Politeness the Cologne way


The past few days I had the opportunity to teach a group of 13 assistants for Management Circle in Cologne. After a long trip there – floods turned the 4 hour train ride into an 8 hour odyssee – it was lovely to see the majestic Dom. It was late in the evening, and I had never been to that particular hotel, and didn’t know how to best get around the massive cathedral to reach it. So I approached a friendly-looking woman of about my age who had also just got off and was walking in my direction, to ask her how to get there. But she didn’t know the hotel. She had what the Germans call ‘verschmitzten Humor’, a completely untranslatable kind of friendliness that I’ve really only found in certain parts of Europe. With nobody from Deutsche Bahn on site and some drunken noises and encroaching beggars and police sirens coming in off the street she grinned at me, acknowledging the situation, and gave me the friendly advice (which of course I actually knew, but didn’t mind hearing the way she presented it) that asking a taxi driver would be my best bet, pointing me in the right direction, and even winking at me just to make sure I felt comfortable and empowered in the situation, maintaining eye-contact for that extra split second it took me to smile back. She was clearly polite in a very Cologne and Rhineland way, making sure I felt comfortable and was in a good mood when we parted. It was almost as if she was being a bit of a friendly diplomat welcoming a slightly disoriented foreigner, building on the communality she recognized in me, a woman in business clothes maneuvering her way through a night-time scenario.

We were talking about politeness later in the seminar when I felt reminded that the politeness we are able to share with foreigners reflects on how they experience our environment and surroundings when they come to visit. There’s this afterglow when things go well, or a sickening feeling when they go badly. We’re always not just ourselves with foreigners, but automatically also representatives of the city or country or company or whatever we are a part of. So it really is important how we act. Some of the assistants yesterday had quite a tough time getting over certain types of behavior by clients and partners whom they considered unfriendly and impolite. They quite naturally take it personally when callers don’t say their names when they call, as saying your name is the norm here. We talked about seeing the behavior from the perspective of the other person (including their different standard procedures and expectations) and figuring out what their actual (positive) intention is. A big step is recognizing that how we react emotionally to others needs to be tempered by what we know, learn and continue to find out about them.

Still, when you meet someone whose politeness matches yours in a foreign place, as I did, I must say, it is an unexpected pleasure.

Our brain on an intercultural challenge

This excellent animation looks at the way our brain is involved in intercultural incidents. Instinctively, the brain causes us these feelings:

  • The early evolutionary reptilian part of our brain that rules gut feeling has 4 strategies when meeting something new, the 4fs: feeding, fighting, fleeing or f*cking.
  • Our stone age brain is keen on cooperation, needs a synchronized world, and responds with rejection when it meets something that doesn’t follow the rules.

The message of this film is that the feelings are what they are, we can’t do much about them. But as culturally intelligent people, we must know how to react to these feelings and put things in context. Watch:

Intercultural incident? A kiss on the cheek

A Ukrainian reporter caused a scene in Moscow when, as one of a crowd, he asked Will Smith for a hug. WS obliged and gave him a “man hug” (patting him on the back). The reporter responded by trying to give him kisses on both cheeks, almost kissing him on the mouth. Will Smith reacted angrily, by pushing him away,  saying “Come on, man, what the hell is your problem, buddy?” – with a backhand slap.

I’m not sure this incident was really an issue of intercultural miscommunication, or if it was, whether it was about national cultures. Some instances of kissing are – note scenario 6 in this excellent list of everyday intercultural incidents (link) – but here the reporter himself admits to “wanting to make an impression”. That would suggest that he in fact intentionally overstepped certain understood, acknowledged boundaries. He simply misjudged what his provocation would lead to. 15 minutes of fame for the otherwise nameless “kissy reporter”:

Will Smith’s take:

The reporter apologizes and explains:

Guido Westerwelle

Guido Westerwelle made the news recently as a result of the way he responded to a reporter of the BBC. Refusing to answer the question placed in English, he insisted that questions be asked in German, as this is the language spoken here. When the question was then translated, his response added insult to injury, pointing out that the question had already been asked and answered by him in German. His extremely rude behavior is the issue here, not the fact that Guido Westerwelle isn’t particularly eloquent in English, or that his English could be better. It’s his arrogance that has cost him, and he will pay dearly. It all goes to show that communication is essentially cultural, and must be cultivated. Guido Westerwelle is not. Boo!