A German with extensive experience living and working in the U.S. made this comment about entering into and maintaining agreements:

“I more observed that you make easier commitments in some cultures, and somewhere it takes more time. Then, in some cultures you can adjust when the boundary conditions dramatically change. And in others you stick to your word whatever happens. I guess that probably is the concept of Nibelungentreue, which has both positive and negative implications.”

Nibelung Loyalty

Nibelungentreue is a German compound noun, literally Nibelung loyalty, expressing the concept of absolute, unquestioning, excessive and potentially disastrous loyalty to a cause or person. 

It is derived from the Medieval chivalric ideal of loyalty, Middle High German triuwe, as exemplified in the second part of the Nibelungenlied, where the Burgundian kings Gunther, Gernot and Giselher refuse to hand over to Kriemhild their loyal vassal Hagen of Tronje, who is guilty of murdering Kriemhild’s husband, Siegfried. The brothers place the loyalty to their friend above their obligations to their sister or to justice, leading to disaster and the complete destruction of the Nibelungs. 

The modern term Nibelungentreue was coined by chancellor Bernhard von Bülow in his speech before the Reichstag on 29 March 1909. Addressing the Bosnian Crisis, von Bülow invoked the absolute loyalty between the German Empire and Austira-Hungary to their Alliance of 1879against the threat by the Entente Cordiale:

Meine Herren, ich habe irgendwo ein höhnisches Wort gelesen über eine Vasallenschaft gegenüber Österreich-Ungarn. Das Wort ist einfältig. […] aber die Nibelungentreue wollen wir aus unserem Verhältnis zu Österreich‐Ungarn nicht ausschalten. Die wollen wir vor aller Öffentlichkeit Österreich‐Ungarn gegenüber wahren.

“Gentlemen — I have somewhere read a scornful word regarding a [German] vassalage to Austria-Hungary. This is fatuous. […] but we will not eliminate the Nibelung loyalty from our relation to Austria-Hungary. This we want to preserve towards Austria-Hungary in full public view.”

The term is adopted by emperor Wilhelm II of Germany as the German Empire declared war alongside Austria-Hungary on 1 August 1914. After the defeat of the Central Powers in 1918, the notion of th Dolchstoß (“Stab in the back”) also invoked the Nibelungen legend, invoking the cowardly murder of Siegfried.

Nibelungentreue was later, in East Germany during denazification and by the 1980s also in West Germany, applied (derogatively) to Nazi ideology, especially in connection with the Schutzstaffel motto, Meine Ehre heißt Treue. Used in this sense by Marxist commentators, the term describes a fanatical Germanic military loyalty associated with fascism and militarism. 

Franz Führmann in 1955 wrote a poem called Der Nibelunge Not (“the plight/distress of the Nibelungs”, the Middle High German title of the Nibelungenlied) in which he portrays the Nibelungs as a Germanic Töterdynastie (“dynasty of killers”) who brought a curse on their descendants. The term is also occasionally found in English-language literature about Nazi Germany; thus, Steinberg (1990) describes Goebbels’ suicide as “a paroxysm of Nibelungentreue“.

Source: Wikipedia

1990. Bush. Gorbatschow.

Robert Zoellick, former Deputy Secretary of State under President George H. Bush, addresses Putin’s claim that the West broke a promise it made in the 1990s not to expand NATO.

This is about the topic Agreements, and the American logic. Listen carefully beginning at around 2:30, especially at 3:56, where Zoellick reveals crystal clear the American logic: “Nothing’s really final until you put the words on paper.”

This video was posted on YouTube on February 1, 2022. It is not clear when it was recorded. Russia had amassed conventional forces surrounding Ukraine. The invasion began on February 24.

Check with Colleagues and Manager

Agreements of substance and importance have effects, ramifications, influence on the work of others. And since Americans work in teams, many of them in several teams at any given time, they are not inclined to enter fully into an agreement until they have checked out what those effects might be.

Why invest additional time discussing the details of a potential agreement, if one or two aspects of it are counter to their other responsibilities? Instead, Americans will check with key colleagues in those organizations potentially influenced by the agreement. In many cases, they will also briefly discuss the case with their direct manager.

This approach is often mistakenly interpreted as a sign that many Americans are either incapable or unwilling to make decisions on their own, without having to run to their boss for permission.

American team leads ultimately carry all responsibility for what occurs within their organization, and are therefore keenly interested in what obligations their team members make in their – the team leader’s – names.

Back out

Americans reserve the right to back out of an agreement at any time during its early stages. This sounds like a contradiction in terms, in the sense that once an agreement has been made, one should keep their word.

It is not. American agreements in their early stages are agreements in the making, they are under consideration, are conditional. Americans will do their best to deliver what they have agreed to, if they can, are permitted to, if time and resources enable them.

To go into too much detail of an agreement up front is a potential waste of time and effort. Americans want first the very basics of the agreement, in order to quickly assess whether they can and want to enter into it.

If the initial response is positive, they will enter further into the agreement, taking in more details, proceeding if they can, are permitted to, if time and resources enable them.

It is a step by step process, and not an all or nothing decision.

Yes Men

Yes-man: a person who agrees with everything that is said; especially one who endorses or supports without criticism every opinion or proposal of an associate or superior. First known use in 1912 by Freeman Tilden in Century Magazine.

In 1993, the American Economic Association published an article demonstrating how subjective performance evaluations, one of the popular methods of giving employees feedback and determining such things as pay raises, incentivized employees to become Yes Men.

The article also argued that because of the tendency to create Yes Men, these programs should be avoided. Nevertheless, subjective performance evaluations are still commonly used in American businesses. In fact, Yes Men are so common in American culture that in 2008 Warner Brothers released the British/American film Yes Man.

This film follows the life of Carl Allen, a very negative person who decides to change his life by answering “Yes!” to every opportunity, request, or invitation that presents itself to him, something which, despite a few mishaps, ultimately increases the quality of Allen’s life.

Tesla’s Bane

In 1885 Nikola Tesla, who had recently immigrated to the US from Serbia, told his employer Thomas Edison that he could redesign Edison’s direct current generators, greatly improving both their service and cost. Hearing this, Edison remarked: “There’s fifty thousand dollars in it for you if you can do it.”

Even though Edison’s company had a reputation for being tightfisted, Tesla took him at his word, and after he completed the task, Edison refused to pay him the money. Instead, Edison told Tesla that he was only joking, and offered him a $10 per week raise for his current $18 per week salary. Insulted, Tesla immediately resigned.

bane: death, destruction; woe; a source of harm or ruin, a curse. Middle English, from Old English, akin to Old High German death. First Known Use: before 12th century

tightfisted – parsimonious; stingy; tight; mean; miserly. Origin from 1835-45.


Given their litigation-heavy culture, it may seem ironic that Americans are so quick to say yes to an agreement. After all, saying yes and then not following through should make it easier for the one party to file a lawsuit.

However, the reality is the opposite. By having a culturally soft yes Americans make it more difficult for others to successfully sue them. In the U.S. it takes far more than a simple yes to indicate an oral agreement, which offers Americans protection from legal claims.

Gianni vs. Russell Supreme Court of Pennsylvania 1924 – Gianni, who owned a small store, claimed that his landlord told him that he could have the exclusive right to sell drinks in the building.

The landlord then rented another space in the building to a company that sold drinks, and Gianni attempted to sue. However, because Gianni had entered into a written lease, and there was no mention of this right in the lease, the oral contract was said to be nonexistent.

Power Entertainment Inc. v. National Football League Properties, Inc., United States Court of Appeals, 5th Circuit, 1998 – the plaintiff and defendant orally agreed that Power Entertainment would take over a licensing agreement between the NFL Properties and another company in exchange for Power Entertainment assuming the $800,000 debt between the two original companies. However, after the debt was paid, NFL Properties did not transfer the license, and the oral contract was found to be invalid.

Additionally, oral agreements in the US are sometimes called handshake deals. Although an actual handshake isn’t necessary to make the agreement binding, this still shows that it takes more than a ‘yes’ to enter into an agreement.

Conditional Yes

Commitments are, by definition, conditional due to factors beyond the control of the parties to an agreement. Next-level management may change their priorities. The customer could modify their requirements. Available resources – people, time, budgets – are often redeployed on short notice.

Caveat: is a warning or proviso of specific stipulations, conditions or limitations. In law, a caveat is a notice that certain actions may not be taken without informing the person who gave the notice. “Caveat” originates in the mid 16th century and is derived from Latin, literally from “let a person beware.”

Contingency: Event (as an emergency that may, but is not certain to occur); trying to provide for every contingency; something liable to happen as an adjunct to or result of something else. From Latin contingent-, contingens: to have contact with, befall, from com- + tangere to touch; first Known Use: 14th century.

A coach’s yes

In 2015, following the Penn State University wrestling team’s duel with the University of Minnesota, coach Cael Sanderson answered yes when asked if Jimmy Lawson instead of Jon Gingrich would be the Penn State heavyweight in the critical time nearing the end of the season.

When asked to comment on this, Lawson clearly took his coach’s yes as conditional, and responded: “In my mind it’s not really over. We’re both seniors, we both want to be the guy out there, we both want to do well at nationals, so I’ve just got to keep competing.”

As it turned out, Sanderson’s yes was conditional, and he later qualified his yes, saying “It can never be done . . . (the wrestlers) are always pushing and trying to get to the top. You want to help the team by being the best you can be and if that’s pushing the guy ahead of you or even taking the spot, that’s what you need.”