Humorless Queue-Bargers

American writer Rebecca Schuman on her book about Germany, Schadenfreude, A Love Story:

Kafka is the muse of the book. Does his work encapsulate the German character—even though, as you are reminded again and again in the book, he wasn’t German at all? Do Germans find it annoying that the German-language writer who’s most widely read in English wasn’t even German?

They find it SO annoying, and I actually think that particular arc—someone saying, “Oh, you’re German—I love Kafka!” and then the German getting an opportunity to be pedantic (Ektually, zet’s not right is the national phrase of Germany, and I say that with love)—is the single most German thing in the world.

His work, though, definitely encapsulates the Austrian character (Prague, where he lived, was nominally Austrian for a lot of his life) with its endless bureaucratic entanglements. When I lived in Vienna for a year—a chapter, by the way, that got cut from the book—I had such a hard time getting registered for the university. I had to wait in line for 5 hours, and then when I finally got to the front, the worker was just like, Oh, I forgot to move you from one column to the other one, like it was the most normal thing in the world to require someone to come in for five hours to ask for a minor clerical task they didn’t know needed to be done. I got back to my desk at the research institute where I was doing my Fulbright and I said to my Austrian colleague: “I just realized that Kafka wrote nonfiction.”...

Do you have German friends who’ve read the book? What do they think of your portrait of their culture?

Just one so far, and he thinks it’s spot-on—but he’s very Americanized and has a great sense of humor about his mother culture. One of the most endearing things about Germans is that they neither understand nor enjoy exaggeration as humor. Given that hyperbole is my primary form of communication, I imagine many Germans will disagree with their culture’s portrayal. However, the second-most-endearing thing about Germans is that a sign of true friendship with a German is that you stay up all night screaming at each other in disagreement but still remain best friends. Germans don’t really believe in small talk and they don’t think that “certain subjects” are to be avoided in polite company, and they are pedantic as hell, but they don’t get offended easily. It’s one of the best things about them.

Is there a humor mechanism that replaces comic exaggeration, for the Germans? Or are they as humorless as some stereotypes suggest? (I grew up in England where the trope about Germans is that they always barge to the front of queues. I think this mostly speaks to the profound respect the English have for the queuing process.)

Oh, the queue thing is true. When I lived in Berlin I went to a Blur show in the dead of winter and had to check my coat. (It was a great show, by the way; Damon Albarn did an A-level in German and addressed the audience in German!) Afterward, I spent no less than 45 minutes in an obscene grinding mosh pit of German bodies, when a proper queue would have taken 5 tops. For a culture that prizes order so much that the idiom for “everything OK?” is Alles in Ordnung? the queuing habits are inexplicable.

As far as the humor thing—well, the stereotypes are true and they aren’t. The two most popular types of humor in German are slapstick and just bone-dry sarcasm. A great German “joke” is to say the meanest and most tragic thing possible and then follow it with a slight grimace. (Somehow it works.) Kafka, for example, was absolutely, rip-roaringly hilarious, obviously in a very dark way. Most people don’t know this about him, and early translations of his work (most of which are canonical) don’t play this up at all.

Might be a fun, light read. 


Melania Wasn't "Sad", She was Slavic

During Donald Trump's inauguration, his Slovene wife Melania looked sober and serious most of the time. This has led Americans to believe she was sad, depressed, horrified, anguished, perhaps even trapped in an abusive relationship.

What these slightly fatuous Americans don't understand is that the European conception of personal dignity and institutional respect demands that public figures taking part in official ceremonies look serious at all times. In Europe, there is no penalty for looking stiff, even scowling, during official ceremonies; that's expected. There can be a significant penalty for a smile, or for any sign of levity. So everyone plays it safe and refrains from all except fleeting smiles.

Let me make my point with pictures of Supreme Courts. First, the American:

US Supreme Court

By my count, we have a whopping six smiles: the entire back row (Sotomayor, Breyer, Alito, Kagan) and two in the front (Roberts and Kennedy). Justice Scalia, the balding Italian man sitting next to the black guy, is wearing a sort of half-smile. Justice Thomas, the black guy, is wearing an angry scowl, his resting face, which seems out of place in this photograph, but would be perfectly normal in Europe.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on the far right, seems to be cringing in terror. In fact, she seems to be looking at the same thing which has attracted Justice Thomas' attention. Maybe this photo was taken just seconds after the naked knife-wielding maniac broke into the photo studio screaming about CIA mind control: so far, only Thomas and Ginsburg notice him. Fortunately, he was tased by security before he could reach the Legal Minds.

Anyhoo, where was I? Oh right, facial expressions. Since Melania is Slovene, here's the Slovenian Supreme Constitutional Court:

Slovene

The first thing you notice about this official picture from the Court's website is how shitty it is. It's only 71 KB in size, and 60% of that is the surroundings. The picture is so crappy that if you zoom in to try to see whether any of the Justices are smiling, their faces devolve into pixelblurs. You get the definite impression that the Justices probably thought the entire idea of having their picture taken is a ridiculous waste of time, and tried to make it as unrevealing as possible. Nevertheless, I think we can still safely say: no open-mouthed smiles, possibly a mild expression of amusement on the woman in the center's face. That's all.

Bundesverfassungsgericht-senat_2

Here's the Second Senate of the German Federal Constitutional Court. Two open-mouthed smiles, the rest tight-lipped neutral expressions. Here's the First Senate:

Bvg_senat_1_2010

One open-mouthed grin. I can't even find a decent group photo of the French Court de Cassation (which has 85 members divided into a bunch of different groups), but the individual photos of the group leaders here (f) feature no open-mouthed smiles I can find.

And just to round things out, the European Court of Justice:

RTEmagicC_European-Court-of-Justice-Members-2013.jpg

A few smiles, a few scowls, but mostly neutral, purposeful expressions.

And in this particular respect, Slavs seem to be even more serious and scowly than Western Europeans. Here's the Polish Constitutional Tribunal:

Members-of-Polands-Supreme-Court

Being a Slav, as they say, is serious business.

So Melania wasn't "sad", you chirpy, fleering American flibbertygibberts. She was just showing respect by adopting a serious Slavic scowl.


Germany: Less Perverted Than You Think. Despite All the Apotemnophiliacs.


sprockets germany's most disturbing videos von pentakatharidis

Canada's National Post fills us in on the latest in the field of apotemnophilia, which we're now apparently supposed to call "transability":

People like Jason [who chopped one of his arms off] have been classified as ‘‘transabled’’ — feeling like imposters in their bodies, their arms and legs in full working order.

“We define transability as the desire or the need for a person identified as able-bodied by other people to transform his or her body to obtain a physical impairment,” says Alexandre Baril, a Quebec born academic who will present on “transability” at this week’s Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Ottawa.

“The person could want to become deaf, blind, amputee, paraplegic. It’s a really, really strong desire.”

Researchers in Canada are trying to better understand how transabled people think and feel. Clive Baldwin, a Canada Research Chair in Narrative Studies who teaches social work at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B., has interviewed 37 people worldwide who identify as transabled.

Most of them are men. About half are in Germany and Switzerland, but he knows of a few in Canada. Most crave an amputation or paralysis, though he has interviewed one person who wants his penis removed. Another wants to be blind.

One stereotype many Germans aren't aware of is "the German-speaking parts of Northern Europe are hothouses of the most exotic perversions known to humanity -- second only, perhaps, to Japan".

When Germans think of Kraut stereotypes, they generally imagine Alphorns, Bavarian dress, punctuality, precision engineering, Nazis, beer, sausage, pretzels. But not necessarily perversion.

But that is indeed one of the stereotypes. Where does it come from? Perhaps an amalgam of:

  • Weimar-era transvestitism, rape-murders, and Expressionist documentation of same
  • Nazi sadists and homosexuals, and the weirdly sexless Hitler
  • A long -- and continuing -- history of legalized prostitution
  • Freikörperkultur, i.e. hanging around in large groups naked
  • Extreme German performance and body art (I'm looking at you, Nitsch and, to a much lesser extent, Beuys)
  • Freudian theory and Richard von Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis
  • Elfriede Jelinek
  • Armin Meiwes (you know, the cannibal)
  • Berlin gay sex clubs

I could go on. Stereotypes are generally accurate, but I think this one ain't. It's a matter of selection bias and self-fulfilling prophecies: sex sells, so anything happening in Germany which has to do with sex gets reported to the outside world. Germany, like most European cultures, is fairly sexually conservative compared to the United States or Britain. Germans who travel abroad (both men and women) are usually shocked, even primly dismayed, by how promiscuous Anglo-American city-dwellers are. Not to mention all the irresponsible drinking and drug use.

Truth to tell, the kind of Germans in my social circle tend to combine a lack of prudishness with a sensible moderation in matters genital. It's quite admirable. And even the ones who might go in for a suckling-pig swinger orgy (g) or two (as a friend of mine once quipped, this would be the ultimate integration test for foreigners) are unrecognizable outside the club. You get the definite impression that their second-favorite activity, after swinger orgies, is scoring excellent deals on equipment to re-grout their bathtubs.

Germany, I pronounce thee no more perverted than any other advanced country, and a lot less perverted than some. You're welcome!


Merkel's Superfluous and Irritating Election Statement

Merkel's statement scolding congratulating Donald Trump for his election victory is getting a lot of press:

Germany and America are connected by values of democracy, freedom and respect for the law and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views. I offer the next President of the United States close cooperation on the basis of these values.

The statement's being met with mixed reviews even in the German press, with center-right commentators like Alexander Kissler (g) denouncing it for its self-righteous sanctimoniousness.

I tend to side with Kissler on this one. America neither needs nor wants lectures from Germans on protections of minority rights. One thing most Germans will never understand is that even when interpreted by conservative Republican judges and officials, the US constitution and laws offer more protection for religious and racial minorities than German law does. Let's look at a few highlights:

  • Gays can marry in the United States, but cannot in Germany.
  • Women have just as many opportunities in the USA as in Germany. They participate in the labor force at a slightly higher rate in the USA than in Germany, and they have a higher median income in the USA than in Germany.
  • The US has banned racial and religious discrimination in private contracts since 1964, Germany only since 2006.
  • German anti-discrimination laws are toothless. Discrimination lawsuits are notoriously hard to win, and the penalties for discrimination are much too weak to have any deterrent effect. Verified accounts of blatant discrimination in housing and employment are easy to find in Germany.
  • American class-action discrimination lawsuits regularly result in damages verdicts of tens of millions of dollars. This is impossible under German law.
  • The US has an official federal government agency, the EEOC, which sues American companies who engage in racial, gender, or other forms of illegal discrimination. This agency forces the companies to pay massive damages judgments, accept public responsibility for their action, and remedy their policies. This level of accountability is unknown in Germany. The only thing Germany has is a federal agency that publishes reports and non-binding guidelines.
  • Foreigners and people not born in Germany are over-represented in Germany prisons at a rate comparable to blacks in American prisons. And for the same reasons -- crime is more common in these populations.
  • American laws do not discriminate among religious faiths; German laws do, giving massive privileges to the two established churches -- including a € 460 million yearly subsidy (g) based on obscure 19th century state contracts. Scientologists and members of other odd religious groups can operate freely in the US, while in Germany they are spied upon and harassed by officials who consider them dangerous cults.

This is not to say that Germany is backward or oppressive. All societies make different policy choices and have different levels of protection for minorities. All societies have failings when it comes to providing equal opportunity. But the USA is, objectively, ahead of Germany in many ways. Disputes about voter registration or transgender bathroom use are side issue. America's core protections for minority rights are firmly entrenched in powerful, popular laws and institutions which transcend partisan politics and which are fully accepted by all mainstream political actors. 

A Trump presidency will do absolutely nothing to change that, just as two Bush presidencies didn't. Merkel's condescending warning is as superfluous as it is irritating.


There's Vegans, and Then There's German Vegans

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American public radio highlights a recent report by German nutritionists warning about the potential risks of a vegan diet: 

Berlin resident Moza Kabbar ... says there's a huge boom in enthusiasm for veganism in the city.

But not everyone in Germany is on board. In a new paper, the German Nutrition Society says a vegan diet can't provide everything your body needs.

"With a pure plant-based diet, it is difficult or impossible to attain an adequate supply of some nutrients," states the German Nutrition Society's new position on the vegan diet. "The most critical nutrient is B-12," which is found in eggs and meat. The group says if you follow a vegan diet, you should take supplements to protect against deficiencies.

According to the German nutritionists, other "potentially critical nutrients" that may be a challenge to get in a vegan diet include omega-3s — found in fatty fish — as well as minerals such as calcium, iron, iodine, zinc and selenium. So the group recommends that vegans get advice from a nutrition counselor and be "regularly checked by a physician." In addition, the society recommends against a vegan diet for pregnant women, women who are breast-feeding, children and adolescents.

Advocates for veganism say the new position from German nutritionists goes too far.

"With a little planning and knowledge, rest assured, you can get everything you need from a vegan diet for great health ... at any age," Jimmy Pierson, a spokesperson for the Vegan Society, based in England, told us by phone....

But to make sure you're covering all your bases, "I would recommend [taking] a standard multivitamin," [U.S. dietitian Lisa] Cimperman says. It's a good insurance policy for vegans.

As for putting kids on vegan diets, the American Academy of Pediatrics says children can be well-nourished on all kinds of vegetarian diets, "but nutritional balance is very difficult to achieve if dairy products and eggs are completely eliminated," the position states. The academy recommends that if your child is following a vegetarian diet, "you need to guard against nutritional deficiencies."

Allow me to engage in some armchair sociologizin' here. Notice that this American news source quotes a Brit and an American, who both say perfectly sensible things about veganism. The target audience for the German nutrition report is not people like this. The target is German hard-core ideological vegans. These exist in the UK and US also, but I'd wager there are more of them here in Germany.

Why? Because Germany is the land of philosophical Idealism, deontological moral absolutes, and sayings such as "To be German means to do a thing for its own sake" (g, Wagner) and "A German is someone who cannot tell a lie without believing it himself." (Adorno). And, since the late 1960s, a public discourse which is drenched in moral judgment.

Many German vegans are vegans not just because it's healthy, or because they don't want to see animals exploited. They think in rigid ideological categories. They are fundamentally convinced, like fundamentalists, that mankind was fundamentally never meat to consume animal protein, and that doing so is fundamentally immoral. Not only that, taking supplements would be an admission that a vegan diet is not fundamentally sufficient, weakening its claim to be the only fundamentally morally acceptable way to feed oneself.

You encounter the word fundamentally a lot in German. Also the word konsequent, which describes someone whose actions align scrupulously with their stated principles. I have met many German vegans. The majority are sensible and take supplements. But there's a pretty large minority who absolutely refuse to do so, seeing it as an unacceptable ethical compromise. The notion that they would change their habits when they have children is also seen as...an unacceptable ethical compromise. After all, what is more important than passing on your own fundamentally morally superior values of absolute nonviolence and sustainability to your children, so they will continue the lonely, voice-in-the-wilderness crusade for a better world? Assuming, of course, that the neural tube defects leave them able to communicate.

These are the people the German nutritionists are trying to reach. Of course, hard-core ideological German vegans will ignore the message, because that's the kind of people they are.

As Wickham Steed put it: "The Germans dive deeper -- but they come up muddier."


Anglosplaining and the Amusingness Gap

The Economist looks at why the most high-middlebrow shows and books about Germany are written by Brits:

This popularity of Anglo-Saxon storytellers “really is astonishing”, says Hermann Parzinger. He is a German archaeologist (best known for his work on the Scythians) and president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which owns museums, libraries and archives in Berlin. He is working with MacGregor in dreaming up how to curate the Humboldt Forum’s exhibits.

German academics, Parzinger says, write books to impress the five most important experts in their field. Popularity is suspect in German academia. The German word unseriös, etymologically the same as “unserious”, in fact means “lacking credibility”. But Anglo-Saxons, Parzinger thinks, “have it in their blood to make these things suspenseful and interesting even for lay people”. In particular, they know how to integrate into their storytelling “both the high and the low, without anything being banal”. Thus MacGregor effortlessly mixes Luther and Goethe with sausages and garden gnomes into one analysis that makes Germans feel they’ve understood something about themselves.

The Anglos also come across as likeable rather than belehrend, says Parzinger. That German word means “lecturing”, and is often used by Germans of Germans. The greatest fear of intellectuals in Germany and other continental countries is to appear shallow. The greatest fear of Britons is to seem pompous, says MacGregor. So they enliven their knowledge with good delivery and showmanship....

But even among outsiders the Anglos have the edge in Germany over, say, French, Polish, Dutch or Danish intellectuals. These neighbours were often part of German history – as enemies, victims or collaborators. German audiences expect them to reflect that perspective. A French historian talking about the 1940s, say, should probably also expound on Vichy and French collaboration.

The Brits, however, were always “geographically more outside”, says Parzinger, which makes them appear credible. Since the 1960s, for example, it has been all but taboo for German writers to argue anything other than that Germany bears sole responsibility for starting the first world war. Clark gleefully ignored that taboo in “The Sleepwalkers” – and outsold all the Germans, even in Germany. Clark can say the question of guilt is complicated, says Parzinger, but hearing it “from a German would have been more difficult”.

This goes back to a fundamental cultural difference which virtually every Anglo-Saxon picks up on quickly in Germany: Most Germans just aren't funny in ways Anglo-Saxons recognize, and a substantial minority aren't funny at all. Free-floating, value-neutral absurdity; obscene wordplay; sarcasm and irony; casual teasing insults among friends -- these styles of communication are much rarer in Germany than in the Anglo-Saxon world. Unless you know someone fairly well, the safest mode of communication is straightforward communication about mundane details of everyday life or anodyne remarks about current affairs which do not reveal a controversial personal opinion.

This is not to say there ain't no funny Germans, etc. etc. As with everything in life, this is a matter of probability distributions and bell curves, not of absolutes. Behold this scientific-looking graph:

DddThe more to the left you are on this graph, the more sincere and loyal. You become more entertaining as you move to the right. Germany is the bell curve with the peak of 52. England with the peak of 76. The separation is too wide, but it still makes the point. There's plenty of overlap (i.e. decent and funny people) in both directions, but the average Brit you meet is likely to be more entertaining than the average German.

The canon of values the average German has been raised with tend toward sincerity, honesty, credibility, punctuality, and loyalty. You can be a worthy, admirable person on this scale while being crushingly boring. In fact, being crushingly boring can actually be a helpful strategy, since humor, used inappropriately or at the wrong time, can undermine your reputation. Leave humor to the professionals. Or if you are called upon to be funny yourself, have a few memorized jokes or sayings on tap, just in case. Even if they're crushingly unfunny, people will laugh. Out of politeness.

Maybe I can't make you laugh, says the German, but I will take time out of my busy schedule to visit you in the hospital, and bring a thoughtful gift. Which is more important?

Growing up in the Anglo-Saxon world, there's a premium on being entertaining. Your cultural heroes are likely to be comedians rather than violinists or human-rights activists. You're likely to spend hours each day consuming humor. Dull people are ostracized. Unlike in Germany, where you might bring them along even though you know they'll just sit there silently, in England and the USA you will simply avoid them and mock them.

In this atmosphere, even renowned historians often learn to be decent storytellers and amusing chaps, because everyone is expected to be a decent storyteller and an amusing chap. In Germany, you can live a life that you and others would consider rich and full without ever (1) intentionally provoking (2) sincere laughter in another human being.


Patriarchy, Social Trust, and Smiling

The Atlantic summarizes a recent study:

Why do some societies not encourage casual smiling? I got my answer, or at least part of one, when I stumbled across a new paper by Kuba Krys [Kuba Krys? Didn't he lay down a smokin' freestyle on that Kendrick Lamar album? - ed.], a psychologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences [Oh, that Kuba Krys - ed.]. In some countries, smiling might not be a sign of warmth or even respect. It’s evidence that you’re a fool—a tricky fool.

Krys focused on a cultural phenomenon called “uncertainty avoidance.” Cultures that are low on this scale tend to have social systems—courts, health-care systems, safety nets, and so forth—that are unstable. Therefore, people there view the future as unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Smiling is a sign of certainty and confidence, so when people in those countries smile, they might seem odd. Why would you smile when fate is an invisible wolf waiting to shred you? You might, in those “low-UA” countries, even be considered stupid for smiling.

Krys also hypothesized that smiling in corrupt countries would be, um, frowned upon. When everyone’s trying to pull one over on each other, you don’t know if someone’s smiling with good intentions, or because they’re trying to trick you....

He found that in countries like Germany, Switzerland, China, and Malaysia, smiling faces were rated as significantly more intelligent than non-smiling people. But in Japan, India, Iran, South Korea, and—you guessed it—Russia, the smiling faces were considered significantly less intelligent. Even after controlling for other factors, like the economy, there was a strong correlation between how unpredictable a society was and the likelihood they would consider smiling unintelligent.

In countries such as India, Argentina, and the Maldives, meanwhile, smiling was associated with dishonesty—something Krys found to be correlated to their corruption rankings.

I've lived here in Tschermany long enough to witness a change or two. One is the increase in smiles on websites. Just anecdotally, I think the percentage of people smiling in websites about firms and universities has risen steadily. At one point, smiling too much in German would get you the reputation of being 'unseriös', but that seems to be fading these days. Also, cosmetic dentistry is becoming mainstream and affordable here. With the standard delay -- about 20 years after this happened in the USA.


Coming to Terms with Günter Grass

Marian Wirth allowed me to post his pithy assessment of Grass, hoisted from a comment feed on another website:

Grass was pretty much the last surviving founding father of German post-war literature. He became instantly famous with his debut novel and used the financial independence and the fame to promote authors younger and/or less successful than him, to improve Germany's position in the world and to boost interest in German as a language all over the world.

It still confuses me to hear foreign authors praise Grass - celebrities like Salman Rushdie, who spent the day Grass died defending him on Twitter, as well as national celebrities in, say, Brazil or Nigeria, who tell you how much they adore Grass ever since they read the TIN DRUM as a teenager and I'm always like "WHAT?!" when I hear that because everything about Grass and his most notorious book is so German that I have still trouble believing it even got translated into English.

Bottom line: He was THE most important figure for German literature and one of the leading brand ambassadors for German culture. Even people who disagreed on everything with Grass can't deny that and it drives them crazy, I can tell you.

Grass was a man of many talents. Unfortunately, he got famous for writing novels, his least developed talent.

He was a world class boozer, smoker and dancer.
He was an outstanding sculptor.
He was a phenomenal graphic artist.
He was an efficient SPD canvasser.
He was one of the three leading anti-Semites in Germany, and a decent poet, resulting in the ugliest piece of anti-Semitism published in Germany after the second world war.

His novels are more or less unreadable, since he subscribed to the leading principles of German post-war literature such as the following: avoid direct speech at all cost. Direct speech and dialogue are evil, leave them to the Americans and their movie-script like writing. It's your job to make the readers suffer. Insurmountable blocks of text are your thing. Long winding, meandering sentences filled with German guilt and with guilt to be a human being enjoying life are your profession.

I have read several of his novels, though failed twice to read the TIN DRUM (I'll give it a third try soon). "Too Far Afield" took me over a year to get through. My favorite Grass novel is The Meeting at Telgte.

Politically, he was wrong on everything after 1990. Not only was he wrong on everything, his criticism was always over the top, mean, vile and presented in an apodictic fashion that made it impossible to argue against it. This rant is presented in a similar way to make it more obvious what drove me away from Grass.

So much for an executive summary of what needs to be said about Grass. Vale, rest in peace etc. should still apply, of course.


Zedler's Recipe for Spiced Beer Against Melancholy

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A couple of German libraries, assisted by the German Research Council, have scanned all 63,000 pages (g) of 'Johann Heinrich Zedler's Great Complete Universal Encyclopedia of All the Sciences and Arts', published in 1732. It's even searchable. And it's fantastic.

I searched for melancolia in various spellings and came across this recipe for 'Spiced Beer Against Melancholey'. The antiquated spelling and Fraktur script make it a bit hard to read, but the recipe seems to have at least 15 or so ingredients, including young beer, 'hermo-dates(?)', carrot seeds, radishes, white wine, coriander seeds, juniper berries, St. John's Wort tips, and much more:

Krauter beer melancholey

There's got to be some philologist out there who can interpret the weights, measures, and cooking instructions. We can only hope all the spices are still available.

Let's all get together and whip up a giant cauldron of this stuff and get rid of our Melancholey once and for all! Who's with me?