Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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Moaning Olympics

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Dabeisein ist alles, is what’s given as an Olympic motto in German: Participating is everything.

Yet, with German athletes not winning as many competitions as people hoped, everybody is lamenting – partly in a very rude way - about how crap everybody is. I think that’s a bit unfair, after all those people work very hard and risk their health (whether by training only or by training and drugs, I’ll leave for others to decide) to be allowed to participate to begin with. That’s a bit unfair. Being a tenth of a second slower than the fastest swimmer is nothing to be ashamed of. (As is being six minutes slower than the winner of the Tour de France, I might add, – heck, nobody would complain about a six minute delay on a three hour flight.)

But, as we discussed in the office today, this constant moaning is the default German spirit. People are so busy complaining about everything that they don’t realise they’re better off than everybody else. (Strangely you never hear the people who really are in trouble complain.) And this general mood really drags you down. It goes hand in hand with the general unfriendliness you meet: No hellos and good-byes in the supermarket, and no have-a-nice-days anyway. The theory goes that if you are friendly to people, they’ll be friendly in turn and you’ll end up in a feedback loop to infinite pleasantries. So I tried – and occasionally still try – to import the general politeness from the UK. And I failed miserably. It only worked very rarely. And after a few months my initial energy had worn off.

Strangely the whole politeness/friendliness thing works in two two completely opposite setting. 1. The Small Setting: If you’re in a really small place or going to really small stores, the people you meet will always be the same. They’ll recognise you and remember you were friendly. Over time they’ll be friendly as well. The feedback loop works – slowly. You need a couple of interactions to build a relationship with people.

2. The Big Setting: I hate to say this, but big corporations are quite good at this as well. When phoning customer support or suchlike, my general impression is that the bigger and more evil the corporation is, the friendlier people will be. Incompetent, perhaps – but friendly and helpful. Whether this has to do with the employees fearing for their jobs, them getting better training or the corporations ‘getting it’, I don’t know. If, however, I need people within the university to do things for me or I phone small stores, people tend to be much less friendly or even rude.

I find this very confusing and hope we’ll be able to phone friendly people in any size of organisation at some stage. When I did my civil service, they once tried to improve the way everybody answered the phone by simply sending everyone in the hospital a yellow smiley sticker that they were supposed to stick on their phone to remember smiling when answering it.

August 19, 2004, 19:35

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