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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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Charles Reesink - May 5th 2016

as pianist Ned Rorem said: in his Paris Diaries,1970's "While the Germans are superficially profound, the French are profoundly supefvicial". -You cannot have without the other: the French and the Germans...the US and Iran. I recall twenty years ago, at the peak of a guerre froide between the US and Iran (...), he French embassy grounds were allegedly abuzz with gaiety, spntaneity, conversation. My grand mother was from Kassel, married a Dutchman uponher lieutenant's Colonnel in the German Army, 1914-1918, became insane and she remarried with a Dutch wholesaler to the German army. The rst is history: my other French grandfather died in a German concentration cmap: he was 38. Living in Canada, or Kannada, as some germsn take to writing it!!, the Rhne divide between France and deuschland is key to further meaningfy=ul dialogue especially when they always seem to be at different wavelengths: etc. etc.

Germanized11 - May 5th 2016

It's true.

Benudek - May 5th 2016

As a German Living abroad I fully subscribe to Germans taking speech literal, that doesn't go for humour only but also to interpretation of time and agreements. Myself, I have an ongoing challenge to quickly grasp irony and tend to get excited about things I understood to be agreed and the rest of the international crowd seeing rather relaxed. Haven't seen this correction thing - if so, maybe the author has a cultural hurdle understanding what I'd consider politeness trying to help ...:-) Expats, also Germans in Anglo Saxon countries, can easily feel misunderstood and different - they are. I'd insist British humour is much more sophisticated and cool than German humour, U.S. Humour as much as I love you guys to me looks often even more expressive and flat than German humour but hey ... It's totally awesome and I loove it so much am getting very excited ...:-)

Germanized11 - May 5th 2016

All of this is true. Even my wife who is half German his acquired the Need to Correct gene.

Ozymandias - May 5th 2016

That would be festivities, in my previous post. I can self-correct...

Ozymandias - May 5th 2016

Well, Germans in the Rheinland at least have an excuse for this. Fasching/Karneval/Fastnacht is to blame. The poor dears are lost in circumstances where there is no Tusch (when the band strikes up) to signal when to laugh. Then you also need to consider Die Fünfte Jahreszeit (The fifth season) required for the festivites; perhaps there isn't enough humour to last for the rest of the year.

1843cheer - May 5th 2016

I thought the ticket lady' reaction was humor one level up. You could all have laughed your heads off in front of her. :)

1843cheer - May 5th 2016

I am thinking the monocled face needs 1 pint of Guinness Draught (to drink), 2 pounds of superego (to lose) and 3 servings of id (to fill up). Ain’t no explanation. A practical solution. In the event the formula fails, he just is’t depressed enough to laugh.

derrick - May 4th 2016

Why do Germans lack a sense of humor? That's an easy one. It'a because Siegfried died, und Der Ring went back to the Rhine Maidens. Ach!

CreativeDestruction - May 4th 2016

Clearly a Berlin issue. Prussians, you know? Also, another quintessentially German trait: complaining about Germans.