Tarantino's Repellent, Shallow Cynicism
Two Coots Eating an Apple

Policies and National Character

It seems to me many commenters to the post about Gheogegan's book are conflating the issue of policy choices with national character. The argument in favor of social-democratic policies isn't that it makes people more cheerful and courteous. Those national traits, to the extent they can be measured at all, are determined by dozens of different factors. Perhaps government policy is one of them, perhaps not. Like many foreigners here, I think Germans complain vastly more than their material circumstances justify. However, it's precisely that demanding strain in their character that got them many of the benefits that, as Gheogegan's book shows, are the envy of many other nations.

Put another way, Germans might be even grumpier than they are right now if they didn't have the insulation from against war, medical-financial catastrophe, overwork, mass unemployment, and the harshest forms of global competition that they enjoy now. For that matter, Americans might be even more cheerful and trusting and patriotic if their government adopted policies that insulated the middle class better from these risks. Or perhaps they might become more petulant, or perhaps nothing at all would change. The cheerful, optimistic strain of American culture is currently being tested by long-term mass unemployment. Anyone who doesn't realize that ecomonic and social upheaval like that can unleash dark forces in America needs a history lesson.

But the rationale for introducing those policies isn't the effect it will have on the behavior of people, as measured by subjective individual observers. If the policies result in an overall increase in welfare, they should be adopted.

For that matter, I think cataloging the alleged defects of various societies in order to show that their policies shouldn't be adopted is a mug's game. There's not a society on earth that can't be filleted by a critical observer. Thus, the fact that a society has plenty of flaws to catalog doesn't really help us any further, unless it can be shown that those flaws are actually produced by ill-considered government policies.

However, that's not to say that cataloging a society's flaws isn't loads of fun, when it's done right, for instance by the immortal Phila:

It's strange how often we romanticize aspects of America that we blithely destroyed because there was money to be made. And it's even more strange that having destroyed such things, we replicate them shoddily, and market them as antidotes to the very psychic emptiness that made the real things seem worthless.

For instance, Bush and his creatures trumpet precisely those ideals of small-town life that his actual policies are destroying. The idea that we are a nation of caring families, or cooperative communities, doesn't withstand the slightest critical examination. But the concept of family and community - of belonging - remains eminently marketable. It's as though we've been locked in a bare cell, and are comforting ourselves by imagining the ineffable perfection of Platonic beds and chairs.

In America's smaller towns, neighborhoods have been destroyed and businesses torn down, only to be replaced by chain businesses that offer a cheap imitation of the community values they ruined. "Old-fashioned" qualities - such as conscientious workmanship - are promoted in cavernous, dismal buildings that were made cheaply, out of shoddy materials, by people whose emotional investment in their work was at a bare minimum. Lovely Victorian buildings are torn down, to make way for some gigantic drab enclosure where faux-Victorian gaslights are sold. Our neighbors are driven from their houses and scattered to the four winds, so that chain stores can arrive and proclaim themselves our "good neighbors."

Whatever you consider the human spirit to be, our official culture has stopped making an effort to appeal to its kinder or saner aspirations, or to please it with anything more profound than the numb familiarity one feels when entering a Starbucks or a Wal-Mart...which is really just an adjustment to diminished expectations.

Perhaps our diminished expectations explain some of our strange bitterness towards the rest of the world. We work harder and harder, and pay more and more, and get less and less, but it's almost as though we defend our lifestyle all the more fiercely because of its very shabbiness. For if this is success, who could survive failure? If this is profit, who could bear loss? The closer we come to outright failure, the less we want to admit it.


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Being German myself and living in the US, the understanding that Germans are notorious complainers came at first as a surprise to me - don't those Amis understand that there is a crucial difference between complaining und beschweren? That one is a speech-act directed at solving a problem and the other a bonding experience? Now, having read the insightful if slightly essentializing book "Germany: Unraveling an Enigma" by Greg Ness (Yarmouth: Intercultural Press 2000), I can just copy-paste the section on complaining instead of going into long disquisitions myself. Enjoy:

"The Fine Art of Complaining

In 1936 Kurt Lewin noted that Germans more commonly
expressed their annoyance and irritation than did Americans,
and his claim is still true today and can be a major cause
of misunderstanding when Germans and Americans try to
communicate. Remembering that when we are communicating,
we are using words for a purpose, we might ask “What are
Germans doing when they complain?” And it is just as helpful
to ask “Why don’t Americans do the same?”
From one point of view, expressing criticism and complaint
can be viewed as a continuum. They both involve
making negative remarks about someone or something, but
they are viewed somewhat differently by Germans. Perhaps
freedom of speech and the attendant right to criticize the
powers that be is something Germans do not take for granted.
Or perhaps criticism is just an integral part of the German
philosophical tradition. Witness the enormously influential
trilogy by Kant: Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical
Reason, and Critique of Judgment. Part of this legacy is that
criticism is seen as a right that must be well protected and
reaffirmed through continual use. Criticism has a long intellectual
pedigree in Germany and is often viewed as something
both useful and necessary for the smooth functioning of
a business or society. Complaining, on the other hand, is
often viewed rather negatively by Germans, and yet, the fact
is they spend large amounts of their time and energy doing
just that. This fact can be illustrated by the number of words
in German that exist to describe the act: klagen, sich beklagen,
nörgeln, sich beschweren, mäkeln, schimpfen, wettern, jammern,
meckern, motzen. While each has its nuances, they all relate
to the common act of complaining.
This is perhaps not so surprising when we realize that all
cultures contain inherent contradictions that don’t seem to
be interpreted as contradictions by the members of those
cultures. Consider American culture. Certainly freedom and
individual liberty are values that all Americans would agree
are the foundations of society; they are written into the
Constitution. And yet, the United States has incarcerated
more of its citizens than any other industrialized country in
the world. Many Americans do not see that as a contradiction
at all, because they don’t think of these persons as
“citizens” but rather as “criminals.” But to the outside world,
this seems a pronounced contradiction.
So what are Germans doing socially when they are complaining?
To understand their complaining it is useful to
understand what anthropologist George Foster called the “image
of limited good.”6 Put in the simplest of terms, the image
of limited good is based on the notion of a zero sum game in
which all resources come in a limited supply. Thus, not only
is there a limited amount of gold, oil, land, water, and so on
in our world, but also love, safety, happiness, and other
nontangibles are in limited supply. Taking too much of any
of these resources leaves too little for others. This notion and
the corresponding idea that each person gets a fair share only
when others don’t take more than their share is the fundamental
assumption underlying much of the complaining one
hears among Germans. Having an abundance of resources
arouses other people’s envy and wrath, and Germans try
carefully to avoid triggering such reactions. Given that many
resources are in fact limited, it is easy to see why in such a
densely populated country as Germany such an ethos would
become widespread.
In the United States, an assumption of unlimited good is
more common, and complaining is less socially acceptable.
Quite probably the American penchant for optimism comGerman
Communication Patterns 87
bined with the open-frontier mentality served to keep complaining
to a minimum. Complaining too much in the United
States will get you branded very quickly as a loser and a
whiner, and so most Americans try to avoid it.
Germans are encouraged to be modest and not flaunt their
wealth and success. Understatement, not bragging, is valued.
And one exaggerated form of understatement is complaining.
Ask a German businessman how his company is doing and
you will often hear about the problematic state of the
economy, the increase in competition, the new regulations
that are making production more complicated, the difficult
problems the company is encountering, and so on. But if you
look at his company’s profit and loss statement, you will often
be surprised to see the company is well in the black, with
good prospects for the future. Much of this type of complaining
is simply the socially required “modesty” and “realism”
that are expected in Germany—as well as an attempt to
camouflage success so as not to arouse envy on the part of
others. This is very different from the American corporate
scene, where one is expected to present a positive image and
where talking about problems is frowned upon. In fact many
Americans state they have no problems, only “challenges”
and “issues.”
But complaining in Germany is more than just camouflaging
success. It is also a social ritual for building a relationship
and creating community. In the United States when two
strangers meet, they will often engage in small talk. Part of
what they are doing is trying to find things they have in
common, which can then serve as the basis for further conversation
and a deepening of the relationship. This search for
commonalities was important in a land of immigrants. There
were obviously differences between them, so looking for common
ground was crucial to building a relationship.
In Germany the situation was quite different. Rather than a
loosely linked, diverse mass of people who were both socially
and geographically mobile, German society was ethnically
homogeneous, old, and well established, with a clear social
structure in which everyone was firmly embedded. There was
little need to seek information about who the other person
was, because most likely you knew the other person rather
well, or at least could guess quite accurately what he or she was
like, depending on behavior and attire. In this society, complaining
became a social ritual and a way to establish a sense
of commonality and social solidarity. Today this old ritual
continues unabated. Sit down with some people who rent
apartments—because of the high population, land is at a premium
in Germany and far more people rent in Germany than
in the United States—and one of the themes of conversation
will be criticism directed at landlords for trying to raise the
rent or for not keeping the place maintained properly. Sit
down with the landlords, however, and you will hear a very
different story. They will complain about how their costs have
soared and how they are losing money because of rent control
laws. Furthermore, they will tell you how they would like to get
rid of at least some of their tenants but cannot because they are
so well protected by the law. The litany seems to continue
endlessly, while the American sits there wondering how people
who never stop complaining have ever managed to achieve so
much, which misses the crucial point that complaining is a
social ritual and not a sign of despair.
Through complaining together and about the same topics,
the speakers are implicitly communicating that they belong
to the same group and thus share a common view and common
interests. The art of complaining is still highly valued in
Germany, because while it has abolished its official class
system and is now only a semiclassless society, class boundaries
and rankings still play an important role. Establishing
one’s social position is an important part of communication,
and what one complains about says a lot about one’s social
Complaining also serves as an emotional safety valve.
German society is quite competitive, and this competition
German Communication Patterns 89
combined with a high population density creates a sense of
social pressure and claustrophobia, which many Germans
don’t manage well. Getting together with one’s friends to
complain is a way to vent this emotional pressure. And because
they come to understand one another’s problems better,
they often feel more favorably disposed toward one another,
thus creating stronger bonds of friendship. Mention to
a German friend that you have a problem and your friend will
take time to ask lots of detailed questions to figure out what
the problem is and how to help you.
One of the results of the German strategy of mutual commiseration
is that friends tend to divulge far more of their
private affairs to one another than Americans do. Americans
tend to carefully weigh just what information they are giving
away, perhaps because they know that once it has been spoken,
there is no way to recall it. And because Americans are
involved in more, larger, and looser social networks than
Germans, that information could end up causing embarrassment.
Because friendships are entered into more slowly and
cautiously, Germans have been able to carefully test their
friends’ discretion and know they can be trusted. If this trust
has been abused in the past, then the relationship will probably
have been dissolved.
That American friends don’t spend as much time complaining
or commiserating over their problems strikes Germans
as odd for several reasons. First, they interpret this fact
as a sign that Americans aren’t being completely honest.
Germans have trouble believing that Americans are really
always so optimistic, so “up” or so “on” all the time, especially
when their verbal and nonverbal behaviors don’t seem to
match. This sends a mixed message, and sometimes distrust
stems simply from the Americans’ lack of negativity, which
the Germans see as unnatural. Secondly, they miss the feelings
of trust and solidarity that are generated through commiserating
with friends. One German I spoke to even suggested
that one reason so many Americans go to therapists is
because they don’t have any true friends they can really talk
with about their problems. A third perception is that by
always attempting to put a positive spin on everything,
Americans create the impression with Germans that they are
dreamers who don’t have their feet planted firmly on the
Naturally enough, whether German complaining takes
place in the public sphere or among friends in the private
sphere will determine what form the complaining takes. In
the private sphere the complaining will be more emotional,
more direct, and with less consideration for appearing reasonable.
The more serious or formal a situation, the more
matter-of-fact and impersonal one should be in expressing a
Nees, Greg: Germany: Unraveling an Enigma (Yarmouth: Intercultural Press, 2000) pp. 85-90.


Sumpfkraut is here helpfully playing the role of the baselessly bitching German, to which I alluded in my post.

I hope he or she isn't actually trying to claim that Germans work more than Americans, because that would be a futile struggle. To quote the International Labor Organization, "US workers put in the longest hours on the job in industrialized nations". I think they've since been outworked by the Aussies, but trust me, the Germans, with their weeks of guaranteed paid vacation, will never come anywhere close to working as much as Americans.

As for mass unemployment, have you had a look at unemployment figures in Germany and the U.S. lately? Or, for that matter, have you read any of the dozens of articles and blog posts and academic papers analyzing the German policies for minimizing long-term unemployment? Hint: you may need to research this in English, to avoid the German Schwarzmalerei effect, in which a German, in order to avoid being perceived as "shallow" or "unserious", insists that EVERYTHING IS GOING TO HELL IN GERMANY.


if they didn't have the insulation from against [...] overwork, mass unemployment,

What? Trying not to be an arse, but how much research has actually gone into this post?

Ignoring the faulted USA/FRG comparison following shortly thereafter.


You are making an artificial distinction. National character, political culture and policy choices are inextricably linked. Bismarck invented the welfare state as a repressive tool and successfully domesticated social democracy with it, Weimar politicians ended near civil war by extending it in the 1920s, and when Brüning and von Papen cut it to the bone in 1930-32, the country voted for an Austrian politician with a funny moustache. Soziale Marktwirtschaft is the distillation of that experience. The German welfare state was invented to defuse social and political tensions and to prevent fundamental political change. It buys compliant, rule-abiding division of labor moles that save money and don’t ask too many questions.

Harvey Morrell

I admire your restraint and civility in responding to some of the commenters(/trolls) to your Geoghegan post. For what it's worth, I agree with you and Geoghegan.


andrew - thanks for the wise words. i was a bit taken aback by the comments on your post regarding gheogegan. i couldn't even help suspecting ideology playing a part (this, of course, can't be true as all gj-readers are thoughtful and far from quick rage-like breakdowns.)
after all, it seems, as so often, to come down to a question of rhetorics.

M. Möhling

A bit OT, but then, right on target, somehow:

National character, traits? Germans grumpy, Americans cheerful?? (btw: that's US-Amerikaner to you imperialist sod, Sir) Whoa, hold it there, buster, you might get busted by the chairman of social democracy and pop discourse, Mr Gabriel:

Ich will prüfen, ob [Sarrazin] bestimmten Bevölkerungsgruppen Charaktereigenschaften zuweist [...] Das wäre für mich eindeutig rassistisch. (I will check whether [former German politician Sarrazin] assigns character traits to specific groups of the population [...] For me, that would be definitely racist)
While we are at it, might I plug my input on things recent, racist, and discursive?

> dark forces in America, needs a history lesson
> guardian.co.uk/world/2010/aug/12/ground-zero-mosque-islamophobia

Opposing an authoritarian, regressive world view that turned the World-o-Islam into its present state of barbarity splendour is a dark force? Which must be labeled correctly with the buzz phrase instituted by most noble anti-racist, regressive, antisemite new left, its liberal fellow travelers, and the UN's Muslim activists for the advancement of third world corruptocrat's bank accounts and freedom of expression? Islamophobia being the new left's new racism? Let me expand on that.

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