Derek Sivers

Germany: Unraveling an Enigma - by Greg Nees

Germany: Unraveling an Enigma - by Greg Nees

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Written by an American who's lived in Germany for 20 years. Published in 2000, (and so probably written a couple years before), it's a little dated. The Berlin Wall was a fresh memory. So I'm assuming the current (for then) observations have changed a bit. But the historical perspective helped explain some core aspects to the culture.

my notes

The Germans are an enigma not only to the rest of the world but also to themselves.

Discussing almost anything is one of the Germans’ favorite pastimes.

Germans look to historical precedents in order to understand the present.

Acceptance of the role of the guardian state and the consequent deemphasis on individual freedom.

Sociologists critically examined the traditional German class structure. Having a rigid class structure and raising children to obey all authority were major factors in the Nazi takeover. Radical changes in educational structures and child-raising practices would be the best antidote to prevent a resurgence of fascism.

Many of the Generation of ’68 chose to raise their children in what they claimed was an antiauthoritarian manner.

Given the opportunity to grow up “freer” the two Germanys were formally reunited at midnight on October 2, 1990.

Germany is a polycentric federation. Many of the current federal states are direct outgrowths of the former Germanic kingdoms and principalities.

Unlike France, Spain, and Britain, with their historically centralized systems revolving around one major capital city, Germany exists as a series of smaller, interlinked centers, each of which had at one time been the capital of a smaller kingdom. There is no one megalopolis that completely dominates German politics, economy, and culture.

Many citizens tend to place more importance on their regional than their national identity. “I am Bavarian first, European second, and German third.”

Northern and eastern Germany are traditionally influenced by Protestant thought, while the south and west tend to be more Catholic.

The Protestants tend to take a more serious view of life, whereas the Catholics view life more as a source of enjoyment.

Rheinlanders are thought to talk more and are considered more cheerful and extroverted than the dour, serious, Protestant Swabians, who are famed for their thrift and industry.

Bavarians are known for their Gemütlichkeit (sense of coziness, warmth, or intimacy) and open, friendly manner.

People in the north talk faster, have fewer and shorter pauses in their speech, and are more emotionally reserved in personal relationships, warming up only slowly, and certainly not when they meet someone for the first time.

For the northern German, the Bavarian’s switch to first names is far too impulsive, too intrusive, and quite impolite. Northerners are more cautious in their interactions, preferring to get to know one another well before moving to a first-name basis, if they do so at all.

The Saxons are thought of as more lively, humorous, temperamental, and easygoing than their direct neighbors, the severe and serious Prussians.

Values, norms, and beliefs, which interact in a complex way to influence all behavior and communication: will call these complex interactions “cultural themes,” because they run through a culture as a theme does through a book or a piece of music. Only when you understand the central cultural themes of any given culture can you accurately interpret and understand its inhabitants’ behavior, communication, and way of life. If you don’t understand their cultural themes, you will necessarily project your own values, norms, and beliefs onto them, and this projection is one of the principal causes of intercultural misunderstanding. If, however, you begin to learn the cultural themes, what before had seemed illogical or wrong behavior will take on a different meaning.

Housing code goes into great detail about how a house may be designed, painted, and equipped. They see it as a way of ensuring a society that is concerned not only with individual rights but also with the common good. All of the houses are of a similar style and they present a pretty sight: roofs are covered with similar tiles and the colors harmonize.

Unwritten codes of manners and customs also structure German social life.

Germans are very protective of their homes and private lives.

This sense of right and wrong is often expressed openly and emotionally by Germans, especially when they think someone has done something wrong.

Gründlichkeit, or thoroughness: if they can’t do it thoroughly, they are inclined not to do it at all.

Extremely high regard for rational, analytic thought. Strongly influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, with its emphasis on intellect, reason, and learning.

The official German class system served as the prime creator of social Ordnung, structuring German social life until 1918. Three major classes: the aristocracy, the Bürgertum (professional and commercial middle class), and the lower class (workers and farmers)—lived in separate social worlds. Looking with disdain or envy upon members of the other classes. Interactions between members of different classes were marked by reserve and mistrust and were very formal in nature. While the class society was officially disbanded in 1918, its influence can still be found in German culture today. Acceptance of hierarchy, social roles, and the importance of social status. Germans distinguish clearly between insiders and outsiders on all levels.

While many people from other ethnic groups have lived and worked in Germany for decades, the German government has done little to help them become citizens or to integrate them into German society. This often holds true even for their children, who were born and raised in Germany and who speak fluent German. On the other hand, persons from Eastern European countries claiming ethnic German status—even if only through a German great-grandfather—have been granted entry and have easily obtained German citizenship, although in many cases they could barely speak German.

When you go into a German pub or restaurant, you can sit where you prefer. But you will generally find at least one table that is marked as the Stammtisch. If you try to sit at this table, even if no one else is sitting there, you will be politely informed that this is the Stammtisch, a special table reserved for regulars and that you must sit elsewhere.

When Germans are in a group with which they identify and there are no outsiders present, they talk about being unter uns (among ourselves). Being unter uns creates a sense of security and solidarity. They open up and speak much more sincerely about topics they would never discuss with outsiders.

Doors remain closed in most German public and office buildings.

Sunday is considered a Ruhetag (day of rest), and any activity that makes noise or disturbs the peace, such as mowing the lawn, hammering, or playing loud music, is prohibited. Here, again, notice the German willingness to trade individual rights for social order.

Germans think of a person with whom they work as a Kollege (colleague) and not as a friend. For this reason they typically address one another with the formal Sie, rather than du, which is reserved for friends and family.

Strong distinction made between Freunde (friends) and Bekannte (acquaintances). A major distinction is the degree of commitment and obligation one has toward friends. Mentioning a worry or potential problem to a friend will elicit a series of concerned and detailed questions as well as sincere offers of help and support. Because of this sense of obligation that accompanies friendship, Germans limit the number of persons they consider Freunde.

Their seeming aloofness: They probably already have enough friends and aren’t interested in extending their social network. For them the American desire to be popular and to keep as many friends as possible is confusing and seems superficial.

Because Americans are far more mobile geographically and meet more new people when they move, they need to make friends quickly. This partly explains why many Americans tend to seek their friends among those with whom they work. Because Germans separate their private and public lives so clearly, they rarely seek out friendships among their coworkers, nor do they often socialize with them.

It would be difficult to overestimate the German respect for understanding based on rational analysis and scientific knowledge.

Germans love to converse at length, clear, well-thought-out, rational arguments based on broad knowledge elicit admiration and great respect.

The symphony orchestra provides a useful metaphor: For the symphony orchestra to perform well, each individual must willingly submit to the whole in order that a greater good be reached. Egotistical grandstanding or poor playing by an individual musician can ruin the entire performance.

Verbindlichkeit, which implies the binding nature of one’s word, duty and obligation. While still very young, Germans learn to be extremely careful about what they say because they are taught that when they speak, they are committing themselves to what they say.

Communication Patterns: explicit verbal communication, which emphasizes the content and deemphasizes the relationship.

To really express something exactly, one needs complicated language. This leads to a business German that is more elevated and convoluted as compared with the more pragmatic, popularistic American style.

Direct attacks on the content of a person’s communication are common, but attacks on the person are avoided by keeping the discussion impersonal and objective.

When German students turn sixteen, the law requires their teachers to address them with Sie.

It has become common for younger Germans to address one another with du whenever they meet in a nonprofessional situation.

The use of du or Sie is not simply a change of verbs and pronouns but rather a major change in modality.

Americans put on a smile even when they are not feeling especially friendly, in part because their communication style emphasizes the relationship side of communication, encouraging them to be outgoing and personable.

American: “Well, it doesn’t show him in a real positive light.” German: “Das war absolut unverschämt” (That was absolutely shameless). Calling someone “shameless” is quite common and comes from the more absolutist moral values typical of traditional German culture.

A German would not think it odd to say “Das muß so sein” (It must be that way), where an American might express this opinion more diplomatically as “It would be good if we could do it that way.”

“Bringen Sie uns zwei Rotwein, bitte” (Bring us two red wines, please), whereas an American might use a question format instead: “Could we have two glasses of red wine please?”

These verbal habits can create the impression that Germans are not very concerned with the image they are creating. This is a false perception. Germans are very concerned about the image they present during a conversation, but the positive images they aspire to are somewhat different from those Americans try to create. In general, because of the strong public/private distinction, Germans strive for credibility and respect when speaking in the public sphere. At home and with friends, credibility is still important, but then likableness and affection play a much greater role.

Diskussion is goal-oriented and therefore to be taken seriously. The goals of Diskussion can be to test one’s knowledge, discover the truth, or solve some problem. Mostly, Diskussion is analytical in nature and focuses on an issue that Germans consider a problem.

Sachlichkeit means “objectivity,” but for Germans it means far more. It is really a mode or style of speaking and means sticking to the matter at hand, leaving out any personal references, and being as unemotional and matter-of-fact as possible. The idea of being sachlich pervades German speech, especially in the public sphere.

Such “it” language gives educated German talk a sense of being highly impersonal, abstract, and objective, all of which make confrontations more formal and less likely to become overly heated.

Think of their opinions as something distinct from their person. More comfortable with having their opinions attacked, without seeing it as an attack on their person. Americans tend to react personally when their opinions are attacked.

Another aspect of remaining sachlich is keeping one’s personal stories and experiences out of the conversation as much as possible.

Germans are encouraged to be modest and one exaggerated form of understatement is complaining. Ask a German businessman how his company is doing and you will often hear about the difficult problems the company is encountering. But you will often be surprised to see the company is well in the black. This type of complaining is simply the socially required “modesty” and “realism” that are expected.

This is very different from the American corporate scene, where one is expected to present a positive image. In fact many Americans state they have no problems, only “challenges” and “issues.”

Complaining is a social ritual and not a sign of despair. Through complaining together and about the same topics, the speakers are implicitly communicating that they belong to the same group and thus share a common view and common interests. The art of complaining is still highly valued.

Sometimes distrust stems simply from the Americans’ lack of negativity, which the Germans see as unnatural.

Immediate replies and “thinking out loud” are less frequent than in the United States and are interpreted as overly impulsive and lacking the appropriate seriousness.

When Germans consider someone’s business success, one of their first questions is “At whose cost was that success achieved?” The assumption that all resources are limited and that if someone has managed to acquire more than his or her fair share, others will suffer as a consequence.