But there’s a sign!

In intercultural trainings, one term we work with is “rule-oriented” or “rule-based”. The meaning is simple: in a given situation, you check what the rule is, and that rule then determines your actions. Even if the rule might be a bit inconvenient, or in fact not that helpful for the problem solution, you stick to it. There is a much-used term in Germany for this: “Das haben wir schon immer so gemacht.” (“We always did it that way.”). So, there is a rule for it, we always used it and therefore there’s no reason to change it. It also means that a rule-based person wouldn’t like to bend or even break the rule, regardless of how much sense it would make in this situation.

Rule orientation often goes hand in hand with uncertainty avoidance. After all, if there’s a rule, you know exactly what to do – there’s no uncertainty. So it might not surprise you that Germany is a rule-based country. We have official laws for almost any imaginable situation (and some you wouldn’t imagine…) and one could say that they’re mostly adhered to. People might even tell you if you break a rule, even if it’s not an important one.

I always knew that I was rather rule-oriented (a rule-oriented uncertainty avoider – now that was unexpected, wasn’t it?). It’s not something I think about much – like most cultural behaviours, it’s something I do automatically (we’ll just leave speed limits out of the discussion here….). Then, on Tuesday, I had an interesting experience that showed me my automatic rule-orientation.

I did a training with an American couple, who was staying at an apartment hotel because they had just recently arrived in Germany and could not yet move into their new apartment. When we went to lunch, a sign in the hotel lobby informed us to please leave the hotel through the restaurant entrance as repairs were done on the main entrance. There were two men working on the revolving door of the main entrance, and so we left through the restaurant.

After lunch, we strolled back to the hotel and saw that there was a sign outside as well, so I turned to enter the hotel through the restaurant. The American lady said: “There’s nobody working on the door, so they’re probably done. I guess we can use the main entrance.”

I stared at her and said in shock: “But there’s a sign!”

She looked back at me for a moment and then started to laugh. “So that’s that rule-orientation thing you talked about this morning!” she called out.

I had to laugh as well. I have to admit, I didn’t even look at the door. I just saw the sign and the automatic process was clear: there was a sign asking us to use another entrance and so we would use the other entrance. The American lady hadn’t even looked at the sign but at the door and for her it was obvious that the sign had no relevance as work on the door was obviously finished. It was the perfect illustration of situation versus rule.

I realized that she was probably right, but I have yet another thing to admit: I still told her that I’d feel more comfortable if we used the restaurant entrance. After all….there was a sign….



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