Germany needs a sense of humor

By Stefanie Müller. Wirtschaftswoche Correspondent in Spain

15 July 2003

That Germans are humorless is a stereotype that is unfortunately also true of managers. And yet, it has been demonstrated that laughter increases performance.

Laughter is not serious, and we want to be serious. We have to be serious, because otherwise people might think we take neither them nor what we say very seriously. We Germans, in contrast to Spaniards, have a problem with affability, which can easily be mistaken for superficiality. It would seem that we are only able to relax at carnival time - a cliché that regrettably appears too often – particularly in the business world, where only data count.

As shown in a survey by Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich carried out among 300 managers, a sense of humor is not rated very highly within corporate management. Other characteristics not considered of particular importance are self-criticism, creativity and valor. On the other hand, capacity and modesty are virtues that are highly regarded. Whereas the Dutch can negotiate in a relaxed and ironical manner, elegantly winning over their interlocutors without losing sight of their objectives, German managers prefer to convince using figures, clear graphs, logical arguments and lots of documents. If somebody tries to sell us something, we behave highly critically, to give the impression that we are not going to let ourselves be deceived. It is not surprising that German managers are considered arrogant.

Though times are hard, Reinhard K. Sprenger, a German who writes about business, notes, “They are not so hard that we can no longer laugh”. Quite the contrary: laughter makes a person relax, and relaxed people are more convincing than stiff people, who are typecast as unbending and insecure. Laughter is a positive factor. In spite of this, in Sprenger’s opinion, when bosses come face-to-face with laughing subordinates, instead of joining in the laughter, they immediately think the subordinates are laughing at him or her.

[*D Laughing improves performance *]

But there is hope that German industry can learn to laugh. Studies have been shown that laughing improves performance. According to Michael Titze, a laughter researcher, “A sense of humor helps solve conflicts and eliminate stress. Laughter is a lubricant”. On the other hand, a serious face provokes bitterness, envy and tension. People who laugh give the impression of being not only charming but competent. A good-humored boss achieves much more from his colleagues than an authoritarian one.

More and more companies are being convinced by these facts and are hiring laughter trainers to teach their employees how to relax. Kodak has set up “good-humor rooms” for employees’ break periods. Workers can entertain themselves with cartoons, comedies and funny stories, after which they go back to work feeling more creative. Other companies are engage actors to make their employees laugh. Even clowns are making a popular comeback.

But we Germans are on the wrong track, yet again. Laughter is not something that can be learned; it is an attitude to life. The solution may be for us to change this slightly. We need to think more positively, not speak derisively about everything, look ahead and be daring. And of course laugh heartily, too - preferably together with the boss.

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