Letter from Germany. A public holiday here today, & time for reflection...
The German lawyers I negotiate with bemoan the paucity of their own language when it comes to capturing commercial ideas: all substantive discussion is in English, and all preliminary drafting – even when the ultimate document will be in German. They have fewer words, less nuance, fewer concepts even. A strong claim, but that’s what they say.
Of course German has a handful of terms that find no one-word translation into English – schadenfreude being the one most frequently cited. That at least can be readily rendered accurately enough in a very few English words, or even deployed in English as an import. But here’s a far more profound, nigh-on untranslatable word, the depths of which genuinely deserve consideration: Eigensinn / eigensinnig.
Generally translated as stubbornness, opinionated, pig-headedness, wayward, wilful obstinacy, headstrong, it comes across as having essentially negative connotations (check your own German dictionary) – which is in itself an important observation.
Because, properly considered, it freights so much more than this, including an entire positive side to the same coin: originality, self-confidence, perseverance, integrity born of personal conviction, unshakeable private determination contra mundum.
The dichotomy has its origins in divergent religious doctrines, of course: whether it is the place of the individual to have any views on significant matters other than those taught by clerical authority. To a Capitalist@Work in 2010, it is interesting that the negative translations prevail completely (and, by the way, in conformist Germany the negative connotation for the most part prevails as well). It shows how superficial is our regard for genuine independence of mind.
Think of the fates of the various whistle-blowers at banks over recent years. “I label you Not A Team Player” intones one of Dilbert’s evil characters at the slightest sign of independent thought. “Never say anything unless you're sure everyone feels exactly the same way you do” is Homer Simpson’s highest principle.
And of course it’s true: don’t ever be the lone voice of dissidence in an American company (trust me on this one). ‘Headstrong’ sounds, a priori, as though it should be a term of approbation. But it ain't.
Eigensinn macht Spaß, wrote Herman Hesse (a bit headstrong himself): Eigensinn is fun. Or perhaps, makes mischief. Indeed it does. But we need the headstrong independence, the stubborn integrity: and all too often, in banking, politics and elsewhere, we don’t get it.