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Being German is no laughing matter

Being German is no laughing matter

It may be clichéd but it’s also true: Germans have no sense of humour. Our Berlin bureau chief explains why

It may be clichéd but it’s also true: Germans have no sense of humour. Our Berlin bureau chief explains why

Andreas Kluth | May 3rd 2016

Shortly after moving back to Germany in 2012 after decades of absence, mainly in Anglo-Saxon countries, I took my kids to the Berlin zoo. The children were two, four and seven at the time, and had already developed a keen sense of irony (particularly the eldest one) – or at least they understood that dad doesn’t always mean things literally, because, you know, it’s funny. So we queued for our tickets, trading silly jokes. Like me, the kids are dual citizens of America and Germany, though at that time, fresh from California, we still felt more American and more at ease in English. But we deliberately spoke German, to help us acclimatise to our new home. In a mood of levity, we approached the ticket window. 

The lady behind it informed me that the price for the elder two was such-and-such and the little’un was free. “What if I pay you a bit extra and you keep them?” I suggested. The kids snortled and started naming prices that might clear the market. 

The lady stared back, horrified. Then, slowly, she leaned forward to look at my children, who stiffened. “Your dad does not really mean that,” she said. “He does not really want to sell you.”

That pretty much killed the mood for all four of us until somewhere between the giraffes and the polar bears. “Why did she say that?” my daughter asked, in English, as though out of an instinct for cultural self-preservation. As I pondered the question, I couldn’t help but think there was something peculiarly German about the lady’s reaction. First, Germans really, really struggle to grasp non-literal meanings. Second, Germans really, really can’t help but say when they think you’re wrong. 

It’s a realisation I came to recently at a dinner party attended by the Turkish ambassador to Germany. The most German of traits, he said, is this need to correct people, no matter how trivial the point. The rest of the table, a group of expats, nodded knowingly. A bit later the conversation turned to wine, and my wife described a trip we once took through Napa County. “Actually, it was Sonoma,” I interjected. The ambassador burst out laughing. “See?”

Once primed, I began to notice this habit all the time. The other day, riding shotgun in a taxi with friends who were visiting from America in the back, I tried to explain the origins of both the word “Berlin” and the city’s coat of arms. There is a phonetic coincidence here: the first syllable of Berlin sounds like Bär (bear), I began, and the coat of arms features a bear. But just then I was cut off by the taxi driver, who argued that no, it’s not true, the word is Slavic and means “swamp”. It does, as it happens, and I was going to get there. But the taxi driver was now deep into a lecture that lasted several minutes. I turned and saw my friends roll their eyes. We got out and got drunk. 

This need to correct feels most jarring when it is combined with the German failure to understand irony, overstatement and understatement – the rhetorical trifecta on which British humour is based. To be fair, I have met some Germans who savour and employ these three devices – a dozen-and-a-half, to be exact (after only four decades of visiting or living in the country). 

That’s not to say that Germans live in a world that’s devoid of comedy or laughter; but it is a world that’s empty, almost, of irony, overstatement and understatement. Take the “Heute Show”, for instance, a fairly blatant copycat job on “The Daily Show” as popularised by Jon Stewart in America. The German version is so awkward it makes me cringe. Instead of a raised eyebrow, we get full-body signals to laugh now. Punchlines don’t twist meaning ironically so much as invert it: in short, they rely on sarcasm – the lowest form of humour. 

Now imagine my day-to-day life in Germany, and mix this literalism with the need to correct. A typical exchange might run as follows. German acquaintance: “Your wife is looking for you, Andreas.” Me: “Really? She’s usually trying to lose me.” This gives pause to the acquaintance and then: “No, really, she’s looking for you. She went over there.”

The steady drip of micro-miscommunications produces a feeling of loneliness. Not connecting is always painful. Not connecting in the way that ironists do, as a means of coping with a depressing world, is more so. Many expats in Germany simply circumvent the inevitable rejection by speaking to the natives in as straighforward a manner as possible, as though talking to Siri on an iPhone. When the interlocutor spots a mistake and delivers the inevitable correction and explanation, these expats grin and bear it, and move on. It doesn’t make life easier, but it does make it simpler. 

The problem is that this defence mechanism changes the expats over time. I discussed this once with an Irish journalist based in Berlin. When he goes back to Dublin and sees his mates at the pub, they usually don’t know what to make of him for the first few hours – he’s being so literal. “Come off it,” they demand. “You don’t understand,” he replies, “it’s like this.” And then he explains.

58 Readers' comments

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hmhmhm - April 14th 2017

I have to say, I've encountered so many examples of Americans not getting German humor. There's something incompatible there, especially when it comes to Berlin sarcasm. Berliners joke often but never crack a smile, and the humor is not based on delivering witty punch lines (rather on making fun of you without you even noticing). And it lies very much in the tone, so language barriers (even between South and North Germany) usually kill it. But this is even worse with Austria - the only people I've ever heard saying Austrians have no sense of humor were Americans...

zangzangzang - April 14th 2017

Funny I have always observed the complete opposite. Germans seem to use irony just as much as the English or the French and are often deeply sarcastic. However, most Americans i meet don't seem to get irony or sarcasm open 90% of the time or sometimes attempt it but not witty enough to actually make it funny or fit for the situation and it just makes me cringe.

zangzangzang - April 14th 2017

Funny I always have always observed the complete opposite. Germans seem to use irony just as much as the English or the French and are often deeply sarcastic. However, most Americans i meet don't seem to get irony or sarcasm 90% of the time or sometimes attempt it but not witty enough to actually make it funny or fit for the situation and it just makes me cringe.

zangzangzang - April 14th 2017

Funny I always have always observed the complete opposite. Germans seem to use irony just as much as the English or the French and are often deeply sarcastic. However, most Americans i meet don't seem to get irony or sarcasm 90% of the time or sometimes attempt it but not witty enough to actually make it funny or fit for the situation and it just makes me cringe.

waelajam - April 9th 2017

Correcting the mistakes happened to me quite often during my 4 years residency in Germany and it is really torturing. As I once asked a woman sitting behind the desk in Frankfurt main station for a monthly ticket. Me: ich möchte ein Monatsticket von Frankfurt (bis) Offenbach [I 'd like a monthly ticket from Frankfurt to Offenbach]. She angrily corrected a linguistic error I committed: NACH Offenbach. Yet the Germans are wondering why do not the foreigners assimilate their culture!!!!

PILZAPFEL - April 9th 2017

How many Germans does it take to screw in a light bulb?

PILZAPFEL - April 9th 2017

Germans are like kleptomaniacs, they alway take things literally.

Reinet - April 9th 2017

Huyeng84 he mentioned that he has lived in several English-speaking countries. Herrentorte- he was speaking German to them as he is half-German, so it's not a matter of native or non-native. After making my corrections (LOL!) I have to say that some of his jokes do sound a bit annoying- unoriginal, cliched and corny (eg Actually I'm trying to use her) Is he just one of those annoying people who can never give you a straight answer and thinks he is so funny, while everyone else jusr finds him annoying?

herrentorte - April 9th 2017

First of all, understanding irony is one of the hardest things to do in a second language. Secondly, why is it automatically the natives' fault if the author fails to communicate effectively with a bunch of them? And God forbid, living in a foreign country for an extended period of time might actually change you over time. The author, clearly, would much rather the nation around him would change according to his own preferences. This is just another example of Anglo-Saxon chauvinism. It's not enough to teach the world democracy. We also need to teach them humor.

Lindsay Kay - March 16th 2017

We'll let's face it - humour requires empathy, and empathy doesn't exactly grow on trees here in Deutschland. And LOL at all the correction you're getting in these comments!

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