Monday, July 02, 2007

Ärger mit Engländern

Have you ever considered a fundamental difference between a British and a German luggage trolley? It’s not just that the German trolley is somewhat heavier and usually goes in the direction you push it. It’s more to do with British pragmatism versus German security. Let me explain. German trolleys can be pushed only if the brake-bar is depressed. An unattended German trolley is in a constant “safe-mode”, which means it won’t roll away from the passenger, run down a ramp, or leap off a platform under a train. A German trolley will only move when and where it is told to.

Now compare this to a British trolley. A British trolley will move if you simply push it, and sometimes even if you don’t. To stop a British trolley you have to proactively push the brake-bar and hold it down. Now you may think that this curious difference is due to a random historical accident, like driving on the left versus driving on the right, or a preference for inches rather than centimeters, or pints rather than litres. But you’d be wrong! The difference between pressing to stop, and pressing to go reflects a basic psychological difference between the British and the Germans.

In the UK a common attitude is don’t interfere with a running system. Only intervene if you absolutely have to. Use the minimum amount of energy to get the job done. Good enough is good enough. It’s not that the British are lazy, they are just pragmatic about how much to effort to invest in order to achieve a desired result.

The Germans on the other hand, go in for lots of information, special safety features, and they don’t shy away from 30% more material in order to make a product more robust. German information-plus culture is well illustrated by traffic reports which reassure drivers that there are no accidents, hold-ups, or other hazards... much to the bemusement of the British. It took me 20 years of Autobahn driving to learn to appreciate “Achtung Autofahrer! Zur Zeit liegen keine Meldungen vor!” In Germany no news is bad news - it makes us comfortable to be periodically reminded that our world is in order.

In Britain however, no news is good news; and a little information is much better than a lot. The British deliver content more economically, hence the famous understatement, the innuendo, the subtle hint, the message between the lines... Observe British pub behaviour, only a foreign tourist would be crass enough to actually ask a barman or waiter for service. The native speaker will politely wait his turn and signal his readiness for a drink with the merest twitch of an eyebrow, or by the nonchalant holding of an empty glass, or a slightly visible £5 note.

Germans are sometimes irritated by a lack of information from their British business partners, an unwillingness to say directly what they think, and a general aversion to anything which threatens to change the status quo. The English expressions “Don’t change your horses”, “Let sleeping dogs lie”, and “Make the best of a bad job” epitomise an attitude well summed up by “Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t”.

Whatever the shortcomings of the British, and whatever your frustrations regarding errant luggage trolleys, one has to admire their sense of humour,… the British, not the trolleys! Next time you don’t hear from a British counterpart, don’t worry - no news is probably good news. Or, as the song says: “If the phone doesn’t ring, it me.”

Paul Smith

PS If you liked this article, check out: "How To Be British"

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