You may as well admit it: Dissecting national stereotypes is almost as entertaining as delving into the Daily Mail’s gossip pages. So, I thought, why not throw a bit more fuel on the fire? I may well live to regret this…
Having now spent most of my life outside of Germany, by living instead in the UK and in Spain, I’ve been brooding for quite some time over what defines my birth culture. As most of my readers will be aware of by now, I like to shunt my hare-brained ruminations through the prisms of either food or language, and for this exercise, I opted for the latter. I’ve picked out three phrases that every German will have uttered at some point in their life, and which, I hope, will shed a flicker of light on the collective German psyche.
At first glance, these statements will seem rather innocuous – banal, even – to non-Germans, but don’t be deceived. I am going to attempt, as succinctly as possible, to convey some of their cultural significance.
1. “Wenn das jeder täte!” (= If everybody did that!): Why Germans are partial to public shaming
Germans have a legendary reputation for sticking to the rule book. This is rooted in their (not entirely erroneous, I’m sure you’d agree) belief, that for society to work smoothly, a set of guidelines needs to be obeyed by the majority. And as tempting as it may be, at times, to weasel your way round them, Germans take great pride in resisting, because, “wenn das jeder täte” (if everybody did that), the whole system would descend into chaos. And nobody wants that. It would be just sooo disorderly…
Foreign visitors have been known to watch with incredulity when witnessing an upstanding German citizen venting their indignation at somebody caught in the act of flaunting rules, some of which may, perhaps, seem rather trivial. For Germans, however, impeding minor infractions, such as failing to pick after your dog or making too much noise on Sundays, is seen as a collective responsibility.
If you crossed the street in Germany while the little red man was telling you not to, be prepared for your fellow pedestrians to pull you up on it. In the UK, this would NEVER happen. The reason given by Germans as to why they feel the compulsive need to police pedestrian crossings is “to not set kids a bad example”. Needless to say, any criticisms of rules conceived to protect lives of innocent children are dead in the water. Besides, unlike in the UK, Germany’s birthrate is horrendously low, they need to conserve numbers.
Another example is littering in public – if you dropped some tissue paper accidentally, somebody is likely to point this out to you, most likely with a friendly smile. If, on the other hand, it’s obvious that you did it on purpose or out of plain carelessness, vigorous finger-pointing and some hissing may be coming your way.
Germans have a strong sense that some of the good things, which exist for everybody’s convenience and communal benefit, will be taken away if people don’t make an effort to preserve them. One example of this is newspapers sold from “honesty boxes”. These “Zeitungskästen” are positioned in accessible locations where you, the customer, is being trusted to deposit the correct amount of change before helping yourself to your daily rag.
Newspaper boxes by a bus stop. [Photos taken on Monday, courtesy of my darling brother 🙂 ]
The inner workings of a Zeitungskasten: Put your money in the slot on the right, take your paper.
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2. “Ich bin doch nicht blöd!” (= Well, I’m NOT stupid!): Don’t even try to screw me over, I’m German!
If Germans hate anything more than people willfully breaking the rules, it’s being taken advantage of. Although Germans are not a terribly gullible people, per se, Germany is what some sociologists refer to as a “high trust” society, which implies that Germans will generally assume another person, even if they are a total stranger, to be honourable and not defraud them. (However, they are inclined to mistrust certain foreigners assumed not to be sharing “German values”.)
Spain provides an interesting counterpoint. I remember a table conversation a while ago in a café here in Toledo, where I live. A story was told about somebody having been cheated, I don’t remember details. Instead of deeming the con as deplorable, it was cause for amusement – a shining example, as one of the people pointed out, of “la picaresca española”, which loosely translates as “Spanish cunning”.
According to the dictionary, “picaresca” signifies the act of “cheating or taking advantage of someone for one’s own benefit”. It’s not the first time I’d come across this Spanish cultural concept. And while scamming friends and family is most definitely out of bounds, it’s apparently OK – and downright hilarious! – to do it to strangers, as long as it’s nothing too serious. I guess that might be one of the reasons why Spain isn’t considered a”high trust culture”. Unless you have personal ties with someone, you run the risk of being seen as fair game. Oh, and the “finders keepers” concept is big time in operation in Spain. If you lost your wallet in Germany, there’s a very good chance you might get it back with all your cash still in it. In Spain… not so much.
OK, after this brief digression, let’s get back to the significance of the “ich bin doch nicht blöd” phrase. Germans don’t just blindly assume that they are immune to being duped – in fact, they pride themselves on their self-perceived shrewdness, believing that it’s just not that easy to take them for a ride. If somebody does succeed in getting one over on them, it pisses them off royally. You can easily tell when this has happened – fumes will come out of their nostrils, preceding the imminent melt-down.
And just to illustrate how deeply culturally ingrained that little phrase is, MediaMarkt, a large German electronic goods retailer, employs “ich bin doch nicht blöd” as their marketing tagline, implying that by shopping there, you’ll be getting the best possible price, rather than being ripped off by the competition.
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3.”Das hab’ ich nicht nötig!” (= I’ve no need [to to this]): Why Germans are better than *some people*
This phrase is probably the most puzzling out of the three. Let’s try and give it some context.
Here’s a couple of scenarios:
- Somebody believes themselves to be suspected of some kind of petty behaviour, e.g. taking a newspaper from the box without paying, or plundering the office stationery cupboard. By uttering this phrase, they are rejecting this insinuation/accusation, because they are better than that, they are morally above such shabbiness. (Or at least they want to give that impression…)
- The person, who says it, is gossipping about somebody, and dissing them for having acted dishonestly, or for having engaged in an ostentatious act clearly motivated by drawing attention to themselves or showing off. (NOTE: in the latter case, the haughty “das hab ich nicht nötig!” exclamation is probably just thinly veiled envy…)
The upshot is this: If you want to bitch like a German, you need to internalise this phrase, and learn to spit it out with bile-dripping disdain.
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[If you enjoyed this post, you might like to read about why you should never ever call a German woman “Fräulein”. Click here.]