Google in order to determine how quickly it zooms. They would slow it down, I suspect, whereas Americans, again metaphorically speaking, would not be interested in that in the least, instead switching to another website while Google completed the zoom-in.

I think of the English word circumspection, from Latin circum + specere via French into the English of the 15th Century: to look around, be cautious, to consider all circumstances and possible consequences, to be prudent. I see my German seminar participants in their work group with their handouts. They’re careful. Want to do things right, and not just avoid making mistakes.

Do things right, what is right, for themselves and their colleagues. Remember, we‘re talking about two of the most capable peoples on this planet, the German people and the American people. Both have demonstrated that their approaches to solving the fundamental challenges to any society work. Not without problems, not without mistakes, but they work, and work well.

Doing alters, a given situation

And some of their mistakes were serious, gravierend (grave). Mistakes made by both sides, not just by the one. Both peoples want to do things right, and to do the right thing. Verantwortungsvoll. Verantwortung – responsibility + voll, full. Which of the respective approaches is better, more appropriate, superior, is not our topic here. Such questions can only be based on very concrete and specific situations. Even in such, it is difficult to answer the question in a definitive way.

The Germans focus on the consequences of their decisions. They think several steps ahead. They try to anticipate if you wiggle in one area where it will waggle in another. They are well aware that decisions lead to action. Things are set in motion. Doing creates, or at least alters, a given situation (reality), and not always in a positive way.

Challenge, even contradict

Germans have a clear understanding that the consultant, supplier or vendor fills a need or gap on the side of the customer. It is implicitly agreed upon by both parties that the consultant, vendor or supplier offers something which the customer does not have or cannot do.

What for the customer is not a core activity or competence is core for the supplier. Both parties need each other, and acknowledge that in their working relationship. It is unspoken because it is a common understanding, an unspoken truth.

Time and again I have experienced how Germans serving me start off the conversation (business relationship) focused on learning as much about me and my situation as possible. Often I wonder why they need so much information. Why don‘t they simply ask me what I want or what I need?

Don’t serve. Truly serve.

It is inaccurate, however, to think that Germans don‘t listen to the customer. They simply see themselves as partners with the customer in solving the customer‘s problems, as equals, since the customer needs them as much as they need the customer.

Americans in Germany sense this in many everyday situations, whether it be in a retail store for clothing or food or hardware. But also in restaurants, or when interacting with personnel in German public transportation, or at the local bank. Germans who work with customers can come across – at least to Americans – as not customer-oriented, as distanced, almost disinterested.

Customers in Germany don‘t receive a big smile, a warm-hearted „Hello, how are you?“, a clear signal that the person in the store, restaurant, bank or train is happy to do anything and everything they can to serve them. Germans don‘t serve, at least not in that sense. Instead, they serve by delivering high quality products, services and solutions which meet – or exceed – the needs of the customer.

Obligation and duty to provide advice

And when it comes to complex, long-term business relationships this meeting and exceeding of customer needs includes situations in which the consultant-supplier-vendor takes the liberty (reserves the right) to steer or drive the business relationship. We‘re addressing that fine line between serving the customer (giving what they want) and consulting the customer (not giving what they want if it is not the best solution for them).

Often I have German customers who ask me to give them my advice on issues about which I do not necessarily feel competent to judge. My response is reluctant. They then push me: „Herr Magee, tell us how you see this situation. How would you proceed? What is your recommendation to us?“

Even more often I have experienced Germans who provide advice to each other, to Americans or to me, without having been asked (unsolicited advice). From the German point of view, it is not only their job (what they get paid for), but also their obligation and duty to provide advice, insight, consultation on matters which need to be addressed, and on which they believe to have valuable input.

German leads expect to be challenged by direct reports.

The shared logic among Germans in the business relationship – among customers and suppliers – is that the supplier in most cases knows better than the customer what is best for the customer. „That‘s why the customer hired us. We‘re the experts. They want us to advise them.“ And that advice may include the supplier challenging, debating with, or even contradicting, the customer.

There are clear parallels here to German leadership logic, which expects and invites vigorous discussion and debate within the team about critical topics. German leads expect to be challenged by their direct reports, who, in turn, see themselves as the experts within their area of responsibility. They interact (advise) their team lead along the same logic that a German supplier advises their German customer.

I witnessed this firsthand with one of my German clients who had invited me to attend some of his staff meetings, which included presentations from various departments. This German team lead would look for opportunities to challenge directly (and at times rather aggressively) the statements made by the presenter. My client was always very well prepared, so his questions went to the heart of the subject matter.

I asked him why he took this approach. „I want to see if the presenter has the backbone to defend their work results. I want to see if they have the courage, the self-confidence, the competence to challenge me. I love it when critical questions come back, when they challenge, or even contradict, me. They win my respect. What I don‘t want is some yes-person up front presenting. They are the subject-area experts. They should know better than me, and advise me!“

Anna in Sales

I‘ve become friends with a woman in my neighborhood. Anna is new to Bonn, having moved here to take a sales job in a well known electronics and household appliance retailer, the largest chain in Germany and very successful.

Her sales training lasted four weeks. Based on what Anna told me it sounded very comprehensive and intense. The salespeople are expected to have deep technical knowledge of their products. And although they are trained in sales, as well as in how to interact with customers, it is clear that the emphasis is on the products as technical solutions.

For any of my readers who have spent time in such stores in Germany, and asked a sales person a question or two, you‘ll know what I mean about product knowledge. German salespeople can go into great depth, sounding at times as if they were involved in the product development process itself. The depth of information is often too much for us Americans. Asking a simple question seldom leads to a simple answer.

Help customers. Take pride in your work.

Such stores in Germany are called a Fachgeschäft, a term not easily translated into American English. The equivalent would be „a store with technical products, sold by staff who view themselves as experts, who will give you detailed information on the products, including letting you know what is best for you.“

What is the spirit in the hearts of these salespeople? Arrogance? Are they know-it-alls? Or is it Technikverliebheit (obsession with technology)? Those were certainly my impressions in my early years in Germany. But they haven‘t been for a long time. The spirit is: help the customer, be professional, take pride in your work, demonstrate respect.

And this spirit you‘ll find in the local bakeries, at the computer store (especially the Apple re-sellers), from restaurant servers, at the information desk of the Deutsche Bahn in any train station, at the post office, in the bookstore, with the butcher in the supermarket, and so on. And because it is deeply cultural, it is a shared logic. The German customer expects it.

Frau Schmitz

A few weeks back I caught a stomach virus. I needed to pick up some medicine at my physician‘s office – Dr. Planck. It was a Friday afternoon. I did not have an appointment. His office, in the middle of Bonn, is small, with just Dr. Planck and his secretary/office manager. It‘s next to impossible to just „drop in“, but my schedule that week gave me no other choice.

I entered his practice, walked passed the waiting room nodding to the five or six folks reading magazines or scrolling up and down on smartphones, then popped my head in the secretary‘s office. „You don‘t have an appointment, Herr Magee.“

There was no smile on her face. In fact, she rarely smiles. Gruff would be the right word in English. Gruff is often the right word for Germans who Americans believe should be happy, shiny, smiling, friendly, and customer-oriented.

Friendly incompetence vs. unfriendly competence

„No, I‘m sorry, Frau Schmitz. I simply couldn‘t find the time to call. And my schedule ….“ She interrupted me in a kind of complaining tone. It wasn‘t clear exactly what she said. „Please wait in the waiting room, Herr Magee.“ I smiled and thanked her.

Twenty-five years I have lived in Germany. This type of interaction I‘ve experienced more than a thousand times: twenty-five years times twelve months times four times a month. I am very familiar with it. In my early years my reaction would have been: „Typical German. Unfriendly (gruff). Rules-obsessed (no appointment). Not customer-oriented („Don‘t they want me as a patient?“)

I don‘t think like that any more, though. Frau Schmitz got me in within forty-five minutes. Dr. Planck was happy to see me. He asked not only about the virus, but about other aspects of my health, then wrote out the prescription. Frau Schmitz handled the paperwork very quickly and efficiently, then recommended what apothecary I should go to. She also had a few other tips about what I should eat and drink over the next few days. All the while she began to smile and engage in some very pleasant small talk.

Frau Schmitz appeared at first to be Frau Gruff, but then was in reality Frau Competent, Frau Caring and Frau Pleasant, all in one. Whenever people ask me to recommend a good physician in Bonn, I always recommend Dr. Planck (and Frau Schmitz).

That Fine Line

Let‘s visit that fine line again, between when to serve the customer – meaning give the customer what they want, have ordered, believe is best for them, even if it is not – and when to consult the customer – meaning to dissuade (persuade against) the customer from what they think is best for them, in order to propose what is actually best.

This fine line is very difficult to walk in any business culture. It is especially difficult to walk it if you are not native to that culture. Carefully developed business relationships can be damaged, or even ruined, within just a few interactions if how to walk this line is not understood.

And it is the case that Germans and Americans define, and thus walk, that line differently. It is not uncommon for Americans to purposely keep their Germans colleagues away from their American customers. Nor is it uncommon the other way around – Germans shielding their German customers from American colleagues.

A true friend

This is not about protecting turf or preventing internal competition. It is based on experience. The German approach to discerning (defining) when to serve and when to consult often does not work in the U.S. The same goes for the American approach in Germany. This should be of no surprise to those readers who work in the German-American business context.

When discussing this very complex subject with my American and German clients I ask them to define what makes for a truly great friend. In the end, the discussion almost always leads to the same statement: „A true friend is someone who will tell you what you need to hear – because it is in your best interest – even if that friend knows that you will not be happy to hear it, and it could damage, or even ruin, your friendship.“

I then ask my clients – German and American colleagues – whether it is any different in your collaboration as colleagues, or in your business relationships with customers or suppliers?