A shout-out to FJ, who sent me a link to a sort of debate between an editor of the German center-right newspaper Die Welt and an American who lives in Berlin. The German, Frank Schmiechen, lived in California for four months and wrote a 'love letter' (g) to the USA which, not insignificantly, was accompanied by this photo:
The things he loves about America are pretty standard things for Germans: People are nice and friendly. And who cares if it's superficial? Superficial nice is better than honest hostile. Everyone seems much more relaxed. People do stuff without endless discussion. Workers seem relaxed and smiling, there's none of the grimacing and yelling and stress and tension you see in German workplaces. Americans celebrate success, they don't envy it. Even powerful people dress like everyone else and don't insist on deference or titles. Why, I even saw a Stanford philosophy professor dressed like a bum! The landscape is gorgeous, and everything looks like a movie set in the mellow Californian light. The food is world-class, as are the local wines. If you screw up, you just try again, and everyone understands that. Of course, this all comes at a price: those who fail end up babbling on the street, and people work extremely hard to avoid this fate. But then again, you know this about yourself, America, and you always give people a second chance.
And now, an American living in Berlin, Clark Parsons, comes with his quasi-rebuttal: Deutschland, du bist einfach great! (g): Store clerks may not be quite as syrupy-friendly, but they actually know what they're talking about, take pride in their work, and will help you save money. Germans take friendships seriously. Germans are vastly more interested in the rest of the world than Americans, are much better informed, and don't have the typical American assumption that everone would be better off if their countries were run like the USA. Germans take seriously those things that are worth serious attention -- for example, musicians who tour Germany are bowled over by the fact that German fans know a lot about their music and listen carefully to performances. The Bushes could play golf, but Helmut Schmidt is highly intelligent and has interesting points to make, and he gets a forum on Germany's excellent public-dominated mediasphere. German bitching and complaining is, at heart, all about setting high standards, and what's wrong with that? Germans build quality products and buildings for the long haul, and take care of them. Finally, the German sense of order. Often-mocked, but it also works. Garbage separation, precise information on consumer products, excellent public transportation, Saturday markets, 30 kinds of bread, all these things are just...great!
There's nothing too profound here, but these are op-eds, not dissertations. Most of the observations are on-target, but I have a quibble with Schmiechen's.
Schmiechen spent 4 months mostly, apparently, in Silicon Valley, since that's where most of his concrete examples come from (including a casually-dressed 'wiry Asian' guy the German took for a low-level PR flack but turned out to be the boss of the company). Most of the people he interviewed were millionaires. Germans are terrible at recognizing rich Americans for a few reasons. First, wealthy Americans don't follow high-bourgeois status codes the way Europeans do. Yachts, Bentleys, polo, luxury ski vacations, expensive watches, hand-tailored Jermyn Street togs, the word 'tog' -- these things are as dated as Fantasy Island.
Granted, the rare American you meet who owns these symbols is probably rich, but for every one of him, there are 1000 even richer people who dress in jeans and ironic faded 1970s T-shirts and would burst out laughing at the idea of playing polo. Especially in California, your wealth isn't judged by the quality of your suit, but whether you have to wear one at all. Suits are for drones.* About the only reliable visible class indicator in ths U.S. is a college degree. A four-year stay at any prestigious American university -- and, increasingly, any American university -- is a sure sign of wealth. You don't get into Stanford without costly preparation, and it's going to cost someone a a quarter-million dollars just for your first degree there.
The second reason Germans miss class signals is that Americans will insist they're jes' plain ordinary middle-class folks no matter how fabulous their wealth. There's an inverse relationship between how rich an American is and how honestly he'll discuss his finances. About all you'll get from a $500,000-a-year engineer is that he's 'comfortably off', but he'll then start bitching about how he's just scraping by, given rent, taxes, tuition, etc.
So sure, the people Herr Schmiechen met seemed relaxed, friendly, unpretentious go-getters, but he was, whether he knew it or not, hobnobbing with the American elite. To broaden his perspective, he might want to spend four months among the 40% of working Americans who make less than $20,000 per year. I think he'd be surprised just how much less a $20,000 salary buys you in the United States than it would in Germany, and he'd find all the surliness, misery, and envy he could handle.