Thought Leadership

Telling me what to do

By Colin Walls

I have concluded that perhaps I am not the easiest person to live with. There are a selection of reasons for this, but one is that I do not always know what I want. My brain is in conflict [with itself]. The thing is, I like nice clear rules and guidelines – boundaries, if you like. However, I will often question a rule, if I cannot understand the reason for it or the logic of its implementation. This questioning has, I think, resulted in my being somewhat resistant to being told what to do …

As I wrote about on a previous occasion, there are broadly two kinds of legal system:

  1. you can do anything you want unless there is a law stopping you
  2. you cannot do anything unless there is a law permitting you to do it

I guess there are more countries with (1) and the UK is an example. This results in instructions [rules, laws …] that tell you not to do things, which seems a little negative, but is ultimately quite freeing.

I was in Germany recently and commented to a colleague that I did not see too many instructions telling me not to do things. He said that, first, I should look again and, second, that I should remember my very limited German language knowledge. So, I started making some observations.

I visited the health suite in the hotel, as I wanted to have a sauna to relax at the end of the day. Outside of the sauna were some instructions, which were helpfully in English as well as German. There was quite a long list, most of which was standard stuff about people with heart conditions etc., but 3 rules stood out:

  • Users should shower before using the sauna (for hygiene reasons) – I can accept that one, as I do not want to be sitting next to a sweating, grubby person.
  • Users should sit/lie on a towel to avoid sweat staining the woodwork – This is also reasonable, but I cannot help thinking that using a sweat-resistant material for the benches would be better, but I guess the wood is traditional.
  • Users should not wear swimming costumes (for hygiene reasons) – I am aware that Germans are very disapproving of the British/American practice of wearing bathing clothes in a sauna. I have heard the word “disgusting” used. The logic is that, when you sweat, all the toxins come out and you shower to get rid of them; if you wear a costume, the toxins soak into the fabric and are held close to your skin and a shower will not necessarily help. I do not question the logic of the rule, but I do question whether it should be rule. As it only really affects the individual, should they not simply be given advice for their own wellbeing?

Elsewhere, prohibitions were expressed in other ways. For example, I saw a door [to a small museum] with some instructions on it:

The textual instructions stretched my German somewhat, but I figured out that they said “no newspapers” and “no adverts” – basically “no junk mail”. The graphical instruction was very clear about what they did not want done in their doorway! [Public restrooms are scarce in this part of the city.] The green squiggle is my censorship. If you would really like to see the original for your own amusement, please email me.

I have probably given the impression that Germany is a country where, actually, you are always being told what [not] to do. Maybe that is true, but I smile when I think back to the time we spent New Year in Berlin. On every street corner there was someone setting off rockets from bottles. There were no signs warning about the health and safety issues!


2 thoughts about “Telling me what to do
  • Rules. Funny things. Mayhem and chaos without them. And, at the moment, globally, mayhem and chaos with them; of course, this requires the rules to be ignored or broken.

    Look at the excuse of a human being in the White House who, narcissist that he is, thinks that the rules don’t apply to him. It also seems that they don’t apply to his white male co-conspirators who receive very lenient sentences on what is supposed to be a 20 year tariff. I saw this compared with a man who had assisted in a $20 marijuana sale: he received one year more. Some are obviously still more equal than others. No change there then!

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at