Roommate Agreement

On The Big Bang Theory, an American television show about a group of physicists and the girl next door, two of the main characters share an apartment together. In order to ensure that things run smoothly from the beginning one of the roommates drafts a roommate agreement that outlines all of the rules by which the two characters will abide.

Additionally, anytime there is a change in the characters’ status (for example, if one of them starts dating), this roommate will write a modified version of the agreement to accommodate the new arrangement.

However, the second roommate hates having a fixed list of rules, and rather than being a way to solve disputes, the roommate agreement actually becomes the source of many arguments.

Hesitation

In American culture, waiting until you have all of the information is considered so negative that there are many popular phrases and quotes that warn against this behavior. Some of the best known follow:

“He who hesitates is lost” – a person who spends too much time deliberating before acting will lose the chance to act at all. The first use of this phrase in the United States was in 1858 in The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes, although the phrase was first used in England in 1712 in Cato by Joseph Addison.

Liars always hesitate – a person who hesitates before speaking is probably not telling the truth.

“Check in regularly”

On her blog The Fast Track, Alison Green posted the topic “How to Succeed When Deadlines and Priorities Constantly Change.” Green writes:

“Additionally, check in with your manager regularly about your priorities. It’s frustrating to focus on Project A all week, only to find out on Thursday that your manager knew on Tuesday that Project B was going to take priority.

So if you’re finding that you’re not getting updates about changes as quickly as you should, put the onus on yourself to touch base frequently to share what you’re working on and how you’re prioritizing and find out if anything should change.”

Iteration

The term iteration has become common within American companies: to communicate several or many communications, back and forth, between two or more parties, in which information is exchanged, decisions made, activities (action items or more simply actions) agreed to.

Merriam-Webster online defines iteration as a procedure in which repetition of a sequence of operations yields results successively closer to a desired result.

Americans iterate, some intensely so. It allows them to maintain flexibility, to ensure information flow, to discriminate between what is important and unimportant, to reduce risk. Like any strength, however, it can be inflationary: too much communication, too little action.

Instead of front-loading an agreement with in-depth discussion about the details, Americans iterate.

Information Overload

Much more than Germans, Americans suffer from a condition they call information overload. If Americans receive all of the information about a project right from the beginning, they’ll try to reduce the information by ignoring anything that doesn’t seem immediately important. Ultimately they will typically only remember the pieces that seem most pertinent to them.

When information is important, Americans tend to give it away in small pieces, stressing each item individually. This way, no matter how much the other person suffers from information overload he/she is certain to remember the material.

Information overload: an excess of incoming information, as might confront a pedestrian on a crowded city street, that forces one to be selective in the information received and retained; an overwhelming feeling upon the receipt or collection of an indigestible or incomprehensible amount of information, the feeling of being faced with an amount of data that one has no hope of completely processing.

This phrase was popularized by Alvin Toffler in 1970.

“Get skeptical!“

Skepsis is a commonly used word in German. The media, for example, uses it often: “German skepticism about the future of the Euro is increasing.” German skepsis here. German skepsis there. The broad population is always skeptical about things new.

To be skeptical from the outset is a legitimate approach in the German culture. To be skeptical is to be critical-minded. It means to take an objective, distanced view of things. It is neutral. One doesn’t have to take sides.

Germans are critical especially when it comes to their health: gene manipulated food products, electronic smog, chemical fertilizers, technical products which may or may not function properly.

It can appear as if Germans were fearful of all things new. Not true. They are simply aware, perhaps over-aware, of what they don’t know or of which questions remain unanswered. Germans will often say “Let’s not badmouth everything. Let’s just remain skeptical.” So how do Germans view the future? With a healthy portion of skepsis.

Knowledge and Integrity

Integrity is valued very highly in Germany. And the German are considered to be of high integrity, especially when it comes to their work.

German integrity was damaged by recent scandals in academia and medicine. The German Minister of Defense, Carl-Theodor Guttenberg, resigned from office after well-grounded claims cited him of plagiarism in his doctoral thesis of years ago.

Since then, another high-ranking German politician has resigned from office for the same reason. And a second member of Angela Merkel’s cabinet has resigned under investigation for plagiarism in her Ph.D. thesis. The German academic community is enraged. The integrity of their work has been called into question. The German public is no less disgusted.

A network of medical physicians is also under investigation for corruption. Surgeons have been paying bribes to general practitioners – family doctors – for referring their patients to them for operations, many of which were unnecessary.

Shocking for the German public. At a minimum, Germans expect the highest standards of integrity from the academic and medical professions.

Conscientious, diligent: Organizations with flat hierarchies rely on conscientious and diligent employees. These are people with very high standards, who under no circumstances tolerate suboptimal work, shortcuts or easy approaches, even those which could benefit them personally and professionally. The Germans take pride in being known for their diligence, scruples, honesty.

Figures of speech: Etwas mit seinem Gewissen vereinbaren. To be in agreement, in line with one’s own conscience. Mit bestem Wissen und Gewissen. With best knowledge and conscience. Gewissensbisse. Literally conscience bite.

Skepticism. German have a reputation for being skeptical. But the term skepsis is positive in Germany. It means to first ask critical questions before agreeing to something. And until those questions are answered, Germans remain doubtful. Their skepsis is often misunderstood as rejection. It is simply distance, reticence, reluctance, caution.

Figures of speech: Bedenken in den Wind schlagen. To toss doubt or misgivings to the wind. Den Tag nicht vor dem Abend loben. Don’t praise the day before the night has arrived. Nicht auf die leichte Schulter nehmen. Literally don‘t accept things on a light shoulder, meaning don’t underestimate the situation.

Conversation as Interview

Germans like to get to the point quickly. They are more interested in the content than the person. They know before the meeting what they want to learn, hear, the information they seek. The conversation is often more of an interview than a discussion, as if they came prepared with a list of questions.

Figures of speech: Es gibt keine blöden Fragen. Es gibt nur blöde Antworten. There are no stupid questions. There are only stupid answers. Gut gefragt, ist halb gewonnen. The right question is half the right answer. Fragen kostet nichts. Asking doesn’t cost anything. Fangfrage. Trick question.

Löcher in den Bauch fragen. Literally translated: to shoot holes (with questions) in the other person‘s stomach. Preisfrage. Price question. Das kommt nicht in Frage. Literally, that does not come into question, or absolutely not.

No Surprises

Germans like to receive nicely wrapped presents. At the same time they are no fans of surprises. Not even at Christmas or on birthdays. On the contrary, they really do prefer to know in advance what is in the package.

They do their research before they make even everyday purchases. Which product is the right one? Have they had any negative experiences with it? What are the alternatives? How much more or less expensive is the alternative?

This is why the German consumer often asks the salesperson if the product can be returned. They seldom feel sure that what they buy is exactly what they need.

Germans, for example, never plan a vacation without doing intensive research, unless of course they are returning to a well-known destination, which many of them do in order to reduce the risk of disappointment.

85 billion Euros a year, that is the amount German spend on travel – the highest in the world. Nonetheless, they most likely do the most research before deciding. Numerous websites are looked at, comments good and bad are read critically, photos from the vacation destinations compared, maps surveyed, travel guides studied carefully, friends and acquaintances asked.

Then finally the decision is made, the trip is booked. The research has just begun, however. What‘s the use of booking a trip if you don’t plan well what you‘ll do during it? Climate. Transportation. Sightseeing. Shopping. Shop hours. Restaurants and prices. Day-trips. Health care should anyone get sick or injured. Front loading.

Front-loading

Once Germans have made a commitment, they begin immediately doing their part. And because they work independently, including little communication with the other parties to the agreement, it is essential that they have as much information upfront as possible.

Anecdote: Friendly interrogation. I take the train up the Ruhr Area. A meeting with one of Germany’s largest multinational companies. Thus far they are satisfied with my work. A new contact, high-level engineer, perhaps a new client.

We meet in his office, sit at a round table, drink tea. We talk. His questions are direct, precise, bordering on penetrating. The tone, however, is friendly, probing. Before I realize it an hour has gone by. The questions keep coming, one after the other. About my background, methodology, how I execute seminars and specialized workshops. Then about my content, my research approach. What? How? Why?

Question after question, almost like an interrogation. He wants to understand. I become a bit fatigued, but remain fully focused, maintain eye contact, respond as precisely as my German will allow. The meeting is tiring, he keeps me on my toes. At the same time the atmosphere is friendly, respectful, at a high level.

The German manager is above average in height, slender, his eyes sensitive, curious, listening. Not distrustful, skeptical but careful. In the weeks thereafter we would meet several times more. Each talk of lesser intensity. Then the decision. Positive. I went on to serve him and his organization for several years without interruption. Front loading.

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