'Decomposition of the Soul' on DVD?
Thoughts and Photos from India

Tragically, Teutonically Tedious

On question I occasionally ask myself is: 'Why are so many German professors so unnecessarily boring?' Of course, there are exceptions, many of whom I know personally, yadda-yadda. But the observation still holds.

I use the word "unnecessarily" advisedly. Of course, all professors have to be sort of 'boring'; they're experts after all, and tend not to express themselves in the black-and-white certainties beloved of the tabloids and the pub debate. But in Germany, there's a further joy-killer at work: the expected 'habitus' (roughly, code of conduct) of German professors. Take it away, Greg Nees:

In a Diskussion one is expected to be as impersonal, serious, and objective as possible. This, of course precludes any banter or attempts at humor, which are considered inappropriate. In the German education system similar behavior and attitudes are expected in class, resulting in a more intellectual atmosphere. A German friend, while training as a graduate teaching assistant at a major American university, told me how shocked he was upon being instructed to intentionally use jokes in order to loosen up the classroom atmosphere. Such behavior went against all he had learned as appropriate classroom protocol. (p. 78)

This is not unique to profs: it ties into notions of discretion and dignity deeply coded into German social life. Pick up any book for how to get along with Germans, and it will tell you to speak in as deep a voice as possible and not to smile or make jokes, lest you be considered "unserious" by your hosts / colleagues. That's right -- even one joke can brand you forever as a lightweight.

Note that this blot often cannot be dispelled by actual talent. Again and again, I've seen Germans give the job / position to a candidate of average abilities who has demonstrated mastery of unwritten behavior and dress expectations: who 'conducts himself properly,' uses the expected formal phrases, and 'fits in.' Candidates who display much more talent -- but who appear unconventional in dress, speech, or manner -- are quickly processed out of the system. Their intelligence may be grudgingly acknowledged, but a consensus quickly forms that they might 'rock the boat,' or otherwise prove themselves 'uncomfortable' (unangenehm). As soon as they're declared unangenehm, they're toast.

I'm not saying that Germans won't tolerate eccentricities in extremely gifted people -- they certainly will -- but once you exclude candidates at either extreme of the talent spectrum, Germans will definitely sacrifice some additional talent to obtain a higher level of conformity. Thus, many German professional and academic settings end up as the worst of all possible worlds: they're stuffed with mediocrities who aren't even funny.

Sure, once you get a few drinks into some of these people, they 'lighten up'. But it's important to understand exactly what that can mean. Many Germans have simply never developed a talent for inventing their own witty observations or discerning genuine wit in other people. These are skills they have never been called upon to develop, and which can be positively dangerous in many German professional settings. Once these people lower their inhibitions (invariably through massive alcohol consumption), their version of humor often turns out to be reciting boorish pre-fabricated jokes, often targeting women and minorities. And yes, I have encountered this among German professors as well. Oh boy, have I ever.

If you're getting the idea that I try to avoid socializing with Germans in stiff formal / professional settings, you're right on-target!

Now let us turn to the United States.

To keep myself apprised of the financial meltdown, I sometimes surf over to the blog written by Princeton economics professor Paul Krugman, where he offers analysis of the latest numbers and thoughts on Obama's new economic team. But right in the middle of all this high-flown analysis -- complete with charts and graphs -- I find that Krugman has linked to the following photo:


This is, of course, a Fedcat, which is a parody of a Lolcat, the captioned pictures of cats that are perhaps the Internet's most welcome innovation (Krugman himself captioned this photo "cats are cuter"). After reading Krugman for a while, I turn to Brad DeLong, tenured professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley. Among the graph-heavy, extremely high-level discussion of the financial crisis that I certainly don't understand, I find that he's linked to this Monty Python video:

Don't these professors realize that they are undermining their sacred honor and the dignity of their entire profession by linking to frivolous, superficial 'humorous' commentaries? Don't they see that they are pandering to the basest impulses of the complacent bourgeoisie, who crave the political pacifier of light entertainment? Don't they realize, as Adorno has over and over patiently explained to us, that laughter and jokes have immanent fascistic implications? And DeLong has compounded his sin by even linking to a 'humorous' video that openly mocks the very fundaments of the monotheistic tradition, which even the unchurched must take terribly seriously!

And yet, somehow, their occasional jokes or ironic comments haven't destroyed their reputations. Indeed, Krugman just won the Nobel Prize in Economics. There appears to be at least one country on the face of the earth in which you can be respected for your intellect without bolting yourself into an exoskeleton of stuffiness. Kind of makes me homesick, to tell you the truth...


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


Here's another professors blog which is at least slightly funny and sometimes very ironic. Have a go. http://www.iaas.uni-bremen.de/sprachblog/


nah, that is too easy.

i studied at nyu for two semesters and there was a difference in professors or instructors i have noticed: one type was very eager to seem funny, especially in a buddy-ish kind of way, where it was obvious that they'd act like that in order to be popular. then there was another kind who was extremely good in its field and the humor developed out of the discourse about the subject: that difference seems very telling to me, and as the second type is usually the one that is indeed funny and whose funniness is based on a certain ability, the first type is merely despicable and wasnt taken seriously by the students. the same foes for germany, only that the first type does not exist. i know a lot of great professors who have this certain wit (and, by the way, linking stale monty python bits is not at all witty but rather a sign of the desperate need to seem witty). i still think that it is in a way relieving and not opressing that in germany you do not have to seem funny. because: some are, and some arent. and there is nothing worse than a person who isnt funny trying to be funny.


Find me plenty of light-hearted, irreverent blog posts by dozens of different German professors, and I'll be happy to confess my error and repent!

Not quite fair, as most German professors don't blog (yes, I know, but that's another debate). But there are professors like econometrician Harald Uhlig who can be fairly humorous in his dealings with macroeconomic policy issues, as this example shows.

I still think it's silly to believe that humour operates along national borders, even if your sample of a few dozens of German professors may have given you that impression.


http://www.wissenslogs.de/wblogs/blog/mathematik-im-alltag/allgemein/2008-11-22/das-ja-der-mathematik>Math Blog by Prof. Günter Ziegler

http://www.wissenslogs.de/wblogs/blog/querkraft>Physikalischer Fussball-Blog by Prof. Metin Tolan


Andrew, I'm a computer scientist and have had lots of professors who tried to be funny in their lectures, with mixed success. Unfortunately they don't blog, so I cannot prove it, but here is http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Werner_Heise>one example that usually succeeded in his attempts.

These guys have all been mathematicians, computer scientists, and physicists, and this is a bunch with a bit strange humour anyway ... lots of insider jokes you don't understand when you have no clue about the mathematics, e.g.

No experience with humanities or law professors, though ...


I think you're slightly overstating your case, but only slightly. German humor does seem to be based more on irony, as Tassander remarks.

Aside from humor or lack of it, along with John le Carré I have noticed that some German lecturers ascend to the podium with a neat little swivel of their hips. I've never seen this mannerism in the Anglo-American academic world.


I stand by the post 100%. It's based not on cultural stereotypes or something I read in a book, but on years of close observation of German professors in public life. I've got them dead to rights.

How do we know this? Because the people who didn't agree with me huffed...and they puffed... but they didn't provide a single example to challenge my point, which was, to repeat: that German professors, when addressing their specialty subjects in public, almost never make lighthearted or joking comments. I posted irreverent blog entries from prominent American professors, and those were just two that I found after a search lasting approximately 40 seconds. I could find thousands more, if I had the time (not that all of them would be funny, of course -- the point is they're trying to be funny).

Find me plenty of light-hearted, irreverent blog posts by dozens of different German professors, and I'll be happy to confess my error and repent!


Outworn national stereotypes my Aunt Fanny, and it's not limited to law professors. I'm the wife of a professor in the humanities, I've met quite a few of his colleagues, and I find Andrew's description to be spot-on.


Lolcats, pinnacle of humor indeed.


I think nanne is on the right track there regarding an explanation for Andrews post. As far as I remember he's living in Düsseldorf or Dortmund or so. This would account for quite a lot like having to drink Alt-Bier all day long, being barred from nice places like Cologne and having to go to India, France or even Poland to have some fun. And lawyers like all the people who make a job out of laws are very dangerous folks to joke with. What they regard as a pun could be the punch line of a life time verdict for others. So it's clear that everybody ducks joking lawyers and judges. It could be this social stigma that makes lawyers, law professors and judges go into the cellar when they wnat to have a good laugh, just to avoid seeing everybody run away in panic everytime they are trying to be funny out in the open. Perhaps Andrew just didn't find the appropriate cellars yet?

And the rest of us germans who are neither lawyers nor have a cellar at our disposal to laugh in we have to content ourselves to making bad jokes about foreigners and practice devout postures towards our bosses.

But leaving that aside: professors in general are pure horror even when they have nothing to do with laws. I remember lectures on Mathematic 2 at the TU-Berlin where the lecturing professor could drone on for hours and hours without even makinging a single funny remark about tensors or complex numbers. All he was up to was to being cowtowed by saying "Sofort, Herr Professor", "Jawoll, Mein Professor", "Bitte nich schlagen, Mein Professor" and such at the end of semester. These are the horrible consequences of the distortion lenses of alien cultures and habits.

Learning from the USA means learning to win


"Film noir is the conjunction of violence and irony, and we Americans don't do irony very well. We are a straightforward and self-righteous people, so we are rather good at viciousness and humor but lacking in irony." Writes David Mamet in "Bamby vs. Godzilla"


The point of tassander is understandable insofar as German humour sometimes tends to be hidden in carefully constructed formulations and is accompanied by mild smirks at best, which might a way to get around a supposed taboo on laughter. It's something the well bred English also do a lot, but it will still take cultural affinity to register.

But I laugh plenty with my German friends and suspect Andrew just lives in the wrong town and teaches at the wrong department.

Professors need to be clear first and foremost, and German professors are a mixed bag in that department, certainly the law professors, who have an even higher tendency to get lost in elaborate formalisms.



Indeed, making shrewd observations about “German” cultural particularities used to be your strength. This is still my favourite example. However, recently you seem to have succumbed to the deplorable habit of using outworn national stereotypes in order to please dull audiences from New York.

Maybe you should use your literary knowledge to educate the previous commenter about the significance of irony in German literary history. You could start with Heine and maybe also lose a few words about Tucholsky and Gernhardt while working your way up to Max Goldt. I’m sure he will accept to be lectured about (German) irony by you, since you are not German. The radiator in hell can be kept on that way.

Oh, and I also enjoy reading the econ blogs you mentioned. Sometimes, however, they are not places of unbeatable witticisms, but rather of childish bickering. Just compare these two posts.

Good luck with your future fieldwork!

Jeffrey -- New York


German humour, in an intellectual environment, seems to be based more on irony than on witticisms. Maybe that makes it harder to detect for Brits and USAsians.

This is, without question, the most boneheaded comment I have ever read. We're supposed to believe that Brits and Americans have trouble discerning the Germans' fine sense of irony?!!! What?! The German sense of irony?!

For those of us who have lived in both cultures, in Germany and either Britain or America, what Andrew has written about is BASIC. I could give you twenty or thirty examples from Germany that reflect Andrew's observations. The day that Germans think that they can school British and Americans on irony will be a cold day in hell for sure.

As Andrew points out, intellectuals in Germany exhibit humor at their peril; in the US and in Britain, it is common for them to use humor in their critical appraisals. That's the whole point of Andrew's blog entry. One way is not necessarily better; the two ways reflect different cultural attitudes and values. If you can't see that, then you are simply blind to the finer cultural differences that are obvious to most observers. Try again.




I'm working as a teacher in Germany and during my trainig I was told time and again to use humour to contribute to a relaxed atmosphere.

My personal experiences at university also don't quite mesh with your scenario.
German humour, in an intellectual environment, seems to be based more on irony than on witticisms. Maybe that makes it harder to detect for Brits and USAsians.

The comments to this entry are closed.