Bustle: Work, Service And America’s Unambivalent Attitude Toward Doing Business

I live in Germany with my wife. When Germans ask me where I’m from I say “California”. They often respond with “It must be love”.

When people ask me how I enjoy life in Germany, I usually explain that it’s a mixed bag. Achieving escape velocity from stairwell living in Germany is much more difficult than in the U.S. And where I come from, entering someone’s kitchen doesn’t require that the other person vacate in order to make room. On the other hand, lawyers do not have nearly in the influence in Germany as they do in the U.S. so you’re basically treated like an adult: if there are no cars coming the other way you just sail through roundabout rather than sit at the red light. Kids actually learn to avoid injury on real jungle gyms and the doors of public transportation have even been known to open before coming to a complete stop.

Then there is the issue of energy. I’m not talking about windmills, fossil fuels or nuclear power. I’m talking about bustle. I’m talking about the energy one witness at a busy airport.

Last night my wife and I attended a kind-of seminar headed by the maternity ward of a hospital some distance from our home in Germany. It was considerably further than the hospital in which my wife delivered our first child but we  she wanted to weigh our options and see what kind of impression this place would make.

We arrived about 15 minutes early and there were about 50 young couples in attendance. The evening consisted of a wordless, gauzy slide show of happy young couples with their newborn baby with a corresponding soundtrack followed by relatively short talks by three very pleasant women associated with the maternity ward. A few questions were asked and answered, followed by a group tour of the premises: various size birthing rooms, private waiting room replete with espresso machine, etc.

The whole thing ran between an hour and 90 minutes: excited, anxious and expectant couples gathered together over sparkling water to be sold on this particular hospital to give birth to their child.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t see a single couple interact with another the entire evening.

In the United States this would be unheard of: dozens of men in the prime of life attending with their wives a gathering of other pregnant couples and not using the downtime to get to know the other men, exchange pleasantries, even (gasp!) network? Young mothers-to-be surrounded by dozens of other pregnant women and none of them asking about due-dates and genders?

I’ve attended more social gatherings in Germany than I can remember and found them invariably pleasant: more pleasant, in some ways, than social gatherings in the U.S. But that’s the thing: in the U.S. everything is a social gathering. The energy there is palpable. Introducing yourself to a stranger in the setting described above strikes Germans a bit like handing out business cards during church services (note I say during church services: with the exception of the very pious, in the U.S. making contacts within a religious milieu is perfectly natural).

I read a book once by Rabbi Daniel Lapin called “Thou Shall Prosper: The Ten Commandments For Making Money“. The book explores the reasons why Jews and, by extension, the Americans, “get ahead”. The very words “get ahead” give many Europeans pause. It’s the tall-poppy syndrome: no poppy should grow conspicuously higher than the others. Nothing could be more alien to the American mindset.

But what about the person who lives only to get ahead? The man for whom networking substitutes for friendship? What about the man who gets more meaning pursuing his next raise than from raising his children? Is he to be admired? The American says “Of course not.” Most people intuitively understand the difference between someone who’s only trying to get in your pocket and someone who isn’t going to let the fact that you’re standing in the church parking lot prevent him from talking about how the service he provides can make your life better.

And that raises the fundamental difference. Americans have a much more profound sense of the value of one’s work to other people. There may be a way to earn money without making other people’s lives better, but I don’t believe it. Serving others is in no way diminished simply because it is remunerative. Every time you walk out of a department store with a new item of clothing you have played an essential role in a success story: the story of people getting what they want. (you a fleece, Nordstroms your money). It’s true for any economic interaction, whether it’s buying a book on Amazon or hiring the world’s funniest entertainer to perform at your next event.

Understanding that work, service and profit are inextricably interwoven is one of the many examples of American exceptionalism.

One thought on “Bustle: Work, Service And America’s Unambivalent Attitude Toward Doing Business

  1. As a fellow Californian, (by choice) this is very inciteful. Unfortunately I fear that as the Israelites of old looked around and saw the other nations with thier kings, so Americans are doing the same, with much the same results. Complaciency is replacing drive. Sustainable middle class has replaced getting ahead. America is fast loosing it’s exceptionalism I fear.

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