Proverbs are always interesting for many reasons. They tell a lot about the person who uses them and in what context. Proverbs from other countries are also an interesting cultural good to understand when interacting with people from a particular country or region.
Before Silvia Spiva went to her trip to Berlin, we were discussing some of the special ways of the Germans and exchanging thoughts. We briefly talked about proverbs as well and it was not a surprise that the multicultural marketer legend had a great interest in them and so she asked me to prepare an article to showcase and explain some more German proverbs.
I wanted to pick some that are not only popular but also have the potential for controversy in business and in cultural perspective. So let me alienate and disturb you with the hardliner proverbs of the Germans. Hopefully you’ll find them interesting.
Wer schreibt der bleibt.
Literal translation: Those who write remain.
In the time of information technology few things are more important than gathering, maintaining and managing this information, so it eventually becomes knowledge and later wisdom, if properly applied. The proverb describes the importance of recording data and communicating in written form. The pen is still one of the most important tools there are, even if keyboards have widely replaced them in offices. A decision not written down is worthless. A process not documented will never work. A meeting without meeting minutes has never happened.
Von nichts kommt nichts.
Literal translation: Nothin comes from nothing.
This means that no product will be of value if it has not been ensouled. You need to invest time and smarts into an activity if you want it to add value and be meaningful. Without inspiration there can be an outcome to a task but its quality can vary greatly. So if you don’t invest in your people, they will not invest in your assignment more than they have to – more than you can control.
Der Zweck heiligt die Mittel.
Literal translation: The cause justifies the means.
This could be considered mischievous or even malicious and nefarious, however it can likewise be considered positive in its meaning. For example it could mean that sometimes you have to be a little evil in order to achieve a greater positive outcome. In many stories there is a good person, let’s say a police officer, tied to laws that prevent him or her from being efficient. In the story that person tries to bypass or bend the law in order to prevent harm to people or capture the evil villain.
Alles zu seiner Zeit.
Literal translation: Everything in its time.
This is a proverb that emphasises patience, the art of planning and executing a long-term strategy. A person who gives you this proverb as feedback means no rejection to your idea. He or she merely means that it is a good idea but its time has not yet come. Let’s do it a little later on and it will have a better effect when used more strategically.
Andere Länder, andere Sitten.
Literal translation: Other countries, other customs.
The meaning of this proverb is that not all people think the same. People with a different cultural background might do things differently, make decisions differently. It emphasises that you should not only accept diversity but embrace it and learn about the ways of other cultures. If you know about differences well, you can better collaborate for a better outcome and less confusion.
Nur tote Fische schwimmen mit dem Strom.
Literal translation: Only dead fish swim with the torrent.
This is a little rebellious. It means that you have to stand up for innovation and be different. You need to speak up to make a difference and fight for your ideals. If all others blindly agree, it is up to you to state your opinion and share your experiences and insight. Things as little as “I don’t think so.” or “I don’t agree with that.” require some courage but have the potential to make a difference.
Bonus: What my Father has taught me
One of the lessons I learned from my father is not really a proverb but I feel it is yet worth getting mentioned in this article. He once told me this story happening in his own working environment:
One time I asked someone to take a broom and sweep the workshop. Later I came back and there was still dirt on the floor. I asked the person “Why did you not sweep?” the other person replied “But, I did sweep..”. So I asked differently “Then why is it not clean? Let me show you how to sweep so it’s actually clean”. From that moment on he always did a good job at doing that. He just did not understand the difference of sweeping and making something clean.
The underlying lesson for me here was, that you should always fulfil your objective and not just carry out an assignment. Sweep not for the sake of sweeping – sweep so it is clean! I never forgot about this lesson.
Photo credit: Manfred Kielnhofer / Christopher Isak