“I like my German colleagues. They are intelligent, focused, hard-working. But sometimes they can really get in your face. I experience, and observe, that they give other colleagues advice, whether it was asked for or not. I find this rather annoying, at times even arrogant. Why do they do that? I wish they would cease and desist.”
Ok, this is a really serious cultural difference. I need to pull it apart. Please be patient with a rather long response from me. This is also very personal to and for me.
First things first. The German people are good people. I mean really good people. Deeply good people. Please take my word on this. I have lived and worked here in Germany, and with the German people, for three decades. I could write a book full of anecdotes of how and why they are good people.
As good people, the Germans want to be helpful. That includes your German colleagues. Think about, we’re all working anywhere between forty and sixty hours a week, some weeks even more. We spend most of our life working. That means, in turn, we spend most of our life interacting with colleagues, customers, suppliers. If we are good people, if it is our natural inclination to be helpful, well, then we’ll display that behavior in the workplace.
Broadly speaking, painting with a broad brush, the German people are more collectivistic than we Americans. This is not about political theory. This is not about philosophy. This is not about forms of government or socialism or communism or communitarianism or any other ism. It’s much more simple, more basic.
The German people work from the group back to the individual. They first and foremostly see the individual as a member of a group. First group, then individual. We could say first the state, then the individual. We Americans are different. Almost the opposite. Individual, then group. Individual, then state. Individual, family, neighborhood, broader community, and so on.
Because the Germans see individuals as only viable within a community, they believe that each individual has obligations over and against their fellow individuals. That’s what community means, a balance between individual needs and wants and those of the community. We’re talking about the balance between rights and obligations. Germans feel that it is their obligation to help each other.
Advice as Help
And giving advice to a colleague, whether requested or not, is a form of help. If a German colleague sees you heading towards a landmine – a mistake, an error, a problem, a blowup – that colleague will point that out to you, and hopefully in time so that you avoid the landmine.
In fact, German thinking goes so far as to say: “You saw your colleague heading right for that landmine and you did nothing about it, you did not warn them? What kind of colleague are you? What kind of human being are you?”
Let’s always remind ourselves, when the German drive us crazy, when we think that they need their heads examined, when we simply don’t want to deal with them anymore, when we think that their approach will ruin the work, ruin the business, ruin relations with our customers, that the German people have the fourth-largest economy in the world, and with only eighty million people. Folks, they must be doing something right. Their approach in fundamental areas must be right, must be working, must lead to success. Folks, it can’t be any other way.
Now, does it mean that their German approach works in every other culture, in every other country, in every other business context, in every other market? No, that is not my statement. Clearly what works in one market, country, region does not necessary translate one-to-one into another one. And that is the point of my work, of our conversations, about the influence of cultural differences on cross-border collaboration. One-to-one importation, one-to-one application, of one culture’s logic into another country seldom works. In fact, the results can be a total disaster.
Are there no jerks in Germany, no jerks among the German people, no German jerks? Well, of course there are jerks in Germany, as there are in any culture. And one major way for a German to be a jerk is to stick their nose in other people’s business. German jerks do that all the time. The Germans can be terrible know-it-alls. Arrogant. Insistent. “I’m smart. You’re dumb.” Thirty years here in Germany, do you think I haven’t run into my fair share of German jerks? There have been many a time when I wanted to tear their heads off.
So, yes, you will experience in your collaboration the German jerk. And they will experience the American jerk. There are plenty of us. In fact, in each and every one of us Americans is an American jerk. We all have our moments when our behavior is uncalled for (one of my mother’s favorite terms), literally not called for, not requested, no solicited, unsolicited.
Just this week I wrote a message in LinkedIn which was very poorly formulated. It was stupid. The receiver shot back at me immediately. And rightfully so. I felt stupid, because my message was stupid. John the jerk. Do you think he doesn’t exist? He does, because John is a human being. And human beings can often be jerks.
“German angel, what?”
But jerks are a small minority. And the jerk in each of us is, hopefully, is only a small part of us which comes out only in certain circumstances. In the overwhelming majority of instances when you experience unsolicitied advice from a German colleague, or even from a German stranger, it is not a German jerk, but instead a German angel coming to your rescue.
“German angel, what?” Yup, I mean that literally, without getting into the theology of it. What do angels do? They watch out for us. The see us heading for the landmine and then do something to help us avoid getting our legs blown off. “What, Magee believes in angels?” Yes, he does, indeed.
Ok, let me put it in more rational, scientific, Enlightenment-era (whatever that is) terms. What could be better than to be surrounded by colleagues who want the best for you? What could be better than to be surrounded by colleagues who keep their eyes open for each other? Colleagues who have each other’s back? Who are not afraid to get in your face if they see you heading for a disaster, for a blowup, a train wreck?
And what could be better than to have colleagues who will risk pissing you off by pointing out to you that you’re about to make a serious mistake, even at the risk of harming your working relationship?
Let me tell you something, if I worked in a company – I do not, I am self-employed – I sure as sh_t would want to have those kinds of colleagues, as many as possible. But wait, I do have such colleagues. More than a handful of them. Germans and Americans. Most of them customers who have become friends. I turn to them time and again for advice. And I receive it. Good advice. And it is the Germans who, time and again, offer advice which I did not even ask for. Unsoliticed.
And here’s the thing about angels, whether Germans or Americans or from other cultures, when they save our ass, they don’t ask for anything in return. They do it out of pure care, concern, and love. That’s right, love. It’s the greatest force, the greatest power we know. It’s called love. Don’t believe me? Ask any mother or father of a child. Ask any brother or sister of another brother or sister. Ask any two friends. And wouldn’t that kind of care, concern, and love, be great among colleagues, in the workplace, where we spend most of our lives?
Or let’s flip it around. What kind of life is it to spend forty to sixty hours a week working with people who are not driven, at the deepest level, by care, concern and love? Seriously. What kind of life is that?
So, whenever you get irritated about another German giving you unsolicited advice, ask yourself the following questions: Was the advice, in its substance, accurate, correct, on point? Assuming that you took the advice, was it helpful? What did you pay for the advice, what did you have to give in order to receive the helpful advice?
I think you get my point. Yes, German colleagues often give unsolicited advice. And I thank the Lord for that. And I mean that literally.