A German Interlude; or Ass-Kicking the Ugly American
Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, August 30, 2011: When I step in front of the crowd, my heart thunders in my chest as if it will explode from my rib cage at any moment. I have delivered numerous oral presentations during my professional career, and I have learned to disguise my excruciating shyness. On this occasion, however, I am uncharacteristically frightened. My hands are cold and clammy. My mouth is parched. I am, quite simply, a mess.
Aside from the fact that I am outside of my home country and already considerably stressed as a result, I wear a suit and tie, not my normal garb. I work in a home office, which means I usually slip into an ill-fitting t-shirt with a stretched neck-hole, faded, torn blue jeans, and no shoes. Sometimes I skip shaving for days at a time. When friends see me in my flip-flops, they ask, “Why are you so dressed up?”
Today I am adorned in my Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes because I am slated to deliver a formal paper at an academic conference. My hair, what little remains after the ravages of time, is combed and styled as much as it can be given its limp, lackluster appearance. My face glistens and burns with aftershave lotion. I wear my best tailor-made suit from Hong Kong. My tie is properly knotted and my white Oxford-cloth shirt is as wrinkle-free as I and the hotel iron can manage. I am as presentable as I ever am.
Titled “Life Cycle Management (LCM) 2011,” the conference brings together environmentalists and waste management professionals from around the world every two years to discuss the latest trends in LCM management, a system that assesses the environmental impact of products from the time they are manufactured until the time they are discarded. This is sometimes referred to as a “cradle-to-grave” analysis.
The conference is held in different cities throughout Europe and Africa. More than 500 participants from 46 countries have converged on Berlin for the 2011 session:
Academics often enjoy congregating with other academics to speak academic jargon and wallow in their own obscurity and profundity.
I am not one of those people.
Early in my part-time academic career, I enjoyed being pretentious and self-important. I have grown up. Since the late 1990s, I have sought a popular audience and mostly turned away from these sorts of conferences.
I was asked to participate by one of the sales people at the company where I work, so I submitted a formal paper titled “Packaging legislation and unintended consequences: A case study on the necessity of life cycle management.” (A copy of the paper is available under the “Events” tab on my website.) Amazingly, the conference organizers accepted the paper for a presentation. I have come to Berlin to discuss what I have learned about the latest trends in environmental management.
I have entered the belly of the beast.
I am scheduled to appear in a breakout session on LCM and public policy. These sessions tend to be deadly dull. Most presenters possess few, if any, presentation skills, and I doubt if anyone has ever heard of the virtues of modulating the tone and pitch of the human voice.
This conference is especially challenging because although the official language is English (which just so happens to be the language I speak), many of the presenters are not native speakers. Consequently, their accents are thick and frequently difficult to understand.
As I sit through the presentations, my boredom gradually dissolves into unease. First of all, almost everyone who presents a paper is an environmental scientist. Many speakers hold a Ph.D. in ecology, atmospheric chemistry, biology, oceanography, or a related field and teach at a prestigious university outside of the United States. I hold a Ph.D. in political science and another Ph.D. in public administration — worthy fields of study but certainly not “hard” sciences. I am a part-time instructor at several U.S. universities, but none comparable to, say, Oxford or Bologna.
In addition, many conference participants seem to know each other from previous meetings. They hug and slap backs and pinch behinds. They recall the conference in Cape Town and Zurich. This is my first foray into the world of LCM studies. I cannot share their hail-fellow-well-met camaraderie. I do not wish to pinch or be pinched. (I have always been standoffish this way.)
Perhaps the most ominous development is the pro-environmentalist stance consciously or unconsciously adopted by the meeting participants. I work for a company that manufactures and recycles plastic products, but this crowd seems to consider “real world” manufacturers to be part of the problem and not part of the solution to environmental management. They dwell in the “pie-in-the-sky” world of abstract theory couched in polysyllabic descriptions littered with arcane numeric symbols and algebraic equations. Each presentation is more obscure and unfathomable than its predecessor.
I fear that my talk will be viewed as devoid of a grandiloquent theoretical design. The audience will not view me as an academic peer. I am immersed in the dirty, gritty world of commerce. I am an interloper who has interrupted their academic love fest.
The public policy session begins at 9:00 a.m. and concludes at 10:45 a.m. Each presenter is allotted 12 minutes to discuss the paper and three minutes to field questions.
The first two presentations go like clockwork and no one in the audience of approximately 150 participants asks a single question. The lights are turned down low, so I wonder how many people are awake this early in the morning.
The presenter for the third session experienced visa problems and was unable to attend the conference. Therefore, the conference organizers substitute a separate paper. Audience members politely ask two softball questions to the substitute presenter but otherwise leave us to the somnolent status quo.
Sessions 4 - 6 essentially proceed in the same manner. The presenters step to the lectern, lean into the microphone, and drone on in a virtually incomprehensible monotone about a study that only someone well versed in the mathematics could hope to understand. They debate the concept of building a rail line in Norway. Someone discusses energy consumption patterns in Estonia. Someone else pontificates on the sewer infrastructure in France.
Perhaps someone somewhere finds this stuff exciting, but I do not. I hear nothing that pertains in any way, shape, or form to my career, my life, my hopes, or my dreams.
Lest you think I exaggerate about the obscure nature of the topics, here is a link to the session topics:
Finally, inevitably, it is time for the last presentation — mine. As I said, I am extremely nervous as I step to the microphone.
Sometimes in this world we worry, and it turns out that our worry was unnecessary. Things are not as bad as we feared. On other occasions, we worry and the worry was completely justified. In rare instances, we worry and it turns out that our fears fail to capture the magnitude of the disaster staring us in the face.
This is one of those occasions when all my fears come true, and then some. If I had hoped to escape the session unscathed, I soon find myself engulfed in a firestorm of controversy.
My talk is a variant on the same speech I have delivered literally dozens of times in my 19-year career with Dart Container Corporation. I typically recite a few scripted, well-worn jokes to warm up the audience.
I launch into my spiel. This time, no one laughs in the places they usually laugh. I hear murmuring, but no laughter, not even a polite guffaw.
As I slide into the substance of my paper, I feel a chill rush through the air. I can tell when a crowd is cheering me on and when it wishes me ill.
This crowd wishes me ill. The audience is appalled by me, and all that I represent. To them, my American, non-scientific, commercial values are repugnant.
As I conclude my formal presentation, I await the polite, albeit tepid applause afforded to my predecessors. Nothing. The room is quiet save for an undercurrent of whispers and snickers.
“Are there any questions for our last speaker?” the co-moderator, a representative of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, asks. She looks at me, and I see empathy and pity reflected in her eyes.
Half a dozen hands shoot into the air. People rise from their chairs to be recognized. They wave and hoot and holler. After a slow start, the audience has come alive. I have stirred the fires of discontent.
And so the bloodletting commences.
“Ze purpose of life zycle management ztudiez,” a supercilious man speaking in a halting German accent informs me, “iz to conzider ze holistic approach to effective environmental management. Ja? From what I zee in your prezentation, you merely come to zell your…product.” He spits out the last word as though my talk has left a bad taste in his mouth. No doubt it has.
I nod. I have expected this kind of attack. “Sir,” I say, “your point is well-taken. Clearly, the results of the life cycle study I referenced in my talk indicate that polystyrene foam products are preferable to the most commonly used alternative products, namely paper food service disposables. Having said that, I hope that my discussion here today amounts to more than merely hawking a product.”
Another man blurts out his question without waiting for the moderator to recognize him. “You are a nonscientist”—he smiles as though speaking to a slow-witted child—“addressing a room filled with eminent scientists from around the world. I question the value of your presentation since you have merely created a straw man that supports your point of view. It is a waste of our time to hear this kind of report, which I see as the misuse of LCM data by a layman.”
Ouch! The gentleman has sharp elbows.
“It is true that I am a nonscientist. But as someone who uses life cycle studies in the real world, I believe that I am certainly qualified to discuss a life cycle study involving the product my company manufactures. We most certainly did not create a straw man. When the study began, we had no idea what the outcome would be.”
The crowd erupts into spontaneous sotto voce muttering. Each word is indistinct, but collectively the sounds threaten to drown out other comments. I detect intermittent hissing.
The skewering has not ended. The most devastating critique emanates from a small white-haired gentleman standing on a chair in the back of the room. He speaks politely in a soft voice, but he is pointed in his criticism.
“I was the organizer of our first conference in Copenhagen back in 2002,” he says. “I remember that we heard from a representative of an American automobile company. He was so arrogant and condescending. He told us all these wonderful things his company intended to do and then shortly thereafter the company filed for bankruptcy. I don’t know how he was able to sneak onto the program.”
I open my mouth to respond, but he holds up his index finger. I wilt, falling silent in the face of his commanding presence.
“I don’t know how you were able to sneak onto the program, either. All I know is that this conference has no place for this sort of presentation. You represent everything that is wrong with the American way of life. You are merely trying to justify a ‘disposable’ lifestyle — a lifestyle we in Europe and throughout much of the world emphatically reject.”
The crowd signals its approval with a smattering of applause and apparent words of praise uttered in guttural tongues I barely recognize from the family of Slavic languages.
The white-haired man crosses his arms, cocks his head, and looks at me as if to say, “How will you wriggle out of this predicament, you pathetic American merchant?”
I am momentarily taken aback. As I recover my composure, I also feel myself growing angry. Clearing my throat, I croak, “I understand that not every place in the world wholeheartedly embraces disposable food service products. Nonetheless, I live in the real world of the United States where people enjoy these things.”
The room erupts into a cacophony of catcalls and shouted questions. I feel as if I have been dropped onto the set of the old Jerry Springer Show or perhaps a reality television program where I have just denounced a bleached-blonde bachelorette as a slut.
“Jam zoo,” calls out a rich baritone from the crowd. “Jam zoo and zer Beg Mec!”
Laughter reverberates throughout the room.
Translation: Damn you! Damn you and your Big Mac!
“Let me finish,” I plead, lifting up my hands as if to demonstrate that I am not holding a weapon. Ah, how I wish I were holding a weapon.
The co-moderator raises the microphone to her lips. “Please. Let’s be quiet so we can get to your questions before the end of the session. Don’t you want to hear the answers?”
The white-haired man rolls his eyes, throws up his hands, and collapses into his chair. There is no dealing with these damned Americans. They all stick together.
“Die Fragen sind in Ordnung. Die Antworten sind dumm.”
With this remark, more laughter breaks out. It spreads like wildfire. It threatens to engulf us all in a conflagration of biting sarcasm.
I raise my voice to be heard above the din. “When I attend conferences such as this one, everything is so orderly, rational, linear, analytic, and tidy. Oh, so tidy. When you do business in the real world, however, you cannot afford to be so abstract and theoretical. My talk here today, unlike other discussions I’ve heard thus far during the conference, does not encompass simply abstract variables. It considers real world comparisons among and between different products. If there is no place at the conference for such real-world considerations, I wonder why anyone would find life cycle studies relevant beyond the ivory tower.”
“Dieser mann ist ein idiot!”
“Le fou parle.”
The audience and I proceed in this manner for another 10 minutes or so. I am not quite sure what is happening, but I know just enough to discern that the ugly American is the butt of the joke.
Our session officially ends and yet I continue to field questions. Finally, the beleaguered co-moderator calls a halt. “We must conclude now,” she cries out. “The room is needed for the next session.”
”Han er en nar, men han bør tillades til færdig med at tale!”
As I scurry from the room, my interlocutors follow in hot pursuit. They corner me in the hall where we continue to discuss the merits, or lack thereof, of my presentation. We stand mano a mano on the third floor. The windows do not open; otherwise, I might hurl my body to the safety of the streets below.
The questioners thrust, and I parry. They argue and I cajole. They say “left,” and I say “right.” They speak in foreign tongues and I respond in southern English. Still, I nod as though I understand.
Finally, long after another session has commenced in the room we vacated, I am released from the clutches of my inquisitors. They drift away, looking back at me with a mixture of horror, amusement, and pity.
Left alone, spent, weary, and humiliated, I escape into the blessed anonymity of the hallway. The ugly American has had his ass kicked and is ready to call it a day.
I am a big boy. I have worked for close to two decades for a privately-held manufacturing company, and I have faced many a hostile audience in my time. Although the LCM 2011 conference is not my first experience battling political correctness, it is the first time I have witnessed such hostility on a global scale.
At least I brought together people from many nations and cultures in their loathing of evil plastic and “arrogant American business.” Unlike George W. Bush, I truly am a uniter, not a divider.
Postscript: The following day, I tour the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in Oranienburg, a Berlin suburb. You know it is a rough meeting when a visit to a concentration camp is more relaxing than presenting a paper at a conference.
Welcome to the world of an ugly American—an ugly American who had his ass kicked.