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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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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?

KOJohnson - May 8th 2016

I'll bet that dozen and a half are Austrians.

MichiBerlin - May 8th 2016

You need humour to understand our humour

Ra.St. - May 7th 2016

.... with the NSA Scandal and now Trump mania the US is the World Champion of Humour...

Ra.St. - May 7th 2016

Oh hello my friend... no I'm not your friend.. we just meet eachother.. how can you call me a friend? Where you come from? Germany... Oh.. Good Beer and Cars.. and Kindergarten... and the Autobahn.. great.. and you? USA... Oh.. Obama, Bush, Lehmann Brothers, Wall Street, NY, Apple, Tesla, Silicon Valley, Google, Irangate, Watergate, gun country, Beyonce, Bernie Sanders and the one and only Mr. Trump... Nice Country.. (audience laughs)

Anwalt1969 - May 6th 2016

How very interesting. Especially the part about feeling more American than German and missing the sense of and for irony in Germany. I humbly admit that until this day I was of the opinion that the utter lack of irony is regrettably a trade mark for most parts of the United States. But I stand corrected. It must be me who doesn't get the irony in your run-of-the-mill Hollywood comedy, doesn't notice the irony under the layers of superficial friendlyness of "hi, my name is so-and-so and I am your waiter today" and cannot even grasp the loads of irony being heaped upon me by any Republican running for public office since Ronald Reagan. So, sorry for laughing at Donald Trump for all the wrong reasons. Shame on me.

Volguus - May 6th 2016

I seem to be part of that rare breed of Germans who are able to use irony, but I grew up with British humour, that may have had a strong influence on me. It seems to me like the number of those who are able to grasp irony is growing, especially the younger generations seem to be more humour-savvy. However, I found myself in the statement that Germans need to correct even the most trivial things. Yes, guilty as charged. It's not even meant to offend people or point out that they're wrong, it's just that I like things to be as precisely to the facts as possible. But I see how that can be irritating to non-Germans...

Richard - May 6th 2016

Ah! The truth, "Fritz". Irony of ironies.

Sachertorte - May 5th 2016

We in Austria are painfully aware of German lack of humor. When we make fun of ourselves they always take it literally and think we have some sort of inferiority complex which is what they have as they constantly apologize for being German. Humor developed best in cosmopolitan hubs like London, Paris, Vienna or New York. Germany is a relatively young country and it lacks a historical and cultural center. Even Berlin is not there yet...

Darkbloom - May 5th 2016

Very much like Mr Kluth, I too am of German descent and have been living outside Germany's borders and on a number of continents for most of my life. My wife is not German, my children are trilingual and passports and nationalities abound, and yet I have never felt the need to converse with them in English or have felt "more American" than German. Instead, I can appreciate how linguistic variations translate into a multitude of cultural differences, including those relating to humour, and I uphold the value of being able to speak or understand multiple languages. In fact, my oldest daughter has developed a finely tuned appreciation of word play which I believe is due to her innate understanding of meaning being derived from a fuzzy cloud of potentialities around words, and that funny things can and do happen when they overlap. What Mr Kluth describes is closer to my experience of some Germans abroad, which is the conscious dissolution of their sense of identity by way of adopting another culture's language in order to identify with it and to critique 'German-ness' from the outside perspective. It usually comes at the price of unquestioningly repeating stereotypical views, seemingly imbued with a haughty belief of outside perspective. In fact, at a minimum Mr Kluth's text unwittingly undermines its own conclusion and holds up a mirror to his inability to value differences in humour across nations and cultures. At worst, it betrays the author's smugness arising from a pretend position of superiority.