“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.

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