Friends. Not Friends.

The Office

The hit TV series The Office, which originated in the UK, now exists in nine different versions adapted to the individual languages and tastes of the American, French, German, French Canadian, Chilean, Swedish, and Israeli people as well. The U.S. and German versions are by far the most successful and longest running of the lot.

That a mockumentary show about everyday office life should have to be adapted so many times to fit tastes across cultures, in spite of keeping a similar structure, set of characters, and setting speaks volumes about the importance of minor cultural differences in such a mundane setting.

Here, in broad strokes, are some of the chief differences. In the British version, nobody is working, nobody has a happy relationship, everyone looks terrible, and everybody is depressed.

In the French version, nobody is working but even the idiots look good, and everybody seems possessed of an intriguing private life. In the German version, actual work is visibly being done, and most of the staff is coupled up.

The American version most clearly shows the staff typically working, and places emphasis on their relationships outside of the office, highlighting the reality that many of them have relatively strong relationships outside of the workplace as well. Especially clear are the tactics of Michael Scott to be the best friend of everyone in the office, in spite of being their boss and having to make the tough decisions which don’t make everyone happy.

His German counterpart, Berndt Stromberg, also seems to value the attention of his employees over his actual tasks, but clearly does not want to be everybody’s friend.

Context irrelevant

Germans strive to separate substance from person. They can argue vehemently and still respect each other, even remain close friends. This allows them to pay less attention to the specific context of the interaction.

It is relatively unimportant whether they are communicating with their neighbor in front of their house, an acquaintance in the streetcar, a relative on the phone or a colleague at their workplace. A discussion about a topic of substance has little to do with the person individually.

The ability to separate substance from person is in the German business context among the fundamental abilities expected not only of employees, but especially of those who lead them – management. The self-understanding of the German citizen includes – consciously or unconsciously – the obligation to argue a point, to address a problem, to state an opinion objectively, critically, fairly.

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