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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.

59 Readers' comments

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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!

Grendel - January 29th 2017

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.” Let me translate that into your culture: "Children, your father has a horrible sense of humor. You are safe for now, as he does not in fact intend to sell you to child traffickers, but you might be better off killing yourselves soon, so as not to be cursed to inherit a lifetime of equally pathetic dad jokes."

jjcanada - January 6th 2017

I have a german heritage but came to Canada when I was 5. I tend to use sarcasm and irony - I have seen how it doesn't work even if one takes into account translation issues. Watched a recent debate on energy policy for Canada and they brought in a German expert. As part of the show one used the boiling frog analogy in terms of global warming and how like the frog we get boiled without jumping out. When it came to the German panelist he took that part of the discussion seriously and spent time talking about the science behind the physiology of the frog and of course it would jump out. It was a very painful listen and no one on the panel knew how to intervene. At the end they let him have his air time and moved on. A very telling example of what we are saying here.

huyeng84 - January 4th 2017

Yes, Germans are different, German humor is different - but Berlin is a special cup of tea. The author is right when it comes to Berlin and its people. But Berlin is not Bavaria and it is certainly not Cologne. And maybe I am wrong - but when he's American-German - why does he have the knowledge of English humor... ?

Ansgar - August 21st 2016

On another point: What would we think of a journalist who grew up 'on the wrong side of the tracks' who later moves back to the old neighborhood and writes an article about how the "natives" do conform to the commonly held prejudices that they are shiftless, lazy and irresponsible while giving examples of how he and his family have risen above that? Uncomfortable comparison, no? The Economist in past years provided an invaluable and unique outsider's perspective on Germany. I haven't gotten that out of the coverage recently. Thinking about this article has given me a hypothesis to explain this with. Maybe the Berlin bureau chief is a bit too hung up with his own issues of belonging and not belonging to think clearly...

Ansgar - August 21st 2016

A beautiful example of how an articles failings can support its thesis. Also a beautiful example of irony. A completely un-funny article by a German about how Germans aren't funny.

PithyPointers - August 16th 2016

So you don't think Heinz Erhardt or Otto Waalkes were funny, in their way, in their time, in their day? Certainly put the current crop of "comedians" to shame. Michael Meier and Mario Barth are about as funny as Will Ferrell. And not at all outrageously untalented. Really.

PithyPointers - August 16th 2016

The "Heute Show" is a cheap, knock-off, loud-mouthed, foul-mouthed paid political advertisement for Red-Red-Green. That would explain its lack of subtlety or humour. (Which proves your point.)

Stella Vantouz - May 28th 2016

Is this a joke? The lazy, unfiltered reporting of taxi ride conversations presented as evidence that Germany lacks humour is refreshing, but not in good way. The complete lack of self-awareness here reminds me of the paperback "[insert nationality or ethnic group] Joke Books" found among the back issues of TV Guide, Time and Cosmo in the powder rooms of the American bourgeoisie until the early 1980's. The jokes were almost identical whether they targeted Polish, Jews or Italians. Not because there was an inherent truth or grain of humanity to them, but because they were all based on the fundamentally racist, misogynist, homophobic and xenophobic ideas which continue to inform many people’s beliefs. I'm not sure this article proves Germans have no sense of humour or that they regret the missed opportunity to become funnier during the author's exile. I am sure, however that if they are as allergic to humour as he suggests, his dull and outrageously unfunny personal anecdotes ("Really? She’s usually trying to lose me.") will help him fit right in. Let’s not forget that what more and more people are chuckling about: the spray-tanned tumbleweed stapled to an empty fart locker gliding toward the US presidency without the slightest friction besides the strenuous objections of Hilary Rodham Clinton.

cyber3px - May 22nd 2016

Oh dear, talking to Germans about their sense of humor can really hurt Germans. It's like asking Americans about their ability to brew quality beer. In the end I can laugh with Germans if you pair it with a German Lager or laugh with Americans and pair it with an American beer. It sort of balances out. And the are import and exports for both anyway. So, wherever you are you can get the best of both worlds.