Insider Jokes

Americans and Germans who have been collaborating over a longer period of time have all sorts of insider jokes about the respective other culture. These jokes are certainly not meant maliciously. They do, however, signal a deep seated consensus in the one culture about certain characteristics of the other culture. And those characteristics are, in most cases, considered to be negative.

I don‘t mean cliches or prejudices, which usually are not based on any kind of fact. Instead I mean characteristics – national cultural traits – which each side observes and experiences on a daily basis and over a longer stretch of time. Each side – separate of each other – discusses these. They then develop their jokes. Because these characteristics (a part of one‘s character), or logics, are rooted in national culture, they are in almost in most cases misunderstood by the other culture. Their insider jokes are a clear indication of misinterpretation.

Often no more than a specific term or phrase is enough for the one side to know what is being said about the other. That‘s the nature of insider jokes. Take the topic product, or more precisely product philosophy. A German colleague need only wink to his colleagues and imitate an American colleague by saying „and we‘ve tested it.“

Every fellow German knows what is meant by the phrase: „Oh, here we go again, another American who believes to have developed a solution just because what they tried actually worked, but once and by chance or coincidence.“ The implied criticism is equally clear: „They (the Americans) can‘t explain how and why it worked. The solution is half-baked. In reality it hasn‘t been tested at all.“ For Germans „and we‘ve tested it“ means Americans are naive, quick to claim a breakthrough, at best not thorough.

Risk via false assumptions

Alarms go off in my head whenever I hear insider jokes on either side of the Atlantic. I jump into the conversation immediately and ask questions. For insider jokes are clear indications that the one culture misunderstands the other culture in a critical area. Insider jokes are not thought up, told and retold unless they address foundational matters. And therein lies the danger for German-American collaboration. Insider jokes become imbedded.

And what is imbedded is difficult to root out. Misunderstanding leads to (counter)behaviour. „The Americans are this or that.“ Or „The Germans think like this or than.“ If taken as fact the respective other culture adjusts its approach based on a misinterpretation. If each culture‘s operating assumptions about the other culture are wrong, or just partly wrong, the potential for Americans and Germans working against instead of with and for each other increases.

Several years ago Volkwagen was convinced it knew what the Chinese wanted in a car. With such a large population, with such high levels of population density in cities and towns, it was clear to VW that the Chinese people wanted a compact, agile, fuel-efficient automobile. „The Chinese want a Polo.“ But the Chinese did not want a Polo or any compact car. They wanted a big car. VW‘s operating assumptions in the largest automobile growth market were wrong. Very wrong. That mistake costed VW a rather significant amount of money.

Interconnections and interdependencies

„The German graph“ is one of the American insider jokes (in this case terms). It, too, is a misinterpretation. Americans see many a German graph – usually in a PowerPoint presentation – which for them are „too busy“, with far too much information on them: text, arrows, lines, symbols, etc. They‘re difficult to understand. Looked at for longer than a few minutes such graphs can give Americans headaches. They get the impression that only the presenter – a German – can understand them.

It is true that some „German graphs“ are packed too full with information. But if so, not because the German approach is nonsense, but more likely because that approach was not executed well. The actual disconnect – or misinterpretation – is that Americans are not aware of how Germans explain complexity.

If you believe in the value of explaining interconnections and interdependencies in a systematic way, you have to display them ideally on one slide. This provides overview. Otherwise you would have to break down that complexity into several slides and constantly flip forward and backward to show the system. In other words, to explain interconnections you have to show interconnections.

It really is that simple. Americans and Germans can debate about whether a presenter gets the interconnections and interdependencies right. They can debate about whether the presenter uses the presentation software in an effective way. But the fundamental German approach to addressing complexity as it is, explaining the system underlying it, is surely not a national cultural weakness of the German people, and most certainly not a weakness other cultures should joke about. For, in fact, grasping complexity is one of the greatest of German national cultural strengths (provided that strength is applied at the right time and in the right way).

Germans can, indeed, tangle themselves up in systems. They do have the tendancy to look at a problem from so many different perspectives, attempting to factor in so many different parameters, in order to reach total consensus, that at some point noone can recall what it is they are trying resolve.

Let‘s keep in mind, however, that there is such a thing as the (American) opposite of „the German graph.“ It is the presentation slide with maximum three statements in oversized, bold letters stating something like: „This is the challenge. This is the solution. We‘ll all make lots of money and mankind will be happy ever after.“

Insider Jokes

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