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.“