Category Archives: [:en]Communication[:]

Dragon Slayers at Cocktail Parties

The East German Dragon-Slayer

At the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall Wolf Bierman, a famous songwriter and harsh critic of the former East German regine, was invited to speak to the German Bundestag.

Instead of singing, Biermann addressed a few words towards Bundestags President Norbert Lammert: “Mr. Lammert, I am glad that you lured me here. And as I know you to have a sarcastic sense of humor, I already have some idea that you were hoping that I would take a few jabs at Die Linken (the far-left political party made up of primarily former East German communists), but this I cannot deliver. My career as a dragon slayer is over.”

Lammert: “I too can help you, Mr. Biermann, with a tip about our house rules. As soon as you run for office in the German Bundestag and are elected, then you may speak here. Today you were invited to sing.“

Biermann: “Yes, but of course I did not accept keeping my mouth shut in former East Germany, and I certainly will not do so here. A dragon slayer cannot bravely take down the remaining hoard of dragons in one fell swoop. You have been beaten. [light applause] And for me it is punishment enough that you sit here. […] And so you are all destined to sit here and tolerate this, and I will indulge you. […] I know that those who sit here are the pathetic remnants of that which has fortunately been conquered, and I am happy to be able to sing a song here “The Encouragement“. […] I changed you with those songs while you were all still in power.“

A time for celebration. The opportunity to celebrate the reunification of Germany. A few nice words. Words of reconciliation, perhaps. But they missed their mark. Even in such a moment it continued to be important to Biermann to remain critical and to criticize; to not let himself be ‘lulled into’. Showing bravery in the face of controversy.

PC Language

Political correctness language (also known as PC) aims to avoid any form of descrimination or perceived discrimination against social, economic or political groups defined by race, gender, religion, ethnicity, age, disability or sexual orientation.

See gender-neutral terms such as firefighter in the place of fireman and firewoman; police officer in place of policeman and policewoman; value-free terms describing physical disabilities, such as visually impaired in place of blind and hearing impaired in place of deaf; value-free cultural terms, such as Holiday season and Winter holiday, in place of Christmas.

Cocktail Parties

Americans say: “There are three things you never address at a cocktail party: sex, politics, and religion.” All three are perceived as private or overly controversial for an occasion like a cocktail party, as a metaphor for informal interactions.

Discussion of religion and politics could make some people feel that you are either in agreement with them or opposed, feelings which could provoke tense conversations. Discussing sports, weather and family are considered to be safe topics with which to begin a conversation.

“Talk politics” … “Don’t talk politics”

German Approach
When Germans engage in discussions – outside of the business context – they seek out topics which lead to lively discussions. Germans are intelligent and well-informed. They enjoy intellectual give and take. And since this means a difference of opinions, Germans purposely choose controversial topics.

In addition, they are critically-minded. They look for weak points, for things which do not work, which are (from their perspective) suboptimal or just plain wrong. So the discussion inevitably involves Germans stating their critical opinion about some thing, person or people.

American Approach
Americans choose to discuss non-controversial topics. Divisive subjects are seldom raised. And although the age of the cocktail party is long past, Americans still know the answer to the question „What are three subjects you don‘t bring up at a cocktail party?“ Sex, religion and politics.

The American logic is to avoid any contention which can damage a personal or working relationship. They seek out commonalities, look for reasons to relate, not separate.

German Perception
The American inclination to discuss safe topics is often misinterpreted by Germans as being superficial. To the Germans, for whom intelligence, deep thinking, even brooding, is important, superficiality is considered to be a character flaw.

Germans are disappointed when the discussion involves what they call non-topics. They feel that an opportunity has been lost: to debate, compare and contrast, to learn from each other.

American Perception
Americans have the impression that Germans seek out controversial topics in order to provoke. In many cases, Americans feel insulted, for the German approach often leads to criticism of America and Americans, their society, politics, their very way of life.

When that happens, the relationship has been damaged and it is very difficult to un-do it. Making things worse, some Americans will then report it to friends and colleagues, warning them about contact with „those opinionated Germans.“

Advice to Germans
Develop a sense for which topics in America are considered controversial. There are many of them. Choose very carefully with whom, when and how you address them.

Bring them up indirectly. Ask Americans what they think. If asked, state your opinion diplomatically. Seek dialogue, not debate. If you want to make your statement, perhaps phrase it as a question.

And remember, Americans and Germans have different definitions of patriotism. Germans are still skeptical and critical about their Germanness. Many refer to themselves more as Europeans than as Germans.

Americans are also critical of their country, their government, are quite aware of their problems. But it is one thing when Americans debate among themselves and quite another thing when an outsider does it. Americans have a personal relationship with their country. Criticism of America is criticism of Americans.

Advice to Americans
Remember, Germans separate between substance and person. Vigorous intellectual give and take on controversial topics is not personal. In fact, it is one way in which the Germans demonstrate respect for America and Americans. It means that they take your point of view and America seriously.

So, engage with the Germans. Help them to understand the American viewpoint. And put some effort into understanding their point of view. It’s well worth it.

Lutz Long saves Jesse Owens

Berlin, 1936, the Olympic Games. The great American track and field athlete, Jesse Owens, competes in and wins the gold medal in the 100 meter, the 200 meter, the 4×100 meter dash, as well as in the long jump.

What many people don’t know, however, is that the silver medalist in the long jump, the German Carl Ludwig “Lutz” Long, had given Owens the kind of advice that only a true colleague, and friend would give.

Going into the 1936 games Long had been the reigning German champion and holder of the European record. The Nazi hierarchy – and the German people – had anticipated gold for Germany.

In the qualification round Owens had fouled twice in a row by stepping on the white board delineating the jump-off point. A third foul would have disqualified him. Jesse Owens would have failed to advance to the final round. The crowd, the millions listening by radio, and especially Owens himself, were unsettled.

After that second fault, Lutz Long walked over to his competitor and advised him to simply imagine the foul line to be located one foot closer than it actually was, saying that he just had to avoid fouling a third time. His third jump would easily be enough to advance to the next round.

Jesse Owens took the advice given to him by that German, setting a record which would hold for decades. Lutz Long took the silver. Immediately after the medal ceremony, when Owens and Long stepped off the podium – and in full view of Adolf Hitler and many of the highest ranking National Socialist officials – Lutz Long, the German, smiled, shook hands with Owens, then hooked Jesse’s right arm into his left and proceeded to walk with him around the track, smiling, talking, congratulating.

1936. Tensions in Europe were very high. The German regime was espousing a crude racial theory. And in the United States, an African-American like Jesse Owens was treated as a second-class citizen, at best. With the world watching, and in conscious defiance of his own government, Lutz Long, a German, reached out to his arch rival to give a small bit of helpful advice – unsolicited.

Listen to the quote of Jesse Owens about Lutz Long at the 2:20 mark of this video.

“What would you do?“

Not German Know-it-alls

Germans believe in norms. Conformity, uniformity. Rectitude, righteousness. Accommodation, assimilation. Subordination, subsidiarity. If the law states that adults may not ride their bicycles on the sidewalk, then German adults do not ride their bicycles on the sidewalk. Doing otherwise breaches, transgresses, goes against the law, order, against agreements made which are then communicated in the form of a law. The breach demonstrates a lack of respect, of making oneself more important than the others.

In public spaces – such as automobile, bicycle, pedestrian traffic – Germans feel responsible for each other, allowing them, expecting of them, to point out to others what they are doing wrong, which could injure them or others. Just as one would help an older person carry their packages across a busy street, so to one would point out to a parent who forgot to put a bicycle helmet on their child’s head.

Germans believe in having a high degree of collective responsibility. They show concern for, look after, the people around them. Germans do not believe in leaving others alone to suffer the consequences of their own avoidable failures. Both the individual and the group is responsible for the individual. The weak – or less informed – should be supported with “Rat und Tat”, literally advice and action.

“What would you do?“

With the recent popularity of YouTube and other amateur video websites, people have been staging scenarios and filming people’s reactions to them. This is particularly popular in the U.S., where, in addition to amateur reaction videos, in 2008 ABC created a television show called What Would You Do?

In the show, actors and actresses pretend to be in situations in which they would benefit from unsolicited advice (domestic abuse, drugged beverages, etc.), and the show collects statistics on how many people offer advice or warnings.

Typically, most Americans who witness these situations don’t get involved. In one episode, in which a caregiver in a park berates the elderly man for whom he’s supposed to be caring, and refuses to take the elderly man home when asked, only one-quarter of the people who witnessed the interaction intervened. Other episodes typically have similar statistics of intervention.

Offer advice. Wait to be asked.

German Approach
Germans often give unsolicited advice, which almost always comes in the form of criticism. In most cases the statement is accurate and the advice helpful. In some cases, however, individual Germans simply want to show that they know better. But in the majority, Germans give unsolicited advice because they sincerely want to be helpful.

American Approach
Americans rarely give unsolicited advice. Even among family and close friends Americans give advice only after having been asked. And even then, depending on how sensitive the topic, they communicate their advice in carefully worded language.

Germans Perception
From the German perspective, Americans seem to be irritated and insulted rather quickly. They have difficulty accepting helpful advice, which can be interpreted as arrogance.

American Perception
Unsolicited advice from Germans – or from anyone – can come across to Americans as arrogant, presumptious and even personally insulting. They think to themselves: „Who asked you for your opinion?“ It can damage the working relationship.

Advice to Germans
Be very careful when giving advice to Americans without having been asked. Unsolicited advice, which typically is negative, can be highly insulting to Americans. It can be perceived as a direct challenge to their understanding of their personal freedom. Look for opportunities to indirectly approach the subject. Observe how the other person reacts. Approximate your way closer to the subject. This is an iterative process.

Advice to Americans
Be ready to get unsolicited advice from your German colleagues. Do your best not to be insulted or angy. Listen carefully to the substance of the advice. Pay less attention to the personal part of the relationship. Operate on the assumption that your German colleague has your best interests in mind. You will then realize that you are getting first-rate advice and at no cost to you. In fact, you‘ll see that you have someone – or even several people – „watching your back.“