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.

85 pages !

Breadth and depth means gathering, analyzing and presenting alot of information. The semester papers at the Freie Universität Berlin were really long. One submitted by a graduate student was over eight-five pages! 

The longest one I had ever written at Georgetown University was twenty, which back in 1980 was not considered short. My German Master’s thesis was one-hundred and twenty. Some doctoral theses in Germany go well beyond five-hundred pages. An American Ph.D. advisor would most likely not even accept such a tome.

It’s not much different in German print media. Even if you were to remove the advertising, weekly magazines here are very long. Who has the time to read all of that material? Over a five-year period I read Die ZEIT. A first-class weekly newspaper on politics, business, culture, and the arts. 

But the length of the articles was simply too much. To Americans the Germans are simply too long-winded. TV and radio segments are long and detailed. The interactions among guests on talk shows can be painfully long, differentiating, minute. Yes, German books are excellent. But it would be equally excellent to leave out all irrelevant content.

Everyday interactions among the people are not much different. If you get lost in an American city and ask a stranger for directions, the response is typically brief. Often the person gives practical and effective advice: “Go three blocks down, turn right, cross over Main Street, then ask another person how to continue from there.” 

That’s perfect! No need to listen to a long-winded speech. Nor to remember it. Saves time. Saves brain-power. You simply ask the next person a few minutes later. It also reduces the risk of mistakes. Germans are very helpful. But when they give long, detailed answers to relatively simple questions, I think: “My goodness, am I the stupid one or does this perfectly nice person not consider what a guy from out of town can possible remember?”

Rigor means mastering a craft, physically and mentally

If the approach taken is systematic – in the sense of “everything is connected to everything else” – then there is no alternative to gathering information in breadth and depth, in order to analyze all of the decision-making possibilities.

And all of this information should be from objective sources. Objectivity. This is another roter Faden (literally red thread, or common theme) in German thinking. A red thread in the topics Persuasion, Leadership, Process Philosophy and Conflict Resolution. 

My impression is that Germans see information primarily as data. And data should be scientific. Measurable, quantifiable, independent of intuition. To gather information in depth and breadth means to gather facts in depth and breadth.

And, in order to analyze those facts in a competent way you need the right analytical tools. Another area of contention between Germans and Americans in their collaboration. For tools are the manifestation of how people, disciplines (i.e. engineering, marketing), companies, and cultures, fundamentally think. 

You can get a sense of the work performed by a carpenter, a machine-tool maker, a baker, an architect, of a thinker of any kind, by looking at their tools. In Germany rigor is a key to quality and to success. Quality has to do with processes. And processes have to do with tools. Many tools. And they are fine, as in precise. Precision. For all processes are work processes. And work is supported by physical and mental tools. Rigor, therefore, means mastering a craft, physically and mentally.


The Fall of 1981. My first time in Germany. Blaubeuren, a small town in Swabia. South of Stuttgart. I had signed up for a ten-week intensive course in German at the Goethe Institute. Grundstufe III (Base Level 3). My German back then weak, my memories of Blaubeuren today strong. I will never forget the very first impressions of Germany. The coolness and almost sweetness of the early morning air. The damp lawns and fields. The intense autumn colors of the foliage in a town nestled in the Swabian Alb. The schoolchildren hustling off to school.

The fascinating, yet mysterious, Benedictine Monastery from the 11th Century. The Blautopf (literally blue pot or kettle), a large natural pool of deeply dark water giving access to a complex network of waterways under the hills surrounding Blaubeuren, with its age-old legends of mystery. The Swabian dialect of the region, a version of German I could only rarely understand. The wonderful baked goods I enjoyed each and every day after lunch.

Important in Germany is not to stick out too much. Is it because they don’t want to make others envious? Or because one should demonstrate how to maintain balance, not get a “big head”? Or demonstrate a proper balance between individualism and belonging to a group, whose help one may need at any time?

Keep the subjective and personal to a minimum

Whether giving presentations in grammar school, in high school or at the university level Germans train, practice and stress over and over again objectivity: stick to the facts, no emotions, avoid gaps in your argumentation, be so comprehensive that hardly any questions are necessary in the question and answer part after your presentation.

You see it in German resumés (curriculum vitae). Factual. Unemotional. Objective. No holes in the educational and professional background. Anticipate all the questions a potential employer might ask. Subjective and personal information is kept to a bare minimum. Adding things such as interests or hobbies is a new trend, imported from the U.S. and not a part of the German logic.

Political Conventions

Political advertisements of every kind must pass the objectivity test in Germany. The Germans expect substance and convincing arguments. And although the private and personal is seeping more and more into German politics, due to the influence of American politics, politicians in Germany are still identified directly with the stands they take on specific issues. They represent the political platforms of their respective parties.

Political party conventions in Germany are held once or twice a year. Their purpose is not to nominate candidates before elections, but instead to debate and formulate policy. At the conventions the stage is dominated by the party, with up to three or four rows of ten to fifteen seats per row occupied by the party elite. Until recently the speaker’s podium was to the side. And even though it has been moved to the center, the thirty to fifty colleagues occupying the stage send a clear signal: “Sure, we have different speakers during the convention. But make no mistake, the party comes first, the individuals politicians and office-holders come second!”

In the summer of 1996, while a political adviser to the CDU/CSU Parliamentary Group in Bonn, I attended the Republican National Convention in San Diego. My job was to accompany and assist Peter Hintze (then Secretary General of the CDU), Jürgen Chrobog (then German ambassador to the U.S.) and Ruprecht Polenz (then Member of the Foreign Relations Committee). Bob Dole and Jack Kemp were nominated, then in the general election beaten badly by Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

“Blow by blow” 

Along with meetings with leading Republicans, Peter Hintze was especially interested in observing the details of the convention. Part of his job was organizing and preparing the CDU conventions for Chancellor Helmut Kohl. It is well known that American party conventions serve the primary purpose of presenting to voters a high level of unity, in terms of the “ticket” and the substance of the party’s platform. Political debate does not take place, and certainly not in full view of the American public. Germany is different. The conventions are televised from start to finish. And the Germans debate, openly, directly, harshly. The German public can follow it “blow by blow” by television or radio.

The great sensation of that 1996 Republican National Convention was Colin Powell’s speech. Many had hoped that he would be their party’s candidate. Immediately after his 1992 election, Clinton asked Powell to be his Secretary of State, hoping to prevent a Powell-candidacy four years later. Powell had declined respectfully. The arena in San Diego, fifteen thousand strong, exploded in applause when General Powell walked on stage, in civilian clothes, and proceeded to speak directly to the hearts and minds of the American people. From his heart and with great intensity.

Like any and every truly persuasive speaker in the American context Powell used anecdotes, figures of speech and several brief, but very personal stories to convey his message. He wanted to move the people emotionally. Hintze and Chrobog turned to me time and again asking for an explanation of these stories. “Was meint er damit?” (What does he mean? What is he trying to say?) The atmosphere in the convention center was electrifying.

Sitting behind the two Germans, and due to the noise level, which had even surprised me, I had to stick my head forward between theirs and literally scream my responses to their questions. It was clear to all three Germans – Hintze, Chrobog, Polenz – that the convention, and General Powell’s speech, were all about emotions.

“We choose freedom!“

Americans learn at a very early age, in grammar school, that intelligence is the ability to simplify complexity, to break it down into segments, in order to understand and deal with it. Americans are pragmatic. Knowledge has true value when you can do something with it. Knowledge is of no value if it is not actionable. In English composition in school young Americans learn to construct short, clear and logical sentences. This is the pattern, the foundation, for just about all forms of written communication.

I remember all too well an at first surprisingly – but earned – poor grade I received for a paper I wrote on the Prussian King, Frederick the Great. I was a student of History at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. It was the Fall semester of 1980, my senior year, the last of four years. It was a beautiful October day, warm and sunny. Indian Summer. I attended a two semester course on German History, the beginning of my fascination with Germany. I simply could not get enough of it, about Germany and the Germans, articles, books, including Gerhard Ritter’s classic.

Apparently my fascination and excitement got away from me. I produced a ten-page paper of complicated confusion – unstructured and unclear. My professor, Michael Foley, one of the greats at Georgetown, took a knife to it. Red all over it. His commentary at the end: “Magee, what kind of nonsense is this. You write like a German!” 

Professor Foley most surely did not mean that Germans can’t think, read or write. As an historian he was quite aware that the German people had produced many of the greatest historians of the modern era, and that the methods of historians originated in Germany. Instead he wanted to convey: “Dear John, first get clarity on what it is you wish to communicate. Then do so in simple, clear and straightforward sentences.”

Keep it simple, stupid!

And he was right! It is part of the American national cultural hard-wiring to believe (and say) that one has truly understood something if and when they can communicate it. “If you can’t explain it, you don’t understand it.” It’s an assumption which every American operates on: “If you can’t explain it to the average Joe, you don’t understand it.” It’s considered a high art form in the U.S. to be able to explain complex matters to the “man on the street.” It’s been said many times that Konrad Adenauer was a master of this art form.

I understood this about Adenauer many years later, during research on my Master‘s thesis about the disagreements between the Kennedy and Adenauer administrations during the Second Berlin Crisis, 1961-63. Through my studies I had become quite familiar with Chancellor Adenauer. His extraordinary ability to communicate with the “average Joe” was particularly effective in the early post-War years in West Germany. During one of the great national debates in the Bundestag about West German foreign policy Adenauer contrasts starkly his policy to that of the opposition Social Democrats by shouting: “Und wir wählen die Freiheit!” (We choose freedom!).

In the U.S. business context people speak of KISS: ‘Keep it simple, stupid!’ There, again, is the American logic about how to deal with complexity: “If you are truly intelligent, then you know how to make it simple, so that simple folks can understand it.” Perhaps this has to do with democracy and market economics. For what use is it to politicians to formulate complex arguments which are not understood by voters? Is it any different with companies marketing their products and services?

Story-telling activates the human imagination

This is also a reason why it is anecdotes, if well-told and -timed, are enormously persuasive in the American cultural context. For Americans anecdotes are empirical. They are reality experienced, the opposite of theory, which is often seen as abstract and unrealistic, separated from reality. An anecdote says: “I know what I’m talking about. I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. This is no theory, it’s reality!” Any American politician, for example, speaking in their legislative district or in the media about a difficult issue, such as the war in Iraq, will come across as especially convincing if they can claim to have visited that region.

Like aphorisms, anecdotes transport deeper-lying wisdom. Isn’t that what the Bible – Old and New Testament – does via one story after the other, communicate the deepest-felt, and therefore most complex, beliefs of a people, of Jews and Christians? Isn’t story-telling the highest, the most sophisticated, form of activating (speaking) to human imagination? Truly persuasive communicators in the U.S. plan very carefully when they draw on anecdotes. This is why we all listen so carefully when our grandparents tell their stories. They have the years of human experience.

Allow yourself to be pulled in

The history of Germany, as well as the historical consciousness of the German people, continue to impress and attract me. Today, just as strongly as a quarter century ago. You need only to go into a bookstore in Germany. Their books are not only solid, well bound and have great covers. The Germans have a very special relationship to books. There are always many older and newer publications about history, about their history. For those Germans who want to know their history there will never be a shortage of opportunities.

Every city in Germany, large and small, has museums in which history, but not only theirs, is told, is kept alive and relevant. In my early years in Berlin and Bonn I was astounded by how many fascinating and well-made documentary films were shown on German television. There was never a day without at least one in the evening. The German language is worth learning if only to read their books, to visit their museums, and to watch their documentaries. Although not a documentary, but one with the look and feel of one, was Heimat.

It was the summer of 1992. I watched episode for episode of Heimat. My eyes were glued to the television, my mind racing to understand every word, to pick up on as many nuances as possible. What an opportunity for me to gain insight in Germany of that time period, between the world wars. Time and again I had to turn to my German wife to get the meaning of this or that word, for the dialogue was in the dialect of that region of Germany, the Hunsrück, along the Moselle River, between Trier and Koblenz. After every episode I was in a kind of trance, reflecting about what I had just taken in.

The history of another people

Then another time. I was in the car. Driving through Bonn. Evening. I turned on the radio. Deutschlandfunk. A book review was being read. It was about the immediate post-war years in then West Germany. The first sentences grabbed my attention. They flowed: complex, clear, rich, full of substance, critical, analytical, yet elegant. That feeling had come back, from when I was a student at Georgetown. History. German History. The history of another people. In another part of the world. And when I read the books by John Lukacs. Trance.

The reader continued. I was captured, drove further, but as if on a soft cloud just a few inches above the road. I think of the many war memorials in Germany. When I walk or ride my bicycle down the hill from the Venusberg in Bonn to the former government quarter on the Rhine, I pass through Kessenich where there is such a memorial. It’s round, cement, encircling a lovely oak tree. Six pillars about eight feet high. Plenty of space between them to step in and out. The tops of all eight crowned – or held together – by a cement ring providing the tree with space to stretch out its branches. Just below the top each of the eight the face in cement of a German soldier with the iconic German steel helmet from the World War I.

Chiseled into the pillars, from the top to just about the bottom, are the names of the men who died in the two world wars. Six pillars, three sides each. Longs lists. Names. Of men, and boys, from that part of Bonn, from the neighborhood. Yes, boys, many no older than seventeen or eighteen years old. Sad. Especially sad for me, as one of five Magee boys, to read the same last names. Meyer. Schmitz. Leyendecker. Two, three, sometimes four of the same last names. Brothers. Cousins. Imagine the deep, deep sadness of the mothers and fathers who saw their boys go off to war only to kill and be killed. 1914. 1915. 1916. 1917. 1918. Four long years for an entire continent. Then on the other sides of the pillars. 1939. 1940. 1941. 1942. 1943. 1944. 1945. Many of the same names. The sons and nephews of those fallen between 1914 and 1918. The Germans suffered, too.

Unhistorical thinking

The Germans often consider Americans as a people to be either uninformed or uninterested in their own history, and equally uninformed about the recent history of given situations, allowing them to make decisions only based on the present. Americans appear to not think things through, not thoroughly. They can appear to Germans as Dünnbrettbohrer, literally people who only drill through the thinnest of boards.

From the German perspective their perception is not false. It’s what is behind the German cliché that “Die Amerikaner gehen mit dem Kopf durch die Wand”, that Americans try to go through the wall with their heads, meaning forcing solutions to situations which they have not fully understood.

But are Americans really so un- or a-historical? Partly, yes. I think of the region in which I grew up and the people there, me included. Philadelphia. Many of the most dramatic events of the American Revolutionary War against England took place in and around Philadelphia. Independence Hall in downtown Philadelphia is very well known and visited every summer by countless Americans (and guests from other countries).

It is where the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were drafted, debated, passed and signed. Philadelphia was the capital of the insurrection, Independence Hall the meeting point of the conspirators.

Several critical battles took place in the area. On September 11, 1777 British troops defeated the colonists under George Washington at the Battle of Brandywine. Two weeks later, on September 26, Philadelphia was conceded to the British under General Charles Cornwallis.

Never mentioned in History class

On that day Washington and his troops counterattacked in Germantown, roughly five miles north of Philadelphia, against just under ten thousand British soldiers. It was an attack by night, from four different directions, with the hope of forcing a quick surrender. Because communications among four groups broke down, and due to shortages of munitions, the attack failed. Washington and his men were pushed back to White Marsh.

There, between December 5th and 8th, British troops pursued and attacked the revolutionaries several times. General Howe had hoped to end the war before the winter had set in. Washington‘s men held, though. The redcoats pulled back into Philadelphia. Washington and his troops moved into nearby Valley Forge.

But how many natives of the Philadelphia area are familiar with these events? I certainly did not hear of them during grammar and high school. I don’t recall any school trips to the battlegrounds or to a museum. Nor did my parents interest us six children in them. Nor have I ever seen a documentary film on television about those battles in and around Philadelphia, my home region.

Change as fact of life

Why? Perhaps because the United States and England (UK) have been close allies in two world wars. Perhaps we Americans don‘t like reliving bad old times. Perhaps because the events, regardless of how momentous, go back to the 18th century, long before any of my ancestors immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland, Scotland and Germany. That part of American history was not a part of their history.

If Americans indeed have a less developed sense of history than the Germans, maybe because change in American history and culture is so ever-present. Maybe Americans, in comparison to Germans, are more tolerant of – open and willing – to embrace change, to drive change. 

The momentous decision in and of itself to immigrate to America, to leave the homeland behind, makes almost every other decision in life seem far less dramatic. Change is less intimidating to Americans. On the contrary, the more change is accepted as a fact of life, the less relevant are the past and continuity with the past, and all that much more important it is to be able and willing to adapt to new situations.

“No more old churches!”

I‘ll never forget a statement made by an American engineer who was on delegation to Germany for a German customer of mine. We had met for the first time to discuss a project I was assisting them on. Team-building measures, workshops, seminars, etc. During one of the breaks we were doing a little smalltalk. I asked him what he’s seen in Germany thusfar, and what’s on his list. He looked at me, rolled his eyes and said: “I don’t want to see any more old churches!”

I was a bit shocked, felt insulted, was irritated. As student of history I thought: “How ignorant can someone be not to know or to recognize that German and European history cannot be understood without understanding the role of Christianity and the Church.” Ok, perhaps he had been shown enough churches already. Still, I felt embarrassed as an American. Fortunately, no German colleagues had been present.

On my way back to Bonn that day I imagined well-intentioned German colleagues taking their Sunday to pick up their American colleague and driving to Cologne to see not only the cathedral, but also several of the beautiful Romanesque churches within twenty minutes walking distance. In my mind’s eyes I see him bored and saying: “This is all interesting history, but I want to see modern Germany.” We Americans need sometimes to invest more time and patience in order to appreciate things.

For the more exact we can define our starting point and its direction (trajectory), all the better we can adjust it. My response to the American colleague would have been: “Sure. But before we can truly enjoy getting to know the modern Germany of today, let’s start with how Germany has become the way it is today. On that basis we’ll really begin to imagine the Germany of the future!”

Divulge. Reveal. Surrender.

When it comes to minor decisions Germans rely on estimation. With major decisions they do in-depth research, gathering much information, analyzing it carefully. Like a detective who seeks out all possible pros and cons, especially indications of risk. To ferret out: search and discover through persistent investigation.

Anecdote: Independent of the topic or the purpose for the conversation, I have often had the impression that Germans are happy to let me talk at length, rarely interrupting. Perhaps while I am open and talkative. Perhaps because German politeness forbids interruption.

But, what if they simply want to get as much information out of me as possible without sharing any of theirs? Is it a game, a kind of sport? The German word preisgebenPreis is price, award, prize. Geben to give – in other words divulge, reveal, surrender.

Anecdote: Interest unclear. Another train ride. Another major German company. This time just south of Frankfurt. I meet with a guy high up in corporate communications. He does not have much international experience. I’m not sure if he’ll understand what I am talking about, but he says that he is interested. We meet in the executive restaurant. Impressive. Excellent food. Excellent service.

We talk at length. His questions are short, my responses long, too long. His body language, especially his facial expressions, reveal little to nothing. Question after question, then my responses, but little indication whether he sees a need in the company.

Weeks go by. No response. I follow up. We meet again. The second lunch is like the first, but with more depth. Again, no concrete interest signaled. I don‘t request a third meeting. Perhaps a mistake on my part.

Figures of speech: Wer suchet, der findet. He who seeks will find. Wer es nicht im Kopf hat, hat es in den Beinen. Literally, those who don’t have it in their head, have it in their legs, meaning they will search until they find it.