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Article for the employee magazine of a large US employer

I wrote this after being contacted by a former colleague whose company was about to merge with a German company. The target audience were staff members who would have to engage with German counterparts. It was published in the company's online magazine in 2010.

Ronald McDonald and the Marlboro Man:

German perceptions of Americans in business

After almost two years of living in Mannheim, Germany, I really felt the need to take inventory of what I knew and what I needed yet to learn about doing business with Germans. On a train ride to Heidelberg to meet a new client, I started to consider what an American needs to know about working with this similar but unique culture. Coming up the escalator, I received a nine foot answer to how the Germans perceive us in the form a fully lighted Marlboro Man.

Chuckling to myself, I walked from the train station to the tram. In so doing, I passed the other icon of our exported image, McDonald’s. No one born in the ‘60s will ever forget him – that happy guy who solved the problems of Mayor McCheese and Grimace and kept the Hamburglar at bay in sixty second increments on our televisions throughout the day, Ronald.

By this time, I was laughing out loud. An event that cleared my path on the sidewalk because everyone thought I had absolutely lost my mind. I knew, however, that I had struck on something important and instructive. This is how we’re seen in the world. It is who we are to them – cowboys or clowns.

That’s not such a bad thing, is it?

Think about the cowboy. What do we, as Americans, think about him? He’s rugged and polite (if you believe Audie Murphy and James Garner). He’s tough and determined a la John Wayne and Henry Ford. He’s independent and he gets the job done against all odds with that teeth-gritting Clint Eastwood style that says, “Come on world! Give me your best shot.” Unfortunately, sometimes those very positive attributes of politeness, determination, and independence are perceived by your German colleagues and business partners as phoniness, hard-headedness, and cockiness.

Now think about good old Ronald McDonald. Just the image will make you smile. He’s optimistic, affable, and transparent in his motives, isn’t he? That very optimism, that can-do attitude that we value so much sometimes comes across as unrealistic and possibly overwhelming to a German colleague.

Truthfully, once any adult hits 40 and has some experience in their field, in any culture the mentality sometimes can turn to that of a past-master. We get presented with a new idea by an eager, younger colleague and we think, “We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work.” We lose a little of our wide-eyed optimism. In those times, I often think back to my favorite teachers and professors from high school and college. Why were they my favorites? They were my favorites because they challenged me to come up with my own ideas and chart my own path.

And therein, as the Bard would tell us, lies the rub! How we are educated in the United States bears little resemblance to the German educational system. Sure, they have elementary school and high school just like we do, but rather than open, discussion format classes with massive, intimidating papers, they have instruction and lectures on facts with massive, intimidating tests. The facts are the absolutely most important things to them in school and they never lose sight of that in their professional lives.

In his book Where Have All the Leaders Gone, Lee Iacocca talks about what to do with a good idea. He warns people that if you can’t make the same case on paper don’t make the case in person. Why? Simply put it will never pass the smell test. A German will always beat you on facts if you’ve only got persuasion. If you want to win over a German colleague to your point, lay out the facts. As a relatively charismatic person who spent most of her work-life in outside sales, I learned that the skills of a good orator require a dogged persuasiveness – literally an unflinching belief in my own rightness. In business, Americans want to jump pretty quickly to the close. Like a clown we flash our smile and say, “Trust me! Would this face lie to you?” Like a cowboy we flex our muscles a bit and assert the correctness of our relative strength as the deciding factor in a business situation. To make our German counterparts feel comfortable, we have to put the facts to paper and show more than just charisma. Germans will buy the steak without the sizzle … but only if it’s a really good steak.

For a German, the glass is neither half empty nor half full – it’s just half.

Then, there’s the thorny issue of truth. Ronald may be transparent in his motives, but we aren’t always that way. Daily political calculations are done at work in Germany just as in the United States, but not to anywhere near the level we have to do them. Germans are aware of our behavior, but find it almost incomprehensible. Discussion and consensus are more a part of their daily lives than the go-it-alone, live-and-die by your daily decisions that are part of ours. What we find to be paralysis by analysis is their normal course of business. By the way, they think we’re rash, so don’t get all stuck up about moving quickly. Moving quickly is great in their minds, but only if you are absolutely sure you’re right!

I can hear you all commenting in your minds, right now, “Isn’t that a little pessimistic?” Remember what I said about the Germans having huge, unimaginable tests in high school. Guess what? Being wrong is not acceptable. In my adventure here, I have found an extreme cultural reluctance to make mistakes.

Now, I’m one of those brave souls who will ask rather direct questions. So, I asked a group of senior executives with an average of 25 years experience if my perception was correct. The answer was a resounding yes. While we cheer underdogs who get back up no matter how many failures they have, the Germans cheer the guy who gets it right, every time, even if, to us, his progress seems slow. They have a stronger tolerance for interpersonal errors, such as the uttering of unfortunate words, than they do for factual errors like incorrectly measuring a technical specification. The checks and balances in place in a German manufacturing environment are staggering in their complexity and rigorousness. Germans do not like to make mistakes.

Now we’re back to the education of a German professional

In the United States, we leave university and we go to work. Speaking now to my compatriots who are in technical fields, usually you achieve your degree and it’s off to the races – the rat races. For the Germans, there is a gradual, step-by-step approach. Take for example engineers. In Germany, an engineer either goes to university or a Fachhochschule (a university of applied science or polytechnic – think MIT without all the pesky liberal arts crap). Once he (or she, but just like at home, mostly he) finishes, he either does a rather lengthy and strenuous internship or a terribly difficult and trying apprenticeship. That degree doesn’t mean a thing without it. There is no respect for an educated idiot here and even less tolerance.

Emerging from this internship or apprenticeship, that person is now considered a professional. We think about the first three years of our paid career as our on-the-job-training. These guys will accept 60% of the normal professional salary just for the chance to become a professional and fully employed.

When a German gets to one of our newbies and looks at him, he really does see the red nose and funny shoes. It is difficult for that person to accept his young American counterpart because he knows he hasn’t spent years under the tutelage of a senior staff member learning both the intricacies of the job and being tested for his fit to the team.

On the topic of employment

Every profession has a union. Let me repeat. Every profession has a union. Besides the union, every large workplace has a worker’s council. You can think of it as the difference between the UAW and the Ford Employees Union. Managers must maneuver very delicately in sometimes treacherous waters as a result. Also, the German professional and laborer have a lot more protection than we do. I can’t go a week without a German friend commenting on the hire and fire mentality of Americans and what a travesty of justice it is.

No wonder they think American business looks like a circus. Nobody is organizing anything and we get really nervous as managers when they try to do so. I worked for one large company with 7,000 retail stores in the United States. As managers, we were expected to report immediately if anyone even said the word “union” on our property. Can you imagine having ten or fifteen unions with competing interests to deal with? That’s stress.

Every employee has a contract. Normally this is done incrementally. For example: The first contract is for one year. The second is for three. Then, after four years of not being a complete dolt, the employee is offered an open contract. There is very little negotiation in these contracts because what a person can be paid is dictated by the job title and position description which are negotiated between the worker’s councils, unions, and management.

Us? We’re out on the back forty alone waiting for the word “Fired” to come out of someone’s mouth. Do you think this adds to your feeling of self-interest on the job? Of course it does. We originated the “out for number one” cowboy mentality. For crying out loud, McCain just ran a presidential campaign on the slogan “I’m a maverick.” Look for the German translation of that. It’s not a positive trait over here.

Thanks for the laughs. Now what do I do with this?

“Maybe nothing” is the short answer. The longer answer will reveal my inherent American optimism.

On the basics, we’re the same kind of people, Americans and Germans. We have a lot in common. Both cultures value hard work and ingenuity. Both cultures value freedom and responsibility. Family time and play time are also a vital part of our lives in both places. These are pretty important similarities. These are foundational similarities. There is no better feeling than knowing you have commonality on the big issues. It is something you should never forget. At the end of the day, that guy across the ocean wants a beer and some time to enjoy his friends and family and a little peace and quiet.

It’s only method. On that, you have to take a big picture view and let go of your need for a validation of your process. If we all need to get from Point A to Point B, and we take different paths, but we all get there, is it really a problem? It can’t be. We can’t let it be.

Both cultures can benefit from something my first boss told me that I have never forgotten: Never sacrifice getting the job done because you want to be right. Being right will not win you friends. Being right doesn’t build better relationships. Always, meet people where they are, not where you want them to be or everyone ends up standing alone. Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

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