The German dentist and the English doctor

    Business Spotlight 7/2021
    a female doctor with a clown’s nose on
    © ilbusca/
    Von Professor Peter Franklin

    rapportharmonisches VerhältnisShortly after my arrival in Germany some 40 years ago, I needed some dental treatment. I lowered myself gingerlyvorsichtiggingerly into the dentist’s chair. “Unusual name, Herr Franklin,” the German dentist said. “You must be one of those foreigners taking jobs away from the Germans.” 

    I to freezehier: erstarrenfroze. I still do so in in retrospectrückblickendretrospect. Was this simply a discriminatory remark? Or was it an example of humour being used in one of its classical functions, namely, to build and to ease sth.etw. auflockernease social relationships? If so, the sledgehammer witHumor mit dem Vorschlaghammersledgehammer wit had failed miserablykläglichmiserably. Or did the comment serve another purpose? I am a very obviously anxiousängstlichanxious dental patient, so did the remark perhaps have the other much to quote sth.etw. nennenquoted function of humour, to to release tensionSpannung abbauenrelease tension? Rather like on another occasion I recall, this time, in Britain. 

    My father was seriously ill in hospital. My mother, my sister and I had travelled from various parts of Europe to a consultation with the doctor. It was early June and, as as chance would have itwie der Zufall es wolltechance would have it, we arrived all wearing light-coloured linenLeinenlinen jackets. The doctor said jokingly, “You three look as if you’ve come from an umpireSchiedsrichter(in)umpires’ conference.” Cricket umpires conventionally wear light-coloured jackets.

    Managing relationships

    What do these two examples of misplaced humour have in common? They obviously don’t say much about the difference between German and British humour. These are often claimed to differ in that German humour tends to be limited to certain clearly defined contexts, whereas British humour is appropriateangebracht, treffendappropriate in all contexts. The German dentist obviously hadn’t read the received wisomallgemeine Auffassungreceived wisdom, and the British doctor took it to an inappropriate extreme.

    My relationship with each of the two medicMediziner(in)medics was ruined almost before it had begun. Why, exactly? Helen Spencer-Oatey’s Rapport Management Theory provides an explanation. Her theory proposes, among other things, that a key competence in managing relationships is the ability known as interpersonal attentiveness. This attentiveness consists of three elements. One of them is sensitivitySensibilität, Feingefühlsensitivity to the faceetwa: Achtung der Höflichkeitswahrnehmungface needs of others, a well-known and intuitively meaningful concept in many cultures. 

    It would be bad enough to have my boss criticize me, but if he made fun of me, that just wouldn’t be on

    But in the examples above, the two other factors in Spencer-Oatey’s model also play a role: behavioural expectations and interactional goals. The jocularityScherzhaftigkeitjocularity of the dentist and doctor did not meet my understandable expectations of medical treatment, namely, that it should be handled with seriousness and consideration for my well-being. Interactional goals can be mainly relational in nature or mainly transactional (i.e.das heißti.e. task-oriented), and often both. 

    In my examples, the transaction was to be uppermost in sb.’s mindfür jmdn. an erster Stelle stehenuppermost in my mind. I wanted dental treatment and soundsolidesound medical advice. I wasn’t especially interested in to get along with sb.sich mit jmdm. verstehengetting along on a personal level with the medics. When there is a mismatch between the expectations and goals of people interacting, as in these cases, turbulence in the relationship will often result.

    The uses of humour

    The most surprising of these criticalhier: kritisch zu betrachtencritical incidentVorfallincidents was that involving the German dentist. The professional context in Germany is often regarded as typically task-oriented, with relationships playing a secondary role. Relationship-to foster sth.etw. fördernfostering humour is therefore not used as frequently as in other country cultures. Some researchers point out that, when humour occurs in German management, it has a largely transactional purpose, for example to improve the working atmosphere. This contrasts with research into humour in British management, which to indicate sth.etw. erkennen lassenindicates that humour occurs not only to to oil the wheels of (sth.)die Dinge (bei etw.) erleichtern; hier: zu einem guten Funktionieren (von etw.) beitragenoil the wheels of relationships. It is also used transactionally: to to diffuse sth.etw. zerstreuendiffuse criticism, to reject a request or to criticize a subordinateUntergebene(r)subordinate. On hearing this, a German manager said to me, “It would be bad enough to have my boss criticize me, but if he made fun of me, that just wouldn’t be ondas ginge gar nichtthat just wouldn’t be on.”

    Face needs

    In their book Intercultural Interaction: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Intercultural Communication, Helen Spencer-Oatey and Peter Franklin write: “‘faceetwa: Achtung der HöflichkeitswahrnehmungFace’ is a key concept that is integral to rapportharmonisches Verhältnisrapport. … It is concerned with people’s Selbstwertgefühlsense of worthsense of worth, dignityWürdedignity and identity, and is associated with issueFrage, Themaissues such as respect, honour, status, reputation and competence. … We all evaluate our personal attributes or characteristics in some way: we view some of them positively (e.g. clever, musical), some of them negatively (e.g. overweight, unartistic) and others neutrally. We have a fundamental desire for others to evaluate us positively, and so we typically want others to to acknowledge sth.etw. anerkennenacknowledge (explicitly or implicitly) our positive qualities, and NOT to acknowledge our negative qualities. Face is associated with these affectively sensitiveGefühlsempfindungen betreffendaffectively sensitive attributes; however, exactly which attributes are face sensitive can vary from person to person and from context to context. Nevertheless, people seem to be particularly sensitive to issues of status and competence.”

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