How to Obey Rules and Defer to People

I’m of two minds when it comes to German manners. 

On the one hand, Germans are reputed to have some of the stiffest and most coldly formal public manners in the world.  In large sectors of society (traditional business, engineering, law, medicine), this reputation is completely justified.  Formal occasions, in which proper bourgeois people who don’t know each other well are forced to socialize, are terrifying black holes of cosmic boredom of a kind I have never encountered anywhere else in the world (though I’m sure there are even more formal cultures out there).  The Germans sit stiffly, fake smiles plastered on their faces like death-rictuses, moving as little as possible. The mortal terror of looking ridiculous or offending someone — especially someone higher in the hierarchy who may be at the table or within earshot — strangles conversation, except for the most banal subjects, such as auto insurance or weather patterns. Sometimes, nobody can think of anything safe to talk about, and eight well-educated people will sit at a table in complete silence. I often get the eerie feeling that I’ve visited a totalitarian society, in which ordinary humans think lots of colorful things but never say them, because you never know who could be an informant.

On the other hand, there’s something to be said for good manners.  In densely-packed societies like Germany, you frequently encounter people you don’t know very well. Even more importantly, you encounter people from different classes or backgrounds with whom you might have to interact as equals or even subordinates.  In these situations, good manners, and a bit of reserve, can be useful social lubricants.  Proper manners can be a sign of respect and consideration, as Emerson said, "good manners are made up of petty sacrifices."  Chuck too many constraints overboard as America (the world’s leader in informalization) has done, and you may end up with a nation of narcissists. Further, learning some simple rules of manners is part of a suite of traditional values that I find appealing. You know, quaint 19th-century shit like reading books, listening to classical music, learning Latin, talking long hikes in nature, and enrolling in philosophy programs after you retire (g).

Business_etikette_2 But on balance, I still think Germany needs to prune away some of its vast thicket of social constraints, and I’ve never met an Anglo-Saxon who’s spent time in Germany who had a different opinion on the subject. Which brings me to Business Etiquette: Be Self-Assured and Avoid Faux Pas (g) by Nandine Meyden (nice cover!), a pocket guide I picked up in the airport and read to kill time.  It was displayed in a big rack with dozens of others pocket guides on how to lead, how to deal with your boss, how to speak, and even how to make small talk (g) (!). There are chapters on how to sit, stand, and walk; chapters on suitable subjects for small talk (no jokes!); and page after page of advice on navigating social hierarchies and dressing appropriately.  Here are a few examples:

"You should make sure never to sit with your legs spread too far apart.  Rule of thumb: your knees should be as wide as your hips, at the most" (p.13)

"Whether in private life or in business, whoever stands higher in the hierarchy has priority.  This means:

  • He goes first (through the door, in the corridor, into a room)
  • he decides whether he wants to shake hands, and either extends it or doesn’t, as he wishes
  • he sits first
  • when being introduced, he hears first who someone else is
  • when you walk or sit next to one another, he always gets the rightmost place
  • in general, he gets the better and safer seat while walking, sitting, or standing
  • the person higher in the hierarchy offers the Du [informal address]." (p. 14)

"In preparing for larger occasions, one must occasionally prepare a rank-ordering of the guests.  Only then can you be sure that you will make no protocol mistakes when you identify the guests in welcoming remarks, when you assign them places, during wreath-laying, etc." (p. 15)

"Basic principles of rank-ordering in business life:

  • The guest of honor always has the highest place
  • Foreigners go first (when the rank is the same)
  • Chosen occupations before assigned occupations
  • Spouses are treated according to the rank of the spouse who is present
  • Federal before state, state before local
  • Art before academia, academia before industry
  • Seniority before age
  • Other institutions before your own institution
  • Representatives according to their own rank, not according to the rank of the person they represent" (p. 16)

More to come, as time permits…

7 thoughts on “How to Obey Rules and Defer to People

  1. Fascinating. I’m an American ex-pat living in Canada where manners still exist and people manage to be both reserved and extraordinarily friendly.

    I do not miss American arch-informality, rudeness and personal interrogation. I do, however, sometimes miss the letting your fellow interlocutor know where you stand on a subject or issue.

    The downside of good manners is always its inherent enabling of passive-aggression. In that sense, Canada sometimes reminds me of the Quaker meeting I used to attend in the States before giving-in to my incipient atheism. Quakerism – only with an army.

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  2. Although I think you have a lot of points here I would like to stress another one:

    “I still think Germany needs to prune away some of its vast thicket of social constraints,”

    Would you repeat this kind of advice in other countries? What’s your measure?

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  3. Hehe, after 5 years on the American continent I’ll be returning to the German homeland next week. Reading this post, I have a feeling that I’ll be known as the annoying guy who talks too much and doesn’t know how to restrain himself. I better order the book for some last-minute cultural re-adjustment 🙂

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  4. Brian, in Canada we have a saying that Canadians have 30 different ways of apologizing for things, most of which manage to imply that the person being apologized to was largely at fault for whatever happened.

    Enjoy…

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  5. Ich lebe seit fuenf Jahren in Texas. Es stimmt, die Amerikaner sind humorvoll und freundlich und unkompliziert, Benimmregeln gibt es nur wenig und Faux Pax werden schnell verziehen. Aber, man redet nicht ueber Religion , man redet nicht ueber Politik und nicht ueber das Recht, eine Waffe zu besitzen, man redet nicht ueber den Krieg im Irak Keiner aeussert eine eigene Meinung und das macht alles auf die Dauer schrecklich langweilig.Ich vermisse die deutsche Formalitaet nicht, aber Menschen ohne viele Benimmregeln sind nicht automatisch interessanter.

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  6. I have been living in Texas for the last five years. It is true people here are humorous, friendly and uncomplicated. There are only few rules about how to behave and faux pas are forgiven immediately.On the other hand people here don’t talk about religion and politics, they don’t talk about the right to bear arms, they don’t talk about the war in Iraq Nobody utters a personal opinion and that makes life here often really boring. I don’t miss the german formality and stiffness,but people without formal manners are not automatically more interesting.

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  7. lawyers and corporate drones are no yardstick by which to measure germany per se.

    despite the fact that you always try to be such a man of the world you seem to be stuck in the rather narrow views of your own little neck of the social woods, i.e. everyone who is not professional middle or upper-middle-class does not count … which one understands goes without saying … of course it does .

    “On the one hand, Germans are reputed …”

    ” Formal occasions, in which proper bourgeois people who don’t know each other well are forced to socialize, are terrifying black holes of cosmic boredom of a kind I have never encountered anywhere else in the world (though I’m sure there are even more formal cultures out there). The Germans sit stiffly, fake smiles plastered on their faces like death-rictuses, moving as little as possible.”

    for the record i’m german, i’m most def not proper bourgeois people, i don’t act that way and so aren’t the vast majority of my fellow romans round here.

    and while we’re at it … “dress for success” ring a bell? many, many more in the same vein i.e. “How to Obey Rules and Defer to People” to be found here.

    it’s the same song just the dance varies a little …

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