When Americans sell too energetically Germans find it a bit crass, loud, unpolished. I see in my mind’s eye a certain kind of television advertising in the U.S. Evenings. Six p.m. A local station. A local car dealership. The owner him-/herself, with his face up close to the camera, in a loud voice: “This is the greatest deal of the century. Buy fast, folks, before it’s too late!”
Or I think of the famous, and often infamous, television evangelical preachers of the 1980s and 90s, with tears in their eyes asking their audience in the church and in their living rooms to “speak directly to God” – via an 1-800 telephone number – and make a donation.
What Germans do not understand, and reject (often vehemently), is the caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) approach in the American business context. The difference between the German Auskunftspflicht and caveat emptor is dramatic and leads to significant misunderstanding and irritation.
What surprises, throws off balance, and can anger Germans is when Americans while selling their product, service, concept or idea only mention its strengths, even though the Germans sense, or even know, of its weaknesses.
They often notice immediately when Americans exaggerate the positive and either play down or leave unmentioned the negative. And if the negatives are mentioned, then as if by some magic they can actually be converted into strengths, if understood and managed properly.
Depending on how much experience Germans have working with Americans, the caveat emptor approach can lead to indignation. At a minimum Americans can be viewed as being tricky, clever, in some cases even as lying.
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, by Edgar Reitz.
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 then 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.
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.
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) the 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.
The historians are in agreement. That Abraham Lincoln was the most masterful storyteller in American history. It has been written that he could hold audiences for up to two hours at a time.
In 1991, Disney produced the movie “Beauty and the Beast,” a film about a prince who is turned into a beast and the young woman who helps return him to human form. Although this movie is set in France, because it was written by Americans for American children, it exemplifies many of the values held in American culture.
In this film, many of the characters are servants, and they have no trouble expressing their desire to serve their master. In fact, at one point in the movie, the servants avow that they “only live to serve.” Nevertheless, no American would ever think of these characters as degraded or less than human – to Americans they are simply helping their customer in the best way they can.
Reliability in the U.S. also means serviceability. No product is perfect. Service can make up for it. And service is based on a product’s serviceability. After sales service. Should be fast, easy and profitable.
From Ford’s Model T which came with a tool box, all the way to today’s call centers responding 24/7 via 1-800 numbers, to the service trucks on the road, Americans tolerate suboptimal reliability if their concerns are listened to and acted upon.
But wait. Earning profits on a product’s imperfection? The German engineer winces at this. Products should work as developed. The German consumer winces at this. Products should work as promised.
In the American movie Jungle-2-Jungle, a prominent business leader goes to the jungle, and while there he sends a message to his employee to sell all of his coffee shares. However, his battery dies before he manages to confirm that he wants to sell the coffee.
His employee, unwilling to act without confirmation, doesn’t sell the shares, and much of the movie revolves around the two men attempting to sell the coffee shares that are quickly diminishing in value.
In the American movie Mars Attacks! there are two generals who advise the President of the United States. One, General Decker, is very opinionated and not shy about telling the President when he disagrees with something. The other, General Casey, only gives his opinion when asked, and then always tries to soften it considerably.
Consequently, when Martians first land on Earth, it is General Casey, not General Decker, who is chosen to greet the Martians and welcome them to the planet. As Casey prepares for his big moment, he says to his wife: “Didn’t I always tell you, honey, if I just stayed in place and never spoke up, good things are bound to happen.”
In the American movie Interstellar, when earth begins to become uninhabitable, 10 astronauts are sent through a wormhole to a group of planets orbiting a supermassive black hole. These astronauts are supposed to explore the planets to see if they are inhabitable or not.
However, when communicating their findings back to earth, they don’t transmit long lists of data. Instead, if the area they’ve explored could sustain human life, they simply activate the “thumbs up beacon.”
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