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.

“If they would simply smile.“

During one of her visits to Germany my mother commented: “John, when you do your management seminars be sure to remind the Germans how important it is in their dealings with Americans to smile.” Initially I thought the comment was rather absurd. But in the months, and even years, since then I have come to recognize its significance.

Especially in the public space Americans don’t exactly get the most positive impression from German facial expressions, body language, and from how they deal with each other. It‘s as if they are communicating that the sky is falling, the world is coming to an end, everything is just awful.

Maybe it is due to the strong German inclination to always look for things which don’t work or are imperfect or just substandard. Perhaps the logic is “the better you can find errors, the better you can improve them; the earlier you can anticipate mistakes, the sooner you can prevent them. Everything will be ok.” It‘s certainly an approach that works. Look at Germany. But it‘s certainly not a recipe for a positive atmosphere.

Even more problembewußt 

I remember well an episode during my time in the CDU/CSU Parliamentary Group. We were in the U.S., a delegation of German parliamentarians in visiting members of Congress in Washington, D.C. There were several so-called photo opportunities. The politicians stood pressed together. The photographer clicked away.

Just before the first photo was taken one of my German colleagues whispered in my ear: “John, watch how the Americans put on a huge, happy smile.” He was right. Lots of teeth. Bright and shiny. His comment kept popping up in my mind for days afterward. I sensed that it was a bit critical in the sense of: “Look at how superficial you Americans are!” I took it personally. “You Americans” as in you, John, and your family, relatives and friends. “Look, as if everything in America was just great. How naive!”

It bothered me. I felt insulted. It hurt my feelings. Ever since then I notice – at least from my American perspective – how Germans have no problem presenting the world their long faces. Especially in moments of difficulty, when optimism is critical, Germans tend to be even more problembewußt (literally problem-conscious).

When Americans see people with a long face, they ask themselves instinctively (consciously or unconsciously): “What’s their problem? What did they do wrong to put themselves in a position to be so down? What opportunity did they not take advantage of? What battle did they just lose? Why don’t they pull themselves together and pursue the next opportunity? Are they losers?”

This kind of American thinking has not only to do with the figure of speech – “Never let them see you sweat!” – which means: precisely when you‘re down, when you are nervous or unsure of yourself, always give the impression that everything is going well, and that you are capable of handling any and all difficult situations successfully.

It has even more to do with the fundamental American belief that every person is the architect of their own fortune. The American experience is that the country offers many opportunities. So many waves of immigrants have come, worked hard and succeeded. Americans, therefore, have little patience for people who don’t take advantage of those opportunities, but instead look for causes of their failure outside of themselves.

“What can I do for you?“

For Americans persuasion mean persuasively selling. The goal is to get a “yes” to one’s point of view, recommendations, concept, solution, product or service. Presentations, in any and all forms, aim at that “yes”.

In the American context, every form of persuasion is a variation of selling. Americans have little problem selling. For them it is normal, natural, everyday. Americans recognize and accept that selling is necessary.

The U.S. has almost always been a buyer’s market. Supply was greater than demand. Not only in the sense of market economics, but also in the broader sense. Land, natural resources, greater demand for production than supply of workers, markets of all kinds with few if any barriers to entry. Americans settled the country quickly. Waves upon waves of immigrants arrived. Supply was seldom exhausted by demand.

You have the power

The American understanding of market economics is based, among other things, on the belief that individuals should be free to make their own decisions. Yes, Americans practice protectionism. They are not, however, supporters of how Europeans divide up their markets, control entry to them, and protect weaker market participants. To be successful in the U.S. one needs to take their approach: “I have something to sell to you. But, I know that you have other options. You have the power. What can I do for you?”

This, and other factors, are the reason why the disciplines of sales and marketing enjoy high prestige in the U.S. Very few reach the top levels of management without having first demonstrated the ability to successfully deal with customers, to bring products and services to market, to sell.

And because competition in the U.S. is tough, Americans have little patience for an overly careful approach to “closing the sale”, to “doing business”. Both sides of the transaction – seller and buyer – want to get down to business quickly. They want to know where they stand. For if they don’t come to an agreement, they want to move on to the next possible opportunity.