Now is the Time on Sprockets When We Experience Communicative Socialisation

The very German-looking Philip Oltermann (the glasses!) asks whether Germans just don't get social media because they, er, don't get communication in general:

When news magazine Focus announced this week that Germans were finally cottoning on to Twitter – the site reaching a record 3.5 million users – it was met with the digital equivalent of a shrug. One blogger suggested that Germans just don't know how to deal with social media:

"What they fundamentally do not see and get is the obvious, namely that Social Media is about communication. Communication/conversation is a dark hole in German culture. For Germans, talking first and foremost means conveying information. Conversation as a bonding agent in any form of interpersonal encounter is literally a non-starter in Germany. (If you've ever been to an awkward German office party where people have no problem with facing one another without saying a word for, oooh half an hour, you'll know what I mean.)"

Most Germans will recognise at least a grain of truth in that. Even back in the late 19th century, the sociologist Friedrich Tönnies wrote in despair about the German inability to get its head around the concept of an open and interactive Gesellschaft or society – tight-knit, closed-off Gemeinschaften or communities was apparently all they could do. Few young Germans still keep up the Stammtisch tradition, though small talk can still be a struggle. I recently attended a German conference in which the last item on the programme was billed as Kommunikatives Beisammensein, "communicative socialisation". Or, as people might call it in Britain, "going to the pub".

The rest of the article tries to add some caveats to the stereotype, in my view not very convincingly. Germans are just plain much more reticent and cautious about sharing information than Anglo-Saxons. Again, as with all national traits, this is a matter of averages and bell curves. The chart below, which I stole from some website, shows light orange as the standard normal distribution of 'communicativeness' (or 'chattiness') among Anglo-Saxons on the right, and among Germans on the left, in darker orange.

No, really, this is exactly what the chart shows! This is Science, people! In any event, if makes my point: although you can always find some German who's chattier than an American, the modal German is much more taciturn than the modal American. I think the Brits would fit just about in the middle, but I'm no expert there.

The German Scientific Monotone Claims a Royal Victim

American are often accused -- quite rightly -- of having an instinctive weakness for showbiz that causes them to attach all sorts of fripperies and bells and whistles to the most mundane -- or profound -- things. Witness Baconnaise, Christian exercise videos, facebooked family tragedies, etc.

Germans, on the other hand, are accused of having precisely the opposite gift (curse?): the ability to take inherently interesting subjects and drain all the sizzle, controversy, originality, and human interest out of them.* One aspect of this is the Scientific Monotone, the low-frequency drone emitted by professors and experts when called upon to explain something important. This curious tendency appears to have emerged from the notion that just as the most powerful medications taste the worst, the only respectable (konsequent) way to deliver specialized knowledge is to crucify your audience on a cross of dogmatic boredom.

The Scientific Monotone can drain an inherently fascinating subject of life faster than a spider can suck the juice out of a fly. When the technique is applied to a not-particularly-fascinating subject, the results can be life-threatening. As the Queen can testify:

According to a new biography, “Our Queen” by Robert Hardman, she has fallen asleep at work once, very briefly, in 2004, during a lecture on new insights into biology and medicine with the use of magnets at the Heinrich Heine University, Dusseldorf.

(h/t Ed Philp).

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A German Escapes the Valley of Whining

E.J. Graff of the American prospect relates the story of a German expat who's settled into the U.S. and why:

"Why do you stay in the U.S., then?" I asked the German-born historian whose last professional job in Germany [actually, I think this is supposed to say the U.S.] ended two years ago. Since then, she has been doing piecemeal work and relying on a much thinner social safety net in the U.S. than she would have in her country of origin. There, she'd have her family, health care, lower housing costs, and other social and economic guarantees. She had just told me how much Germany had come to life since her youth: instead of "don't walk on the grass" signs, there's a lively public culture; instead of beige houses, there's an explosion of color; instead of the grim and clenched authoritarian culture for which Germany was once famous, there's playfulness. So why stay in the U.S.?

I wasn't challenging her; I was genuinely curious. It takes a certain kind of person to leave your culture behind and be unfamiliar with everything forever after. No matter how long she's been here, she can never be part of certain shared cultural conversations, which we refer to by particular markers: the Brady Bunch, or Seinfeld, or what Ellen's "puppy episode" meant to lesbians at the time....

She had two answers, both which interested me. The first was that, having been an expat for more than a decade, she would never again be fully at home in Germany; she was Americanized now, to some degree, and would be out of place there. I've heard that before from Americans who've lived abroad for some extended period. ... So I wasn't surprised by the historian's answer. But why would that keep her here? Because, she explained, here her accent marks her as foreign; it reveals her reason for being a little different, a little unfamiliar with ordinary cultural habits. But in Germany, where she is unmarked as a foreigner, her different-ness irritates people. Aha! That made sense. 

But there's a second reason she likes the U.S., and it surprised me: Because of our famous "can do" attitude. She used the phrase with the air quotes, of course—but she meant it. She can't stand it, she said, that Germans whine all the time. They complain about what the government isn't doing. Americans, she said, just fix it. Even the whiners do something about whatever it is they dislike.

The German word for this phenomenon is Jammertal, roughly, the Valley of Whining. I can sympathize with the expat here: the whining is probably the unloveliest of German personality traits, which is why I'm going to simply point it out but not whine about it.

The Death of StudiVZ

Over at Deutschland Radio Kultur, media journalist Philip Banse talks about (g) why Facebook is beating out (g) its main German competitor, a Facebook clone called StudiVZ (g). Nickel summary:

  • Facebook kept innovating and offering interesting new stuff such as like/dislike buttons, games, close integration with non-Facebook websites, etc., while StudiVZ just remained its boring old self.
  • Since the German press relentlessly bashed Facebook for its privacy issues, StudiVZ thought ordinary users were really interested in this, and spent huge amounts of money creating gold-standard privacy safeguards that won ribbons from every German foundation. Turns out, however, that Germans actually don't care all that much about privacy. When they vote with their feet, it's to go to Facebook, privacy concerns and all.
  • Social networks are only really fun when everyone you know is on them, so once Facebook began attracting a bunch of people away from StudiVZ, all their friends began following, causing a big knock-on effect.
  • Germany just doesn't do the internet very well. There's no casual yet well-financed infrastructure that will fund brash, brilliant kids. Germans -- or at least the ones who have money and access to technology -- prize 'seriousness' too much, and don't realize that the Internet is driven primarily by gossip, chatter, videos, and games, and that there is serious money in these things.

"Who Knows This Man?"

There's only one publication in Germany that can intentionally make me laugh out loud, and that's Titanic, the monthly satire magazine to which I am a proud subscriber. Its subtitle proclaims it to be "the ultimate satire magazine", and that's true in any number of ways. Among them: nobody in Germany goes further than Titanic. According to occasional contributor Oliver Maria Schmitt, the magazine's motto (g, paywall) is "A resounding 'Yes' to 'No'!". Titanic's doesn't just slaughter the sacred cows, it tortures and mutilates them first. Which brings them endless lawsuits (g), usually based on quaint German laws making it a crime to insult people or otherwise injure their honor or dignity. Naturally, Titanic wears these lawsuits with pride.

The latest Titanic escapade is particularly rich. To understand the joke, we must first review some recent German history. On the 4th of November, an apartment burned down in the East German city of Zwickau. Nearby, in Eisenach, two right-wing extremists shot themselves in a mobile home after a botched bank robbery. During searches of the apartment and the mobile home, police found evidence linking both sites to a team of two men (Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, the ones who killed themselves) and one woman (Beate Zschärpe) who together constituted a right-wing terror cell called the National Socialist Underground (g). Unbeknownst to police, the NSU had, since 1998, been on a nationwide murder and bank-robbery spree (g) killing at least 10 people in targeted assassinations -- mostly immigrants, but also a young policewoman, murdered execution-style. All of the shootings were committed with the same weapon. The group also set off at least one bomb, in 2004 in a crowded street in a heavily-immigrant section of Cologne, injuring 22 people.

In the rubble of the Zwickau apartment in November 2011, the police found a truly astounding 15-minute video in which the group -- using a mash-up of Pink Panther animation clips -- took explicit credit for the mayhem (g) and mocked both victims and police. Even shortly after the discovery, people began asking how a group could go on killing and bombing undistiurbed in an advanced, well-policed nation such as Germany without being detected. But the facts that came out later made the question even more urgent. It turns out all three suspects were known to the police in the 1990s as neo-Nazis. The men had criminal records for violent attacks on foreigners and bomb threats. The three even ran a small bomb workshop in Jena in Zschärpe's garage. They narrowly escaped arrest in 1998 after a tip led to the workshop's detection. Despite the fact that they were all known to the police by name, appearance, and affiliation, they were able to go underground and elude detection for 14 years. When police investigated the immigrants the NSU had murdered, the cops generally discounted the idea that right-wing violence might be behind the killings, and instead suggested that the victims were targeted because of their involvement with drug-smuggling or immigrant mafias.

During the entire neo-Nazi terror spree, the German domestic spy agency (rather pompously called the Verfassungsschutz, or Agency for Protection of the Constitution (APC)) released report after report announcing that there were "no signs of right-wing terror groups" in Germany. The APC had infiltrated dozens of paid snitches into right-wing groups, but still didn't uncover the extensive network of accomplices that made the 14-year murder spree possible. After the vicious 2004 nail-bomb attack in Cologne -- in which a white man can be seen in a surveillance video depositing the bomb -- interior minister Otto Schily denied the very next day that there was any evidence it was a right-wing anti-immigrant attack. All of the murders and bombings, of course, went unsolved. In fact the murder of the policewoman was attributed to a mysterious female super-criminal who, according to DNA traces, had committed an astounding number of varied crimes all over Germans from 1993 until 2009. Until it was found out that the DNA actually all came from a police lab employee who had contaminated (g) crime-scene samples.

The mind, as they say, buggers. The whole sordid episode has sparked a controversy in Germany which has dominated headlines for weeks and shows no signs of abating.

Titanic felt the need to intervene. Here its its current cover:


The caption reads: "The APC Needs Your Help: WHO KNOWS THIS MAN?" Meanwhile, according to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung (g) newspaper a citizen in the small Bavarian town of Taufkirchen had reported sightings of a "poster" displaying the markings of an "organization hostile to the constitution" (in this case, a rather large portrait of a controversial Austrian statesman). The police immediately swung into action, confiscating five more copies of the "poster", cunningly hidden among racks of magazines in various retail stores across town. The police surmised that the guilty parties must have come from "right-wing radical circles", and perhaps wanted to taunt the APC.

After further analysis, the police determined that the "right-wing posters" were copies of Titanic. (h/t MW).

The Irony Gap

Yes, yes, there are many Germans who are quick-witted and attuned to the joys of absurd, free-floating irony. And more with every passing generation!

Yet the awkward fact fact remains that the standard normal distribution of irony appreciation among the entirety of German society peaks significantly to the left of where it peaks in the Anglosphere. You have your functioning social welfare system, your quality newspapers, your hundreds of museums and opera houses, and your world-famous consumer products. But we are, on average, more entertaining. The evidence is all around you. The most popular German comedians (no, not the cabaret people, we're talking Paul Panzer, Mario Barth, Ätze Schröder, Hape Kekerling) still feel the need to wear "WACKY COSTUMES!" to elicit laughs. The German imitation of The Office features a boss who is just an asshole -- entirely missing the point of the original series. A comment which would be immediately understood as a harmless jape by even the dullest Englishman often elicits, in Germany, a confused look and the slightly menacing response: "Willste mich damit verarschen, oder was?" (Are you making fun of me?).

I hate to have to pour salt in this would yet again, but it was just brought home to me by the reviews of these public telephones on Immobilienscout is a website that allows people to review apartments and buildings and such. For some reason, it has an entry for two public telephones near where I live:

There are only two reviews of these public telephones. One, from 2007, notes: "These telephones are located to the left of the post office." The other, from 2010, observes: "good for people who want to make a call but don't have a mobile phone." The second reviewer also notes that he "recommends" this place.

Pitiful. The opportunity for a Tuscan Whole Milk-style orgy of webby jouissance goes completely unrealized.

We could start one, of course, but does anyone doubt that if that happened, would immediately erase the page?

Kroko, The Crocodile With Gestaltzerfall

Time reports on a new line of Paraplüsch toys from Germany representing animals with severe mental illnesses.

For your gift giving consideration: Dub the severely depressed turtle? German toymaker Paraplush has designed a controversial new line of toys with an assortment of psychiatric disorders. The company advertises stuffed animals who suffer from a range of mental illnesses (bipolar disorder, depression, multiple personality disorder) and even come packaged with a personalized medical history and treatment plan.

Ifelicious introduces us to the krazy kewt kritters:

Meet the gang!

(all descriptions below were taken from the Paraplüsch website.)


The patient’s hypersensitive hallucinatory perception is a symptom of a paranoid psychosis. The signs are a mental block and a Gestaltzerfall (disintegration of structure) of the habitual field of experience. The consequence is a compensational reactivation of archaic reaction patterns.

The patient seems to temporarily suffer from the delusion that she is a wolf despite the fact that she is without a doubt a sheep. The unexpectedly strong exhibition of the repressed identity completely overstrains her. Hysterical, psychotic defence reactions underline the fundamental threat which points at negative experiences and resulting fragmentation processes. In this state, the patient is unable to accept herself as a plush animal.

The patient has been trying to solve a wooden jigsaw puzzle for the past few months without success. He is so absorbed in this repetitive activity that he is unaware of his surroundings most of the time. Ever since his disorder has begun, the patient hasn’t talked to anyone. A connection between the inability to speak and the compulsive urge to solve jigsaw puzzles seems likely.

The patient’s inner conflict must be interpreted as a sign of an ambivalent relationships towards its own body. Combined with the fascination of an apparently much more potent-seeming substitute rattle, we suspect the manifestation of a deeply rooted rattle complex. Of course, the enclosed substitute rattle should not be in use on a permanent basis and should only serve as a transitional object.

Being an animal more accustomed to a relaxed pace, life in the fast lane has caught up with our patient, sending him into a deep depression. Can you help him to come out of his shell once more and enjoy life on the outside? Help Dub to rediscover life – slowly this time!

A Good Year for Angstlust

Given that Germany seems to have weathered the global financial crisis better than most other affected countries, you might imagine that Germans have relaxed a bit. 

You would, of course, be wrong.

If it's mid-September, that must mean it's time for the annual ritual of examining Germany's many, many fears. We do so by means of an annual report (g) called "The Fears of the Germans" (!), conducted bya German insurance company.

The findings? Germans are much more scared of everything than they were last year. They're scared of the rising cost of living, natural disasters, sickness, politicians who are overmatched (ueberfordert) by their responsibilities, old age, terrorism, tension caused by immigration, and much more (g). There's only one exception: they're slightly less afraid that they themselves will become unemployed soon.

In fact, the general level of fear in Germany is now labeled "significant", and is close to the highest ever recorded in the 20 years of the study:

German Fears

I can't make much sense out of this graph. Why the near-doubling in the general fear level in the early 1990s? Was re-unification really that traumatic? And what caused the spike in the early 2000s?

I suppose there are probably no reliable explanations for these numbers, but feel free to speculate in comments.

Drunken Germans

First, a program note. I'll be in the U.S. visiting friends and doing the conference thing until April 12th. Posting will be spotty.

And now for something completely different. An excerpt from the 1962 documentary Mondo Cane, showing us the Reeperbahn in all its glory (h/t MG):

"More," the yearning melody that underpins these scenes and forms the red thread throughout the whole movie, sounds like a standard that's been around forever. Yet it was actually written for this sleazily* ingenious B-movie! As we Texans like to say, "Well, I'll be dipped in shit!"

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Cold, Dry, Secretive, Boring German Women: The View from Almaty

just flew in from almaty

One of my favorite movie lines comes from the overlooked gem Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills. My hazy memory of the set-up: Some rich socialite declares her intention to raze all the trees on a stretch of the Amazon rainforest she owns and build a giant mall. Her sycophantic gay amanuensis (hairdresser? interior designer?), cradling a yapping Pekingese in his arms, lisps excitedly: "What a horrible, fabulous thing to say!"

Roissy in DC, a blogger who applies the pitiless revelations of evolutionary psychology to the contemporary dating world*, is an excellent source for horrible, fabulous things. His blog's motto, "Where Pretty Lies Perish", pretty much says it all. Don't say you haven't been warned.

One Roissy find is a study conducted by a Kazakh gender studies researcher on Kazakh womens' views of women of other nationalities. That is, what stereotypes do Kazakh women associate with chicks from other countries? I'm not really sure why this study was conducted, but why nitpick when we can learn such things about Uigurettes as "she is a hospitable cook, a good hand in cooking lagman; lagman and manty are her best cooked dishes and she can cook economically from everything she has under her hand." "Dungan woman", however, "is associated with national dish – Dungan noodles, lagman, as well as djussai herb, carrot salad, funchesa salad." Good to know!

But there's more. Much, much more. Here are the traits Kazakh women associated with German women:

Probably, the most typical ethnographic image of German woman, known from textbooks, is a blonde in white flounced apron, with plump hands, shaking off flour.

German woman usually is bright-eyed blonde, often stout, plump, sometimes wan, awkward, plain. Often respondents present German woman as unattractive, thin, without make-up, manlike. Undoubtedly, she is a good housewife and spouse, she has a strong united family. One can easily guess which features are typical for German woman in the most concentrated way, serving as a national attribute. They are accuracy, cleanliness and pedantry. This is supplemented by practicality, prudence, diligence, strictness, discipline, thrift, solid sense, honesty, punctuality and we have a business portrait of German woman. However she is characterized with poor spiritual qualities: coldness, dryness, cruelty, secretiveness, boring.

Physically, these Kazakhs are all over the place. Some are thinking of Ulrike Meinhoff, while others are thinking of an Oktoberfest beer-tent maiden. But there seems to be uncanny unanimity on the 'spiritual' qualities. But wait, what about the Americans?

American woman is described in quite contradictory way. Most amazing is a negative estimation of her appearance. There are many variations on this topic: not well-groomed, not stylish, does not dress well, not fashionable clothes, not ironed shorts and T-shirt, sleepers, put on bare feet, elderly woman in shorts, emancipated woman, for whom it is not important how she looks, a girl without make-up, happy fatty woman, stout and shapeless person, a short hair-cut, a knapsack, waddling walk, tennis shoes, dentures, plain, manlike, unisex. Positive estimations are given less frequently: smiling, loudly speaking, stylish blonde, jeans, jeep, cowboy hat, cigarette, uncommonness.

Knowing a kind of our sampling (activists of female organizations and researchers of gender issues), we are not surprised, that most people relate image of American woman with achievements of the female movement in the USA: feminist, independent, free, self-sufficient, uninhibited, emancipated, enjoying equal rights, wealthy, hater of men.

Besides, American women are emotional, uninhibited so much, that they look ill-mannered, snobs, arrogant, hypocritical, empty, with complexes, cold, dry, egoists, superficial, non-constant and impudent.  Their actions are often characterized with regulated character, black and colored women are distinguished with a habit to rely on social support and not to undertake anything to change their life.

Despite this, business qualities of the majority of American women – intellect, professionalism, activeness, self-confidence, discipline pragmatism, career-mindness – are worth of great respect.

I could go on, but I'd just end up copying the entire study, which you can and should read for yourself. To find out, among other things, which women are "not attractive, nothing extraordinary, a grey bird in everyday life, but she can show off with her night beauty; often she is bow-legged and has a voice of smoking person. She is free and not alien to feminism, but prefers to remain within proprieties and good manners. The main thing, of course, that she is light-minded, frivolous, uninhibited, romantic, inspired, very popular with men and she has no equals, full of love."

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