Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

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

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.

Trisha Auer - May 21st 2016

I have a sense of humor. I don't joke with strangers or anyone I don't know well. It takes me a long time to know someone well enough to joke.

fernbank123 - May 19th 2016

Dear Germans reading, stop getting upset at the text! Embrace that the entire world believes this about you (us). Maybe if you joked about yourselves more, you'd lose the title. And stop calling Americans shallow - their problem is another. They will meet you somewhere, tell you their whole life story even if you don't care and you and they both know you'll never see each other again. This is not shallow, it's maybe fake? or inefficient? (which, the latter, I know you hate as well). This is part of their system of manners, weird as it sounds. Basically, Germans, don't take everything so damn seriously. Letztendlich hat der Typ doch ein bisschen Recht, oder? HA!

cabana - May 18th 2016

This is not a German phenomenon, it's a Berlin/Brandenburg or generally an East German phenomenon. Coming from Frankfurt am Main i found myself being constantly corrected and scholared in Berlin and Brandenburg. Wasn't used to that from my home region.

eleanor - May 18th 2016

"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...Punchlines don’t twist meaning ironically so much as invert it: in short, they rely on sarcasm – the lowest form of humour. " I'm also a humorvoll American, but the author's counterposition of irony vs. sarcasm seem a bit off: irony 1 |ˈʌɪrəni| noun (pl.ironies) [ mass noun ] the expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect: ‘Don't go overboard with the gratitude,’ he rejoined with heavy irony. sarcasm |ˈsɑːkaz(ə)m| noun [ mass noun ] the use of irony to mock or convey contempt: she didn't like the note of sarcasm in his voice.

John Doe - May 16th 2016

Hey JOHNMOSBROOK you forget to use " to end your quote. Greetings from Germany

johnmosbrook - May 16th 2016

A German: "I don't understand why you call that man 'Curly'. He is completely bald. There is not a hair on his head. Can you explain this, bitte?

not funny - May 16th 2016

Well, I disagree with the text. It's all a question of individual taste. I never liked the Americans' kind of humour because I find it shallow and dumb. Could never laugh with them. But I regularly crack up talking to Jamaicans or Tobagonians and vise versa. It's a typical American attitude to discredit everything that isn't like what they are used too. Sad.

elwood612 - May 12th 2016

I just created an account specifically to answer @Sansker below, because dude, your answer is priceless. It made me laugh so hard, it really did. In fact I think your comment is a better illustration of the author's point than anything he provided! And please don't take this the wrong way, it's not at all meant as an insult! :) Anyway, let me explain what irony is. You say that when a German tells you "your wife is over there," that means that he's expecting you to go and meet her. So when the author does not acknowledge this, he must have missed the implied meaning. Actually though, the author perfectly understood this implied meaning (it's much the same in other cultures, after all). What HE then did is make a joke, by implying that his wife looking for him is unusual; in other words, that their marriage is a chore. Again, it's a joke. And in any case, after the joke, he would then go off in the direction indicated to find his wife. But anyway, thank you so much for that comment, it really made my day!! Honestly the funniest thing I've read in a while!!!!! :D

solidgold - May 9th 2016

Being exposed to British humour early on I sometimes still struggle to understand what Germans think is funny. It's true in my observation that it's not irony. And irony is a coping mechanism to deal with a depressing world, very astute observation. It's not true though that Germans don't laugh. And I don't think our humour is solely rooted in sarcasm either. Forget the heute show, forget Mario Barth. There still is Loriot, which is objectively funny and his humour is appreciated and understood by many of my countrymen. Loriot often sees the funny in class differences, much of his comedy stems from the akward situations he puts his characters in and their inability to communicate. Is situational comedy what makes us laugh?

Sansker - May 9th 2016

The following paragraph is pure gold, as it shows in a very ironical way that quite often this has little to do with sense of humour, but communication in general. "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.” In this paragraph you are talking about German literalism, but ironically it is you not understanding the implied message or at least not reacting to it. A German telling you "Your wife is looking for you." is not an information, but - dutiful as we are - the person would expect you to go and meet your wife, or at least express that you would so, but you completely ignore this implied message. As I'm German I don't know much about irony, but isn't it exactly this? Explaining the German literalism by giving an example of a German who is sending a non literal message which you didn't grasp?

Pages