The German National Character Explained In Three Culturally Loaded Phrases

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, neatly lined up by the bus stop. Photo courtesy of my brother :)

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, take your paper. No fuss, no hassle.

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.

MediaMarkt

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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.]

 

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80 thoughts on “The German National Character Explained In Three Culturally Loaded Phrases

      1. Expat Eye

        I thought you might have! I was waiting for it since reading your comment on Anna’s post! And you didn’t disappoint 😉 Do you have many German readers? Will be interesting to see their reaction!

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  1. Wendy Kate

    I was in London earlier in the year with a group of students from our school. Herding them around and across the road crossings, and yes, dashing across when there’s no traffic but the man is red; German student has sharp intake of breath, ‘We would not do this in Germany’. I said, ‘oh, would you get a fine?!’ ‘ No! But we would not do this!’ That told me…:-)

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  2. bevchen

    Aaargh, as soon as I read “Ich bin doch nicht blöd” I thought of the Media Markt advert!!

    I’ve explained to my colleagues that in the UK the red/green men are meant to HELP pedestrians, not tell them what they absolutley MUST do at all costs. They were amazed! And I’m lucky that I live in a building of fairly young people who couldn’t care less if I hoover on a Sunday 😉 In Stuttgart on the other hand… well, let’s just say I’ve heard stories!

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      I want to hear those stories someday when you’ve got time.

      BTW, I’ve an unrelated translation question – can you think of a better word for “user savings”, i.e. in the context of “what users can save with more efficient home appliances”?

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      1. bevchen

        Oh just the usual… neighbours sticking notes on doors saying “I saw you putting plastic in the Restmüll bin!”. Things like that.

        Probably too late now, but maybe something with benefit? How users benefit?

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  3. con jamón spain

    Very interesting and funny post. We believe, if you’re obviously a ‘tourist’ in Spain – even in places like Orgiva (not exactly Madrid or Barcelona) – that you are taken for a ride when buying, say, vegetables from the market. This wouldn’t happen in Germany, correct? If so, hats off.

    Also, how would a German person react to the Spanish way of queuing? ie, no orderly line but asking who the last person to arrive was in the melee of people?

    Right, we’re off to dump a sofa behind the supermarket…

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Oh God, they would NEVER charge a tourist a different price for cherries or whatever at a market stall – that would totally go against the (German) grain. They are quite egalitarian-minded.

      They’d be fine with the queueing system, I think. Although queues are not orderly in Spain, people do generally wait their turn.

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      1. ladyofthecakes Post author

        You can, in the discussion section 🙂 I get loads of views for my language posts from there. (I don’t post the non-relevant stuff, of course, I don’t want to be taken down as a “spammer”, lol)

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  4. Kim in Fiji

    Man! On two out of three, I just LOVE Germany! Not the right reaction I suppose. But I am a high trust person and would love to be in a society of high trust people. I have some neighbors here with (I now recognize) a Spanish “picaresca” – though they probably have their own Hindi word for it. So stinking idiotic! They are NOT masters of the long-con, I’ll tell ya. Geez! .

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  5. ladyofthecakes Post author

    I’ve just had this hilarious response to my post from “johaquila” on Duolingo, which I just have to share on here:

    Important variants of “Wenn das jeder täte!”:

    “Wo kämen wir denn da hin?”

    “Da könnte ja jeder kommen!”

    Here is a typical situation with all three principles at work:

    An obviously very well-off elderly woman in a supermarket puts some item in her handbag to avoid paying for it, following the principle “Ich bin doch nicht blöd!” Another customer happens to see this. Thinking “Wo kämen wir denn da hin, wenn das jeder täte!” he reports her to an employee. Her main line of defence is almost certain to be: “Sie glauben doch wohl nicht, dass ich das nötig habe!”

    No, I didn’t make this up. I am sure this happens in Germany every workday.

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  6. wildmaiden

    Lol!!!! Sooo true.i was washing my hand in a public bathroom in Deutschland and i got soap all over the basin and an older woman next to me saw i didnt clean it up and admonished me and then i cleaned it up hahahaa

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  7. June

    My childhood (and lasting) experiences of Germans are from holidays in Spain. There’s the towel thing, them giving out to the Irish for having a sing-song after a few scoops and the biggie – after breaking them down with their wit and general good humour, the Irish would invite the Germans to stay if ever they were in Ireland. Not understanding that the phrase “drop in if ever you’re passing” is akin to “have a nice day”, the Germans would actually arrive! I, too, like my order, but I’ve had it knocked out of me a bit by the Lithuanians, who are the antithesis of orderly. I wonder how a German would survive here!

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      1. Rachel

        Okay, I have a question. Here in Australia, we say “bis später” a lot as we wave goodbye to someone. Is this a German thing, or is it just a rough translation of “see ya later” that caught on in the German expat community here? I’ve heard a number of stories from the Australians in the crowd that when they say it in Germany they get strange looks and comments like “later when?”.

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      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        No, “bis später” is a perfectly normal thing to say, provided that you’re actually due to meet up with that person again later that same day. If no such agreement exists, then it would be a strange thing to say, so the phrase doesn’t work as a generic “bye!”.

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      1. Fabian

        You are definitely right. As a German who has spent quite some time in Asia, I felt vindicated that it was kind of “human” to need silence as a prerequisite for relaxation.

        Wrong.

        After 1 year in Mexico, I painfully have to report that there are lots of cultures, which just cannot stand the total absence of any noi… erm… I mean “sound”. My Mexican roomies here put their “music” to a volume that let’s my laptop literally perform little jumps.

        That said, I take total advantage of my German identity: Having this cultural stereotype of being a permanent grumbler anyway, I more often than not will approach them, asking if they could kindly close their door. This alone of course wouldn’t help at all, but they are thoughtful enough and will usually lower the volume to standable levels, or even switch to headphones. Gracias a dios!

        Thanks for your entertaining and very true post and with best regards from Mexico,
        Fabian

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  8. Vanessa

    I live in Berlin and Sunday is the day-of-rest! It is so annoying – in my old apartment the man underneath us used to come ringing our bell if he heard any noise at all – 99% of the time it wasn’t even us… I’m hoping he was a special case, but according to locals it’s normal – and the only thing to do is to move house – crazy! Here’s our blog post on our awful neighbour: http://leatherandabel.com/calling-the-police-in-germany/

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Oh boy, by the sounds of it he has serious problems and anger issues… and, to top it all off, he’s not even German 😉 Not that that’s any consolation when you’re feeling threatened and harrassed. I hope you’ll find a new place soon. Bummer!

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  9. Rachel

    Oh, I’ve definitely heard #2 and #3! I think maybe I haven’t heard #1 so much because Australia is pretty much the opposite – “let’s find as many loopholes in the rules as we possibly can!” – and so the poor German expats have had to mellow a bit in that area. However, I am now committing all three of these phrases to memory – they can only be useful, and definitely much better than trying to construct the same meaning in a much clumsier manner when I need to convey the same sort of derision.

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  10. Nene

    Have had many “altercations” with fellow citizens regarding “the rules”! 😉 Mine tend to happen on bicycle paths bzw dual bicycle/pedestrian paths/crossings… The Kehrwoche here in Swabia is scary! Swabia itself is scary! There always seems to be at least one unit in the block that is tasked with controlling the Gruendlichkeit, and they aren’t shy about telling you how terrible your Kehrwoche attempts have been.

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      1. Fabian

        Haha, you are definitely not from Swabia, otherwise you would exactly know what Kehrwoche is. Luckily, the time I lived in Swabia without my parents was always in a building with a facility manager (Hausmeister) who was responsible for most of the cleaning. So I luckily got scolded only once for my weak skills tidying up the stairway 😉

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  11. adamf2011

    That’s pretty entertaining. At the risk of being seen as the spoon stirring up the pot :twisted:…I wonder if you’ve found expressions similarly imbued with “national character” in your adopted cultures?

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  13. The Sicilian Housewife

    This is fabulous and absolutely fascinating.
    The Sicilians are exactly like the Spanish example you gave, thinking that ripping someone off (especialy a foreigner) is funny and admirable, something to be proud of.
    It also interested me as I have read that only the high-trust societies achieve real economic success and the low trust ones (like Sicily) keep shooting themselves in the foot and knocking each other down because they do ty to rip each other off and because they can hardly get anything started due to not trusting each other. When starting a business people would rather hire their inceompetent cousin who they trust a bit than a highly qualified stranger who they are convinced will find a way to swindle them.
    I do think a lot more societies (including England these days) need to adopt #1 and start telling people off for infractions of the rules. A generaly selfish disrespect for others and the rules of society can drag a nice country into third-worldiness scarily fast, in my opinion.

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  14. haresbusheswood

    This is absolutely great, now i completely understand why some of my german friends act in the way they do, fits perfectly!!

    they told me it was the hardest to learn, so i jumped right on it

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