Do you ever pause to consider the politics of praise? Do you often stop and reconsider your words when admiring a colleague’s smart new loafers or sharply-cut dress because your kind words might be taken the wrong way? Do you worry that you might be hauled in front of a labour tribunal if you compliment a fellow staffer on their glowing tan (“Chief executive pays out millions for negligence and promoting skin cancer”) or face a humourless HR chief because you forgot to cater for every conceivable dietary requirement at a company lunch?
At the same time, do you have a mental ranking of the most generous words you can offer up when you’ve had a remarkable experience? Are you likely to say a hotel stay was “absolutely delightful”? That the service at a men’s shop was “truly superb”? Or the cocktail that was expertly measured and shaken was “the best ever”?
Last week I travelled the length of Germany (taking in Munich, Frankfurt and Hamburg) with a group of colleagues on a PR and advertising tour. As we walked into office buildings, sat down on trains, checked into hotels, settled down for lunches and wandered through shops, I monitored the observations and comments – listening for words of praise (and criticism) about the country’s inner workings.
From time to time I heard Monocle’s culture editor Robert Bound drop in a “wunderschön” here, a “ganz toll” there. My closest associate and editor Andrew Tuck was also trotting out his high school German and exclaiming the delights of the nation’s transport system or praising the bookstores. And our publisher (the best German speaker of the bunch) would subtly remind us all that he had the best command of the language by offering up complex sentence structures lashed with pithy views about all those things die Deutschen do best.
I was particularly struck by how often I heard the same English words used to define so much of the German experience. Where countries are often praised for being innovative, friendly, charming and diverse, the compliment that was constantly being paid to Germany (and Germans) was that, “It’s proper.” From the moment we touched down in Munich, the word suddenly found its way into most sentences. “There’s something about Munich airport that’s just so proper,” said one colleague. “Everything about it is just as it should be.”
A few hours later at a small bar around the corner from our hotel, someone else commented about the general set-up of the whole after-work scene, fuelled by Aperol spritz. “Everything is just so solid and proper – proper aprons and jackets on the waiters, proper little bar snacks and a proper outdoor seating set-up as well.”
Later that evening, long after our reception had finished, a member of our group said: “I never really noticed this before but German women all have proper handshakes. There’s none of this offering of fingertips or dead-fish business – every woman I met locked palms, looked me in the eye and gave my hand a proper shake.” Over the following days, “proper” seemed to punctuate everything else we did. The beer served on Deutsche Bahn was in a proper glass, the Sautter+Lackmann bookstore in Hamburg was a proper retail experience, Die Zeit newspaper, while slightly austere and intimidating, was a proper newspaper, and the modern architecture springing up along the docks and inlets of Hamburg’s harbour was all red-brick and, of course, proper.
As we pulled into the city’s Hauptbahnhof and passed the newish headquarters of the newsweekly Der Spiegel, I spun round in my seat and drew Andrew’s attention to the structure. “Now that’s an HQ for a media company,” I said. “Just look at it – greeting you whether you’re pulling into town on rails or from the sea.” For a moment I searched for something else to say about it and in the end just uttered, “It’s just so proper.”
As our high-speed train pulled into the station, I considered the benefits of being recognised as a nation (not to mention business, family, individual) that does things properly – whether it’s on the assembly line or the football pitch, on printing presses or atop beer mats. I also contemplated the opposite – what to do if you’re a country where everything couldn’t be further from proper, and visitors are constantly saying things are shabby and shoddy?
At a time when too many nations are trying to assert their soft power credentials by investing in cultural institutions, funding TV news channels and hosting one-off sporting events, focusing on doing things properly might be the best investment of all. Ditto for business. It’s much more attractive to be regarded as proper rather than just being liked because you’re popular.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine