One of the biggest flaws of German culture is that mistakes and being wrong is typically frowned upon by society. This leads to an anti-mistake culture that pressures the population to become ultra-perfectionists.
Yet, this perfectionism hinders change and innovation. Many decisions in Germany are purely driven by fear. This might, for example, be the fear of losing face. Or put simply, the fear of being rejected.
There is little tolerance for mistakes by Germany society. For many business and governmental decisions, the most important consideration is to reduce the risks involved. If you make the wrong decision, you are getting blamed by society big time.
Yet, if no one is willing to take a risk, we don’t move forward as a society. In German culture, it is often seen as better to handle 10 different tasks on a mediocre level than to succeed at 5 of them extraordinarily and fail at 5 of them desperately.
Germans don’t honor remarkable performances. But they will never fail to criticize you even for the smallest possible mistakes. There’s an old German saying: “Nicht geschimpft ist genug gelobt” (the absence of criticism is praise enough).
German culture lacks positive reinforcement
If you’ve ever worked with Germans you might know this phenomenon. Feedback is mostly seen by Germans as an opportunity to criticize every little detail that might not be perfect. And while it is important to receive criticism for things that might not be so good, Germans often don’t realize that focusing on the good things is the more important aspect of feedback.
Positive reinforcement serves an important purpose: It encourages people to keep going. It values their work. Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, is discouraging. For every negative feedback, there should be at least five positive points. Yet in Germany, it’s usually the other way around.
Positive feedback is not seen as something important or valuable. Most Germans assume good things as a matter of course. If there is nothing to improve or criticize, there is no reason to mention it for many Germans. They just assume that you know that you did a good job.
However, receiving recognition and appreciation is an important human need. In a culture that regularly points out your mistakes, people become discouraged to do something different than the mainstream, to think outside the box, and to speak openly about their ideas and visions.
In Germany, only negative feedback is seen as productive
If you, for example, tell a German about a new product or business idea, the first thing he or she will typically do is to criticize you:
- “That will never work.”
- “How will you ever make money from that?”
- “No one needs such a product.”
The thing is, that the person criticizing you might not think badly about you or your idea in the first place. They just think that it is beneficial for you to receive critical feedback so that you can spot weak points and improve upon them. Negative feedback is seen as something valuable whereas positive feedback, in the eyes of many, is nothing more than meaningless small talk.
When looking for feedback, Germans heavily focus on spotting mistakes and weak points. There is no big emphasis placed on the overall impression or on identifying strengths. You can give the most inspiring and flawless presentation at a German workplace or university. And yet, if you have a spelling or grammar mistake on slide 15, this is what someone in the audience will inevitably criticize.
Yet, does it really matter if there is a spelling mistake, if a graphic isn’t perfectly aligned, or if the speaker mispronounced some words? No, as long as the general flow of the presentation isn’t affected such things shouldn’t, in my opinion, be addressed as negative feedback. The main purpose of a presentation is to present an idea or to deliver an impactful message. If the presentation succeeds at delivering that message, there is no need for cherry-picking mistakes. There is a need for positive reinforcement to encourage and reward the speaker.
In Germany, risk-taking is actively discouraged
Before you start to work on any essay, poster, or presentation at a Germany university, you inevitably have to read through at least one page of formal requirements. These formal requirements specify everything from font type and size to paper margins, length of the document or presentation, and the layout of tables. And if you fail to meet any of these requirements, you will be punished with a bad grade. The impact of formal correctness on the final grade is often the same, or in some cases even higher, than the quality of the content delivered.
The most important requirement to achieve the best possible grade is to meet all the formal requirements and to deliver a paper or talk that is free of mistakes. No one expects extraordinary performances. Risk-taking is constantly punished whereas playing it safe and aiming for satisfactory results gets rewarded.
Because Germans learn this from early on in their lives, it gets deeply ingrained in German culture. Most Germans don’t aim to become extraordinary at something. They don’t have new and revolutionary visions. Instead, they strive for risk-minimization through perfectionism and strict order.
In 2018, only about 8 percent of the German population were entrepreneurs. Only four percent of the German startups get founded by women. According to the Federation of German Industry, the main reason for that is that German women underestimate their own abilities. They lack self-confidence. One of the main reasons for that is obviously the negative feedback culture we have here in Germany.
People in Germany are scared of failure because it gets punished by society. If you try and fail, you lose face in Germany. The failure becomes a part of your personality and, in most cases, you don’t get a second chance. But this attitude is hurting the German society in the long-term.
The anti-mistake culture makes it hard to have open discussions
The anti-mistake culture not only hinders economic development and technological innovations but also our personal creativity and freedom of expression. People get reluctant to talk openly about their ideas, hopes, and fears. They always live in fear of being rejected by society. Many topics cannot be discussed openly in German society anymore, like for example:
- People questioning the decision of the German government to opt-out of nuclear and carbon-based energy get defamed as climate change deniers.
- People questioning Germany’s uncoordinated and chaotic migration policy and the concept of open borders get defamed as nazis.
- People questioning if it is really necessary to censor words like “Neger” (negro) from traditional German literature get defamed as racists.
- People demanding a wealth tax or better social welfare get defamed as greedy and parasites.
- People demanding a more landlord-friendly rent policy get defamed as greedy bonzes even though the current German rent policies favor the lessee over the landlord.
Even if your stance on certain controversial topics is wrong in the eyes of the majority, there is no reason to defame or insult others who think differently. Aside from that, there are no wrong opinions. We should accept that some people might come to conclusions that are categorized as “wrong” by mainstream society.
But instead of criticizing someone for his “wrong” opinion, we should encourage people first. Encourage them, that they freely express their opinion. Encourage them to be open. Praise them for their critical thinking. We can explain to them how we think about a certain topic later, but we shouldn’t try to force convert anyone with a differing opinion.
Way too often we just engage in critical discussions with the goal to convert the other side. That is also what we get taught in school. I still remember very well that we had to write and practice countless discussions in German class. They always focused on one end goal: To win the discussion and to convert the other side to follow your opinion.
But this is never going to be productive. People feel hurt if you categorize their opinion as “wrong”. You are not a doctor that has to heal a sick patient if you’re having a discussion with someone. The result of the discussion should always be open. If you’re not open to accept the opinion of someone else and change your point of view as well, then there’s no chance for an open and productive discussion to develop.
I have to confess
Stereotypical German as I am, the entirety of this article was me criticizing my homeland. I am guilty of pointing out the negatives rather than the positives as well. Not necessarily because Germany is a shithole. It is a wonderful country with a rich and delightful culture.
It just somehow seems to be more natural for a Swabian to complain. It’s a trait you don’t really notice if you grew up in Swabia. People here complain all the time. So as a word of warning, if you come here, don’t mistake that for rudeness. And if people don’t have anything to complain about you, that means you did a good job.
As the Germans say: “Was sich liebt, das neckt sich” – Teasing is a sign of affection.
But nevertheless, do as I say, not as I do. We all benefit from more positive feedback and praise. Stigmatizing mistakes and failure while taking success for granted is not a trait we Germans should be very proud of. It hinders open discussion and out-of-the-box thinking because of the constant fear of rejection. It makes people insecure rather than self-confident.
I am rather the one who gives the biggest praise than the one who gives the harshest critique.