I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned that I’m a big fan of American event planning. I’m not sure why they’re so good at it. Maybe it’s the German heritage of some 50 million Americans, or perhaps Americans are used to taking care of problems without expecting outside intervention. In any case, I’m thankful for flexible organization and would love to hear your thoughts.
Last week, I attended my first “Back to School Night” at our neighborhood middle school. Cramming the parents of 1,100 students into a building with 2 stories and 3 aisles may not seem like a large event. But, under these circumstances, having every parent attend 7 meetings of 7 minutes each is a challenge that North Bethesda Middle School handled admirably. When my husband and I left the building, we had touched base with Amélie’s teachers and learned more about the curriculum and expectations.
Comparing back to school nights in Germany and the US
Amélie is my stepdaughter and our middle child, in between two older and two younger siblings. I don’t feel like an unexperienced parent, but I do lack some first-hand knowledge of the American school system. I’m more familiar with German schools, and I won’t compare my children’s experience in the US with French schools, as little Catherine attended them years ago, and Mama Catherine hasn’t kept up with their developments today!
In German schools, the classroom teacher organizes a parent meeting at the beginning of the school year, where he or she announces important dates or events and talks about the curriculum of the subject. Often, parent representatives are elected. Sometimes, other teachers join the meeting for a few minutes, but parents never meet all of them.
For a German school, those meetings are more or less efficient. My oldest child graduated last May from the German International School. During the 4 years she attended, I came to hate those back to school evenings. I spent too much time listening to parents eager to complain about this or that without looking for positive solutions and simply expecting the school administration to take care of their pet peeve. To be honest, this problem isn’t specific to the German School in Washington. In fact, I had similar feelings during meetings at my children’s elementary and middle schools in Germany.
Organizing big events in the US and Europe
Since a back to school night doesn’t exactly qualify as a big occasion, let’s look at the first time I was impressed by the American capacity of managing massive events. Yes, Americans really know how to organize big events.
In 1994, I traveled with my friend Emmanuelle to California. We had a good laugh in front of the strollers parked at Sea World and appreciated knowing how long the line was going to be at Universal Studios. I was living in Germany at the time and hadn’t seen anything comparable, neither in Germany nor in France.
This efficiency struck me again 20 years later when I attended a concert at the Wolf Trap venue in Virginia. Wolf Trap is a performing art center located in a national park. According to their website, they host about 7,000 people in their amazing outdoor location. Parking spots are limited, but I’ve never had difficulty parking, thanks to the large crew of staff and volunteers helping visitors navigate massive fields around the venue. Of course, exiting the lot after the concert can take a while, but the traffic always stays orderly, again thanks to the staff and probably to the patience and good behavior of American concertgoers.
What a difference compared to France and even Germany!
The French excel at improvising. What they lack sometimes in preparation, they overcompensate for in improvisation, which works well most of the time. In my opinion, Germans really struggle with improvising. Granted, most of their planning turns out well. But, if something isn’t planned well ahead of time, it quickly becomes a source of chaos. Therefore, Germans try to anticipate all eventualities, which requires extensive preparation and loads of time.
What about America?
American event planning involves solid preparation mixed with an easygoing attitude, which allows tasks to be done in a short period of time. A Newsweek article on the Daimler Chrysler merger highlighted the different approaches between Germany and the US “Americans favor fast-paced trial-and-error experimentation while Germans lay painstaking plans and implement them precisely.”
In Germany where “Ordnung muss sein” (which translates as “there must be order”), I rarely notice any sort of kindness or flexibility amidst the planning and execution of big events. In this respect, the German stereotype in American movies isn’t too far from the truth!
American events also aren’t comparable to those in France where everything is planned in a more fluid way. For Germans and Americans, French events may look like chaos. But, the differences in each country’s cultural background certainly clarifies their priorities.
Edward T. Hall, an American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher, has contributed to a better understanding of French-American business. In his book Understanding Cultural Differences, he explains that the French think nothing of changing plans in last minute as “new information may require a change in plans to accommodate the changing conditions.”
As a multicultural professional, wife, and mother, I try to pick the best of the cultures surrounding me. For example, I liked the efficiency of Amélie’s back to school night, but I missed having more personal interactions with her teachers. Thankfully, I can reach out to them whenever I want. Tonight, I’m going to the back to school event at my youngest children’s elementary school. After the general grade-level presentation, parents are invited to pop into their child’s classroom and meet the teacher. I’ll share that time with 20+ other parents, but I’ve learned over the last 4 years that American teachers are always available to talk if necessary.
Do you have any thoughts about American events that you’d like to share? Please feel free to leave a comment below!
Photo credits by: Rafinade