In Tears

The young woman, Susan, an American, left in tears. Clearly she was inexperienced professionally. And her expectations were unrealistically high. And she had never worked for a German before.

Antje is a petite woman, with fine features, very expressive dark eyes. A perfectionist, correct in everything she does. But also warm-hearted in a quiet, considerate way. Antje wants the best for her team, especially for the younger women. She knows firsthand what it’s like to earn respect in a technology-based company run by men.

Susan had simply not met Antje’s expectations. Accordingly, their feedback discussion addressed unmet goals. Antje, not aware of how critique in the American context is best communicated, took the German approach, the only one she knows, with the only difference that the talk was in English.

Antje found Susan to be overly emotional, a bit naive about her ability, and unprepared for the discussion. At the same time, Antje saw raw potential in Susan. Her mind was quick, she worked hard, was willing to take on challenges. She had a plan to coach Susan along to her full potential, including getting corporate sponsorship for an evening MBA program at a prestigious local business school.

It wouldn’t come to be. Within a month Susan submitted her resignation, moving to a similar organization in another division. She had found Antje to be unfair and harsh.

Self-reflection, a strength of the Germans

I remain standing ten or fifteen minutes. I imagine as best I can a summer day back during one of those years. What was life like in any of the houses, the homes, in that neighborhood? Just around the corner is the Karthäuserplatz, a small square, where I lived from 1991-95. In a three-room apartment on the third floor. 

On the first two floors lived three sisters, all in their 80’s, never married. Born in the early 1910’s they would remember the last years of the First World War, and most certainly all too well the entire Second World War. I imagine what it was like for them. Did they have brothers? Did those men/boys fight, kill, die? Catholics in the German Rhineland.

I imagine, see the pictures move by in my mind‘s eye. Three brothers. Second World War. Wehrmacht. The one dies in the early days of the invasion of Poland in September 1939. The second survives the 1944 Ardennenoffensive – what Americans call the Battle of the Bulge – only to then die in Vienna in early 1945, not long before the end of the war. 

The third brother survives the war, including several years as a prisoner in Russia. Their mother (the father had died in 1918 on the Western Front of WWI) and the three sisters pick him up one summer day in 1949 upon his arrival in Bonn by train via Berlin. Within a year and a half he would die of gangrene.

I am fifty-five years old. All of my brothers – two older, two younger – are still alive. None of us has killed or been killed. My son, Daniel, was born in May 1998. His mother is German. He is a German-American boy, more German than American. A school project in History. The fourth grade. 

The children are asked to find in Bonn the evidence, indications, the signs that once, many centuries ago, the Romans had lived in what became Bonn. He and his mother take a long walking tour. Bonn is a small town. Daniel is excited. He soaks it all in. My son, by boy, is growing up in Germany. He is learning to think historically. He is learning to understand his present. He is being prepared to deal with the future.