Category Archives: Persuasion

“Tell the Germans to smile.”

Look for errors

During one of her visits to Germany, my mother commented: “John, when you do your management seminars be sure to remind the Germans how important it is in their dealings with Americans to smile.” Initially I thought the comment was rather absurd. But in the months, and even years, since then I have come to recognize its significance.

Especially in the public space Americans don’t exactly get the most positive impression from German facial expressions, body language, and from how they deal with each other. It’s as if they are communicating that the sky is falling, the world is coming to an end, everything is just awful.

Maybe it is due to the strong German inclination to always look for things which don’t work or are imperfect or just substandard. Perhaps the logic is “the better you can find errors, the better you can improve them; the earlier you can anticipate mistakes, the sooner you can prevent them. Everything will be okay.” It’s certainly an approach that works. Look at Germany. But it‘s certainly not a recipe for a positive atmosphere.

Even more problembewußt 

I remember well an episode during my time in the CDU/CSU Parliamentary Group. We were in the U.S., a delegation of German parliamentarians visiting members of Congress in Washington, D.C.. There were several so-called photo opportunities. The politicians stood pressed together. The photographer clicked away.

Just before the first photo was taken one of my German colleagues whispered in my ear: “John, watch how the Americans put on a huge, happy smile.” He was right. Lots of teeth. Bright and shiny. His comment kept popping up in my mind for days afterward. I sensed that it was a bit critical in the sense of: “Look at how superficial you Americans are!” I took it personally. “You Americans” as in you, John, and your family, relatives and friends. “Look, as if everything in America was just great. How naive!”

It bothered me. I felt insulted. It hurt my feelings. Ever since then I notice – at least from my American perspective – how Germans have no problem presenting the world with their long faces. Especially in moments of difficulty, when optimism is critical, Germans tend to be even more problembewußt (literally problem-conscious).

When an Americans see people with a long face, they ask themselves instinctively (consciously or unconsciously): “What’s their problem? What did they do wrong to put themselves in a position to be so down? What opportunity did they not take advantage of? What battle did they just lose? Why don’t they pull themselves together and pursue the next opportunity? Are they losers?”

This kind of American thinking has not only to do with the figure of speech – “Never let them see you sweat!” – which means: precisely when you’re down, when you are nervous or unsure of yourself, always give the impression that everything is going well, and that you are capable of handling any and all difficult situations successfully.

It has even more to do with the fundamental American belief that every person is the architect of their own fortune. The American experience is that the country offers many opportunities. So many waves of immigrants have come, worked hard and succeeded. Americans, therefore, have little patience for people who don’t take advantage of those opportunities, but instead look for causes of their failure outside of themselves.

Key is action, not criticism

At the very moment when a person takes on a problem, their own problem, they have good reason to be optimistic. Often it is this optimism which is actually the cause, the motor, for forward movement. This is why every form of critique should be accompanied by recommendations on how to improve the situation. The more direct and hard the criticism, the more specific and applicable the recommendations should be.

Anyone can voice criticism. The key is taking action. I remember a political debate many years ago in the German Bundestag. Oskar Lafontaine was a prominent opposition leader. In a speech he attacked Chancellor Kohl directly, specifically and in a sharp tone for supporting the U.S. in its first war against Iraq under President George H. Bush. Lafontaine went point for point why the war was a huge mistake.

Yet, to my utter surprise, at no point did he state what he would have done had he been chancellor. The focus was on the mistakes made. Lafontaine’s speech was considered a success in Germany. Years later I realized the cultural difference at play. In Germany you can score points by pointing out the mistakes of others without stating what you would have done, or would do, differently. This is the case in both politics and in business.

This is rarely the case in the U.S. Points are scored only when forward movement is made, and not by pushing others backwards by pointing out their failures. In the American logic it is always better to make an effort, even if the results are meager, than to not have done anything at all. Anyone is capable of doing nothing.

“It’s not about you.” … “Oh yes it is!”


Derrick – a Kriminalserie or detective show – remains to date the most successful of all German television shows. Its 281 episodes, filmed from 1973 until 1997, have been translated and shown in 102 countries. Derrick, the detective, is tall, slender, focused, sparing of words, analytical, unemotional. The show is all about his detective work, not about him.

Günter Jauch, moderator of the very popular German version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, is known for his dry, rational delivery and his uncanny ability to open up his quiz show guests with wit, irony and subject matter knowledge.

“Sell yourself first, then your product or services.”

At some point during the life of every American they hear the figure of speech: “You sell yourself first, then your product or service.” The presenter needs initially to get the audience to accept them as interesting, motivated, experienced, as a person with expertise.

It is the initial hurdle the presenter needs to overcome, the first “yes” to be gained. The audience needs to be convinced of the messenger before being convinced by the message. Otherwise audiences ask themselves “If the presenter isn’t convinced of himself, why should I be convinced?”

In there are 226 results when searching for “sell yourself first.” On YouTube 37,900 videos are found. The bookstore chain Barnes and Nobles sells 24 books related to “sell yourself first” with titles such as: Invisible to Remarkable: In Today’s Job Market, You Need to Sell Yourself as ‘Talent’, Not Just Someone Looking for Work…, Good in a Room: How to Sell Yourself (and Your Ideas) and Win Over Any Audience…, or  The One Minute Sales Person: The Quickest Way to Sell People on Yourself, Your Services, Products, or Ideas—at Work and in Life.

Germans separate. Americans link.

The Germans separate message from messenger. The presenter consciously and purposely moves into the background so that the content can take center stage. Arguments should speak for themselves.

Americans link message and messenger. Message-content, -form and -presenter should form a unity. Americans say: „Sell yourself first, then your product or service.“

German Perception
Germans react ambivalently to linking speaker and content. An overly personalized presentation style is motivating and attractive, at the same time however, too personified. Germans expect more distance between speaker and subject.

American Perception
Americans, on the other hand, find the separation of speaker and subject as impersonal and distanced. To distance oneself from one’s own content is seen as risk-averse and disinterested.

Advice to Germans
Identify yourself with your message. Use „I“. Draw on your personal experience with anecdotes. Put your heart into it. Show emotion. Give signals when you are a subjective participant in your story and when you are an objective observer.

Advice to Americans
Temper the showman in you. Be coy. Hint at almost a scepticism in your own message. Neither invite nor challenge your listeners to like or dislike you. Take youself out of the equation, so to speak. It‘s all about the content not you.

“Bullshit American pragmatism”

“Nicht über den eigenen Tellerrand hinaus zu schauen,” literally to not look beyond the rim of your own plate, is as negative a criticism as having an underdeveloped Problembewusstsein, problem-consciousness. Such people don’t recognize connections, interconnections, and inter-dependencies (the complexity). They sort of stumble along without fully grasping the broader context within which they do so. They have plenty of facts at hand, and can tell entertaining stories based on their experience, but fundamentally cannot “put two and two together.”

Germans are no fans of anecdotes in general anyway. They consider anecdotes to be uncertified, unauthenticated pseudo-documents, un-proofed by an official body or organization. Anecdotes are subjective, therefore invalid, worthy of being challenged. Germans expect theory which helps objectify facts and numbers, offering a “clean method” for understanding complexity.

Germans would roll their eyes when confronted in a typical American bookstore by those tall, narrow kiosk-like stands pushing how-to books with titles such as 10 Easy Steps to a Successful Marriage, 5 Simple Ways to Become a Millionaire, Start Your Own Company in 3 Weeks, A Successful Family in Ever Way, each of them amounting to no more than 150 pages.

“You stupid Americans, with your bullshit pragmatism!”

Germans are capable of being focused and to-the-point. It’s those “easy steps” which make them nervous. Perhaps it’s a part of Anglo-American pragmatism. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with Georg (yes, yet another anecdote). 1982, my very first year in Germany. He was the boyfriend of the daughter in the family I lived with in a small town south of Bonn.

1982. Hardly had I met him and Georg got right down to business. As a junior officer in the Bundeswehr, the German Army, he asked me if Reagan and the U.S. would defend West Germany if the Russians and the Warsaw Pact attacked. I tried to give him a credible response, but was not exactly prepared for that kind of question as a twenty-two year old who had just graduated from college. I was not persuasive. Georg ended the conversation abruptly and in a huff mumbling under his breath, yet audible enough: “Ihr blöden US-Amerikaner mit Eurem scheiß Pragmatismus!” literally “You stupid Americans, with your bullshit pragmatism!”

I shrugged my shoulders and continued on my way in life. In the quarter century since then I have thought often about that interaction. It was the thought that pragmatism could be scheiß. To think and act pragmatically was a principle I had never challenged. What could possibly be wrong with pragmatism?

“We like problems” … “We like opportunities”

“Hair in the soup”

“The hair in the soup” is a German figure of speech which describes well German Problembewusstsein – literally: problem-consciousness. “To look for a hair in the soup” goes even further, describing the strong German inclination to look for problems even in areas where they are not likely to exist.


Germans focus on problems. The more difficult, complex and serious the problem, the better. Problembewusstsein means literally problem consciousness. In order to persuade Germans of a course of action, they first need to be persuaded that the presenter has fully understood the problem, in its depth and breadth. First identify, understand, analyze, then solve the problem.

A major criticism in Germany is to have not – or not adequately – understood the problem. The Germans often say: Das müssen Sie differenzierter sehen meaning “You need to see the situation in a more differentiated way.” Differenziert also means sophisticated. This is their way of saying that one thinks too simplistically. The implication is that they are more intelligent, their problem consciousness more developed. To be intelligent in the German context means to be problem-aware and -oriented.

Opportunities in Problems

Americans recognize that problems are an inescapable part of life. Physicist Albert Einstein said that “in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Americans, practical and optimistic, believe that  “every cloud has a silver lining,” that there’s a “light at the end of every tunnel.” They see a half-full glass which others view as half-empty.

Instead of dwelling on the problem as such, Americans quickly begin the search for opportunities hidden in a given problem. Difficult situations often require making difficult choices. To be persuasive is to demonstrate that you have searched for and identified an opportunity.

To be persuasive in the German context focus explicitly on the problem. Germans know implicitly that when you solve a problem you have created an opportunity. In the U.S. do the opposite. Focus explicitly on the opportunity. Americans know implicitly that you are addressing a problem.

Germans solve problems. Americans exploit opportunties.

For Germans a core competence is the ability to identify, analyze and solve complex problems. Germans focus on problems.

Americans strive to see problems as opportunities. And opportunities are to be exploited. Competent is that person able to recognize opportunities in problem situations and to maximize the gains they offer.

German Perception
Interpreting a problem as an opportunity and acting too quickly signalizes to Germans an inability to recognize the seriousness of the situation and its dangers. Americans can appear naive.

American Perception
The German focus on the weak points of a given situation is understood by Americans as precisely that: seeing problems as problems and consciously seeking them out. Instead of searching for the positive in a given situation, Germans are viewed as pessimistic, negative, under circumstances destructive.

Advice to Germans
Remain problem-oriented. It is a German strength. But choose different, softer, less direct, words. Americans are quite capable of discerning between serious and less serious problems. Establish more balance between your German problem-orientation and American optimism. Not all problems have to be addressed or even solved, in order to move forward.

Advice to Americans
Reduce your natural American optimism. Show more attention to the potential down-side of a given situation. Acknowledge the problems as they are. Address them directly and openly. Not all problems are challenges. Not every cloud has a silver lining. Do not fear being negative and pessimistic with your German colleagues.

“No more old churches.”

I’ll never forget a statement made by an American engineer who was on delegation to Germany for a German customer of mine. We had met for the first time to discuss a project I was assisting them on. Team-building measures, workshops, seminars, etc. During one of the breaks we were doing a little smalltalk. I asked him what he’s seen in Germany thus far, and what’s on his list. He looked at me, rolled his eyes and said: “I don’t want to see any more old churches!”

I was a bit shocked, felt insulted, was irritated. As a student of history, I thought: “How ignorant can someone be not to know or recognize that German and European history cannot be understood without understanding the role of Christianity and the Church?” Okay, perhaps he had been shown enough churches already. Still, I felt embarrassed as an American. Fortunately, no German colleagues had been present.

On my way back to Bonn that day I imagined well-intentioned German colleagues taking their Sunday to pick up their American colleague and driving to Cologne to see not only the cathedral, but also several of the beautiful Romanesque churches within twenty minutes walking distance. In my mind’s eye I see him bored and saying: “This is all interesting history, but I want to see modern Germany.” We Americans need sometimes to invest more time and patience in order to appreciate things.

For the more exact we can define our starting point and its direction (trajectory), all the better we can adjust it. My response to the American colleague would have been: “Sure. But before we can truly enjoy getting to know the modern Germany of today, let’s start with how Germany has become the way it is today. On that basis we’ll really begin to imagine the Germany of the future!” The question for the Germans, however, is how often and seriously do they ask themselves what the Germany of tomorrow will and should look like.

Bismarck’s Treaty System

Bismarck’s Treaty System

Otto von Bismarck was Chancellor of the German Reich from 1871 until 1890. He is best known for a complex web of treaties with the other European powers – France, Great Britain, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Tsarist Russia. These treaties allowed Germany to grow industrially and militarily without provoking attack by any combination of those rival powers.

Bismarck’s diplomacy ending the Balkan Crisis of 1879 increased Imperial Germany’s international prestige, at the same time limiting Czarist Russia‘s influence in that region. Anticipating a frustrated Moscow, Bismarck wisely sought protection from Austro-Hungary via a mutual defense treaty signed in 1879, a treaty relationship which would hold until the end of the First World War.

In 1881 Bismarck pulled off another diplomatic coup by reducing tensions with Tsarist Russia and signing a treaty of mutual defense with Moscow, thereby preventing a possible anti-German coalition between Russia and France. Bismarck extended this system of alliances in 1882 by crafting a treaty involving the German Reich, Austro-Hungary and Italy, adding Rumania in 1883, defending against a possible French-British alliance against Germany.

Unfortunately, this complex, brilliantly devised system of treaties would fall apart not long after the young and impulsive Kaiser, Wilhelm II., took power and decided that Bismarck‘s time had come to an end. Wilhelm II. went on to antagonize and provoke Europe‘s powers in all the ways in which Bismarck had worked so hard to avoid. In August 1914 the Great War began.

Avoid Entangling Alliances

As a nation-state, in their international relations, Americans warn against becoming involved in complexity. Thomas Paine (1737-1809) – an English-American political theorist-activist, author, and revolutionary – instilled non-interventionist ideas into the politics of the American colonies.

His work Common Sense (1776) argued in favor of avoiding alliances with foreign powers and influenced the Second Continental Congress to avoid forming an alliance with France.

George Washington’s farewell address restated Paine’s maxim: “The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.“

Thomas Jefferson extended Paine’s ideas in his inaugural address on March 4, 1801: “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”

In 1823, President James Monroe articulated what would become the Monroe Doctrine: “In the wars of the European powers, in matters relating to themselves, we have never taken part, nor does it comport with our policy, so to do. It is only when our rights are invaded, or seriously menaced that we resent injuries, or make preparations for our defense.“

Germans are systematic. Americans particularistic.

Germans are systematic in their thinking. Complexity is understood only by understanding how its component parts interrelate and interact. And a component part can only be understood via its role within the whole. Germans focus on theories and models.

Americans prefer to break down complexity into its component parts, in order to focus on the essential, so that action can be taken. Americans are sceptical of theory, focusing instead on facts and experience.

German Perception
Facts and experience, without a convincing description of the big picture, are not persuasive to Germans. To concentrate on the key variables often means to misunderstand or overlook other important aspects. Americans are often judged to be superficial and over-simplifying.

American Perception
The German inclination to paint the big picture, especially with the help of theory, can make a professorial and arrogant impression on American ears. Comprehensiveness comes across as long-winded, overly complicating and impractical. Americans react impatiently.

Advice to Germans
A wholistic approach is fine, but be careful not to get tangled up on theory. Warn your audience when you need to go into detail in order to get a particular message across. Leave out facts and factors which are not pertinent. Do not be comprehensive for the sake of comprehensiveness. If Americans need more supporting information, they will request it. Anticipate those questions. Have the data ready. Questions are a sign of interest, and not that you are unprepared.

Advice to Americans
Take the time to explain the analysis which led to your conclusions. Your German colleagues want to know the what (message), why (reasons) and how (methodology). Go into much more detail. Include facts and information about various factors. Germans rarely save information for the question & answer part of the presentation. Give them the info up front. In the German context, the fewer the questions during Q&A, the more persuasive the presentation.

Americans are immigrants

The past, especially the recent past, helps us to understand the present. But it is only from the present, from the current starting point, that we can go down new paths, move on a different, perhaps even radically different, path. All Americans are immigrants or descendents of immigrants. The historical consciousness of the American people is greatly influenced by the immigrant experience. Imagine what it was like for those millions upon millions of families to take that step, to leave their home and to risk the unknown.

For most of them not freely. For many it was a question of survival. For others it was about freedom. They wanted to decide their own fates, and wanted the same for their children. Nonetheless, the decision was very difficult. It meant leaving everything they knew, everything that gave them security. Once they left, however, the present and past of their native country would no longer be relevant. But what do human beings have other than their past and present? The unknown, insecurity and risk? Or do they have opportunity?!

In such situations people have to make hard, tough decisions, about what they take with them from the past and the present. Of course all immigrant groups, including the waves of Germans who came to America, brought their language, customs and traditions. The older generations continued to speak their mother tongue. Foreign-language newspapers were published in all of the major American cities. All that they knew and brought only lasted, however, only for a certain period of time.

Ballast had to go

The everyday challenges of life in America rubbed and pulled away, layer by layer, the recent present and the past of the homeland. The immigrants took on, layer for layer, the realities of the current present in the United States, like having old skin replaced by new. It was painful. The time came in every immigrant family when the children no longer wanted, or no longer could, speak the language of the old world. Many parents who immigrated demanded of their children that they assimilate as quickly as possible, that they forget the old language, customs and traditions.

They had decided to leave their homes, towns and homelands. They refused to get stuck between two realities. To move forward demanded that they leave behind what they knew. It was time to go down a new path. The cares, worries and chores of the day left them no other choice. That path to and in America was difficult, hard, rough. Many did not make it, did not succeed. Every wave of immigrants had to fight for their future in America. Everything which weighed them down, every form of ballast, had to go. And that meant much that was associated with the homeland. For many, even for most, however, throwing overboard the ballast of the past set them free.