Yes and Nein: Borrowing the best from German and American cultures (and not borrowing the worst)


After nine years living in Germany (as an American), I have distilled a difference in cultural instincts into a simple heuristic that balances the pros and cons of opposite tendencies. This is, of course, a large generalization and there are many individual exceptions, but I think it has some merit as a statement of tendencies.

In America, a first instinctive response to new ideas or ways of doing things tends to be: “Yes, that sounds interesting. Let’s try that and see how it works!” [for the West Coast, interject “wow” or “cool”].

On the negative side, this enthusiasm for the new can sometimes be applied to terrible ideas, which then waste time and money or worse. On the positive side, this makes innovation at a fundamental level much easier than elsewhere. America is a global engine of innovations that transform or create entire industries. In modern times, think of Apple (which has made a recurring habit of this), Facebook, Airbnb, and Uber.

In a simple contrast, in Germany, a first instinctive response to new ideas or ways of doing things tends instead to be: “No, that is not how it is done, that is impossible, no one does it that way and therefore it can’t work.”[1]

On the positive side, this tends to weed out terrible ideas and concentrate time and attention on things that solidly do what they are supposed to, like Autobahns, BMWs, long-lasting buildings, and MRI machines. On the negative side, this makes big-concept innovation much more challenging, since “that is not how it is done” is the whole point of a big-concept innovation—just add “yet.” In contrast, incremental technical and quality improvement within a given track proceed well, particularly in mechanical domains. Things are built to work very well and to keep doing so for a very long time.

From German culture, I embrace a healthy respect for things that actually work and a healthy skepticism about things that are not yet known to work (and that might just fail spectacularly—like socialism and wind power, oops). From American culture, I choose to embrace a style of fundamental innovation and re-thinking that has the power to reshuffle the structure of entire industries and ways of life in a legitimately and lastingly positive direction (unlike the low-fat diet, oops).

So: enthusiasm for the new—when warranted.


[1] There are some stark exceptions. One is the historical enthusiasm for the horrific ideologies of socialism (national and otherwise). This might be partly understood as misapplying mechanistic thinking to the decidedly non-mechanistic domain of society and economy. Another is homeopathy, which is immensely popular in Germany, even though it appears to lack any scientific basis. Besides placebo effects, which could be significant, one of my theories is that it does work in an odd sense: it helps protect people from greater exposure to conventional medicine, drugs in particular. By doing this, it sometimes accidentally leaves people healthier than if they had been subjected to certain unnecessary net-negative conventional treatments instead. First, do no harm.