Serve a Good Purpose

Germans believe that when you serve another person – dienen – you have to accept the value system of that person. He who serves, has to do things, has to act in a way, which they might otherwise fully reject. Even more, the person serving is obligated to do their very best. Germans do not consider this a relief, not as a transfer of moral responsibility from the one serving to the one being served. On the contrary, it represents a burden for them, knowing from the very start that they will invariably come into conflict with their conscience.

On the other hand, when a German is willing to serve a good purpose, a cause they believe in, they are freely submitting to a belief, taking a moral stand, agreeing with a set of arguments. They can formulate those arguments in a way which fits their values. If one can no longer support the cause, there is no obligation to continue contributing time and effort.

Psychologically this means that serving a good cause, whether through action, financial assistance or communicating the message, means serving one’s own value system. We are obligating ourselves freely. Independence and self-determination are protected.

Protect their ways

But why do Germans have such difficulty with dienen, serving? Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Germans in many ways live mit sich – with themselves, and in sich – in themselves, in the sense of how they live, where they live. Their surroundings are very much a part of their personality, their self-understanding. Unexpected visitors, regulations or limitations on their private lives are quickly interpreted as personal attacks. The boss calling unexpectedly, friends dropping by for a visit, colleagues giveing unsolicited advice concerning their private life make Germans feel uncomfortable.

To serve well, though, means to push to the side one’s own values, beliefs, ways of living. The better one can do that, the better they can serve. And that is the difficult part for Germans. They prefer far more beraten, to advise, or to complete a task. Beraten involves addressing a topic, subject, problem. It is impersonal, independent of one‘s values, lifestyle, belief system.

To serve a good purpose

Back to serving a good purpose. German non-governmental organizations – NGOs – are confronted by the dilemma that they need to function well as organizations, but do not want to give their members the impression that they work for an organization. Internal power struggles are poisonous for small, low-budget organizations. Members need to know that they are serving a higher purpose and not an organizational structure.

For Germans, their work, what they accomplish day in and day out, is very much a part of their personal identity. On the one side this makes it difficult for them to maintain distance from their work. On the other, however, it enables them to work very conscientiously and independently. The German logic is: „Do you want to understand who I am. Look at my work.“

Atlas of Emotions

In the U.S. the field of psychology has grown in popularity. In the 2006-2007 school year, social science was tied with history as having the second largest number of awarded Bachelor’s degrees.

In fact, there are so many people majoring in psychology in the U.S. that psychology majors have the highest unemployment rates of all recent college graduates, with 19.5% of clinical psychology majors and more than 10% of educational and industrial/organizational psychology majors unable to find work.

A lot of this popularity is due to the work of people like Paul Ekman, an American psychologist, who has created an Atlas of Emotions, which identifies over ten thousand different facial expressions. He has also written fifteen books about body language including Telling Lies and Emotions Revealed.

Due to his high (albeit imperfect) success-rate with using small details in a person’s facial expressions to induce larger truths about that person, Ekman has served as an advisor to several police departments and anti-terrorism groups, including the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Thanks to his work, Ekman has gained a reputation as the best human lie detector in the world.

Additionally, Ekman’s work was recently used as the basis for the television crime drama Lie to Me, a show in which several psychologists and facial expression experts use their knowledge of body language to assist in investigations. This show ran from 2009 to 2011, and won two People’s Choice Awards in 2011.

Sigmund Freud

Although Sigmund Freud was an Austrian his methods of psychoanalysis to resolve personal conflicts had tremendous influence in the entire German-speaking world, and eventually beyond. Psychoanalytical therapy involved up to three hundred individual sessions.

For Freud, as the founder of psychoanalysis, it was essential to identify unconscious emotional developments in order to understand human behavior. The earliest years of childhood are especially relevant. Psychological problems – conflicts – can be traced back to those earliest of years. 

Understanding developments over very long periods of time are fundamental to Freud’s approach to conflict resolution. Tracing psychological problems far back into one’s personal history, making the unconscious conscious, is the opposite of a quick (hasty) resolution of conflict.

Reconstructing Memories

“The uncritical acceptance of eyewitness accounts may stem from a popular misconception of how memory works. Many people believe that human memory works like a video recorder: the mind records events and then, on cue, plays back an exact replica of them. 

On the contrary, psychologists have found that memories are reconstructed rather than played back each time we recall them. The act of remembering, says eminent memory researcher and psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus of the University of California, Irvine, is “more akin to putting puzzle pieces together than retrieving a video recording.” 

Even questioning by a lawyer can alter the witness’s testimony because fragments of the memory may unknowingly be combined with information provided by the questioner, leading to inaccurate recall.”

From: “Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on Eyewitness Accounts”, Hal Arkowitz and Scott Lilienfeld. Scientific American magazine, January 8, 2009.

Embrace Conflict

In 2012, American business magazine Forbes published an article that lists several keys to dealing with workplace conflict. In the article, the author suggests that every business leader should adhere to the principle “don’t fear conflict; embrace it – it’s your job.”

The article also recommends that every conflict should be resolved quickly, and, if possible, business leaders should identify people who are likely to get into conflicts and stage pre-conflict interventions with everyone who seems likely to become involved.

Another article from About Money lists actions to avoid when resolving workplace conflicts. The top two points on the list advise leaders not to avoid conflict and not to meet separately with the people in conflict. Most articles from American business journals include similar advice.

Sandwich Method

The sandwich method is describes the American approach to giving negative feedback. Its goal is to communicate criticism in a way which will avoid demotivating the other person. Like a sandwich with a slice a bread on both the top and the bottom, praise is given at the beginning and the end of the feedback talk. In the middle is the substance of the conversation, the points of criticism. Open with praise. Communicate criticism. Close with praise.

Is there anything new about this? Research on the American approach to communicating criticism over the last fifty to one hundred years would probably show that it is not. American ears know to listen carefully after the positive has been said. They listen for the nuances, the terms used, especially the euphemisms. This makes it all the more complex and difficult to understand for non-Americans, regardless of strong their command of the English language.

„You did a fine job.“

Why we find it hard to say no

To learn to say no, we have to first understand what’s resisting us about it. Below are common reasons why people find it hard to say no:

You want to help. You don’t want to turn the person away and you want to help where possible, even if it may eat into your time.

Afraid of being rude. I was brought up under the notion that saying “No”, especially to people who are more senior, is rude.

Wanting to be agreeable. You don’t want to alienate yourself from the group because you’re not in agreement.

Fear of conflict. You are afraid the person might be angry if you reject him/her.

Fear of lost opportunities. Perhaps you are worried saying no means closing doors. didn’t want to say no as she felt it would affect her promotion opportunities in the future.

Not burning bridges. Some people take “no” as a sign of rejection. It might lead to bridges being burned and relationships severed.

From Celestine Chua of The Personal Excellence Blog.

When to say No

“When to say No”, from the Mayo Clinic website on stress management:

Focus on what matters most. Examine your obligations and priorities before making any new commitments.

Weigh the yes-to-stress ratio. Is the new activity you’re considering a short- or long-term commitment?

Take guilt out of the equation. Don’t agree to a request you would rather decline out of guilt or obligation.

Sleep on it. Before you respond, take a day to think about the request and how it fits in with your current commitments.

How to say no.

Say no. The word no has power. Don’t be afraid to use it. Be careful about using substitutes phrases, such as “I’m not sure” or “I don’t think I can.”

Be brief. State your reason for refusing the request, but don’t go on about it. Avoid elaborate justifications or explanations.

Be honest. Don’t fabricate reasons to get out of an obligation. The truth is always the best way to turn down a friend, family member or co-worker.

Be respectful. Many good causes land at your door, and it can be tough to turn them down. Complimenting the group’s effort while saying that you can’t commit shows that you respect what they’re trying to accomplish.

Be ready to repeat. You may need to refuse a request several times before the other person accepts your response. Calmly repeat your no, with or without your original rationale, as needed.

Reasons for Small Talk

If you type into Google „reasons for small talk“ or „why small talk“ or „purpose of small talk“, it will respond with numerous links to people – experts and amateurs – who typically state anywhere between five and ten reasons.

Small talk: Signals the mood of the other person; finds topics of common ground; fills in a communication vacuum; establishes trust; is a possible introduction to big talk topics; identifies issues which might be too sensitive to address; can communicate interest, care, even affection; allows one to overcome their own shyness.

But what about introverts, those who prefer to discuss topics of substance?