“Why is it that so many Americans – in comparison to us Germans – approach difficult situations with more optimism and are spielerisch (playful, relaxed, hands-on)?”


Dealing difficult situations involves risk. Americans and Germans differ in how they define, calculate and react to risk. Difficult situations are also called problems. There, too, Germans and Americans differ in their approaches.

Optimism in America

MerriamWebster defines pessimism as an inclination to emphasize adverse aspects, conditions, and possibilities or to expect the worst possible outcome.

Americans have little patience for pessimists. Pessimistic people are considered to be low in self-confidence and self-esteem. Pessimists are often complainers, not hopeful. They‘re passive.

Optimism on the other hand is a question of character, of strength and will. Optimistic people immigrated to America, they built, and continue to build, the country. Optimists take on responsibility. They don‘t have the time to focus on what could go wrong.

MerriamWebster defines optimism as a doctrine that this world is the best possible world; an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome. Its synonyms are brightness, cheerfulness, hope, hopefulness, idealism. Its antonyms (opposites) are skepticism, apprehension, caution, concern.

Americans consider themselves to be a can-do people. „Can-do“: Marked by willingness to tackle a job and get it done; characterized by eagerness to accept and meet challenges; “a can-do kind of person;” the first known use of Can-do 1945.

Perhaps the most famous fictitious “can-do” American and cultural icon is Rosie the Riveter. Rosie represents the American women who labored in urban factories and replaced men who had left to fight in the Second World War. Rosie represented the ideal American laborer: loyal, efficient, patriotic, and pretty. Throughout history and up to the present, Rosie the Riveter is traditionally used as a symbol of women’s economic prowess and feminism.

Seldom does an American feel comfortable saying no to a customer, a boss or to a colleague. A no signals either lack of ability or lack of effort or both. Responding with a no to a request leads to that person – customer, boss, colleague – turning to others for assistance. And that means a loss of business.

Pessimism in Germany

Are the Germans as pessimistic as they think, as the German who asked the question is implying? Perhaps in comparison to Americans, but perhaps only in terms of the what and how they communicate.

My experience as an American in Germany and with the Germans for a quarter of a century tells me otherwise. Not that they are optimists like the Americans. American optimism is not the only form of optimism, though. There is such a thing as German optimism. Let me prove it.

Any student of German history knows that the Germans have a remarkable ability to bounce back, to get back up on their feet, to rejuvenate, to rebuild after a catastrophe. And the German people has experienced several catastrophes, both at no fault of their own and by their own fault.

We need only name a few of them: the Black Death (also known as The Plague) of the mid-14th Century; the battles during the Protestant Reformation; the Thirty Years War from 1618-1648; the Napoleonic Wars; and in recent history two devastating world wars.

If we look at the strength of the current German economy, how can that be the product of a pessimistic people? The West Germans knew that reuniting with East Germany would involve a significant financial burden. And when it was time to make very painful structural reforms to their economy and labor markets in the mid-2000s the Germans were demonstrating true optimism.

And we know that the Germans have produce many great scientists, industrialists, inventors, and thinkers. Great things can come from optimists, not pessimists.


Spiel can mean game, play (as in theater), match, tournament, gamble (as in theater). Spielerisch could be interpreted as playful, relaxed, hands-on, light-hearted, or, as stated above, risk(y).

Indeed, there is a very significant difference between Germans and Americans in how they approach new challenges. Americans are less concerned about mistakes. For them the goal is forward movement. As long as you move forward more steps than you do backwards, it is less or unimportant how many you have actually moved backwards. Success in the U.S. is very seldom based on the least amount of errors made.

This is one reason why learning by doing is so deeply ingrained in the American mentality. Americans, in fact, do learn by doing. They are a hands-on people. Studying the theory of something first, then moving towards ever more action based on caution, error-avoidance, is not at home in the American culture. For Americans, something work, is true, is evident, when it is done, when someone does it. Doing, action is an integral part of deciding, learning, progressing, succeeding.

I will stop here because I know that this is related to pragmatism, a school of philosophy very much American, but an area in which I am not well versed.

German caution is often precisely what American optimism needs when it threatens to become ungrounded, wishful, euphoris. On flipside, a little American optimism can nudge German to do things which they are clearly capable of, but perhaps inhibited by their inclination to overly stress the downside.