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.de. 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, Immobilienscout.de 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!"

Continue reading "Drunken Germans" »

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."

Continue reading "Cold, Dry, Secretive, Boring German Women: The View from Almaty" »

The Perils of Weekends

Over at Stash, we see this graph, from a German survey of the moods of Germans, as self-reported on various days of the week:

Mood Day Graph

 The study's authors conclude:

Our results suggest that overall subjective well-being is largely influenced by the day of the week it is reported. We find that Sunday is the bluest day in Germany; i.e. this is the day that individuals on average report the lowest level of subjective well-being. Saturday and Friday are the other two days that individuals report lower subjective well-being. Hence, weekends result in lower subjective well-being than weekdays... A separate analysis based on different socioeconomic and demographic characteristics of individuals reveals that there are different weekly patterns of subjective well-being, where the most pronounced effect is found among married and middle-aged people.

Over at the Stash, the writer finds evidence for a similar effect in the U.S. The effect here isn't all that huge, as you can see. However, it's apparently statistically significant.

I bet one of the explanations for this is the over-valuing of leisure time. Of course, if you're being hopelessly over-worked, more leisure time is always a boon. But that's not the case in advanced Western societies. Here, you're expected to look forward to weekends and vacations and holidays, especially in Germany, where bitching about your job and pining for the next vacation is a a deeply-ingrained cultural trope.

Psychologists find that people actually don't enjoy leisure time as much as they're 'supposed' to. Finding something to say or do with family members for stretches of hours at a time can be a real chore, and watching television is generally associated with mildly depressed mental states. Structured and challenging leisure time activities usually do improve mood, but not everybody understands this or has the willpower and stamina for it. Generally, people feel best when they're interacting with other people and working on challenging, but not overwhelming tasks that play into a project that has some greater meaning. And all things considered, work often comes closer to satisfying those criteria than many modern leisure activities.

Berlin 2009 = New York 1984?

one solution to subway rudeness


Today's post is outsourced to sometime GJ contributor Ed Philp, who has something to bitch about. I may post my own take on the Important Issues Ed addresses here in a few days, but in the meantime, take it away, Ed:

Hello – it’s Ed Philp once more. Andrew has kindly allowed me to use German Joys as a soapbox to vent frustration and ask for comments on a proposed solution. The topic today is behaviour on Berlin public transit. I can’t speak to public transit in Kassel or Ludwigshafen or Hamburg. I know Berlin is known as being rude and impersonal in comparison to other German cities, but I’ve typically found Berliners to be reasonably polite and at least pragmatic in their dealings with others in most of my experiences in this city.

Not so in respect of the S-Bahn and the U-Bahn. There are certain habits here that drive me up the wall. For one, people almost invariably bunch up into a knot right by the door and obdurately stand there regardless of whether they are travelling for two stops or six. In doing so, they inconveniently block up the train and effectively prevent people from passing in or out of the doorway area. It is immensely frustrating to watch an S-Bahn train arrive – the doors open, and you are faced with a wall of people, and you can see that lots of space exists to stand in the seating areas between the doors.

In other cities, particularly London, but also Chicago and Toronto, and even Prague, people using public transit show considerable sensitivity to the fact that a lot of people are attempting to use a facility with limited comfort. In essence, people generally act like they are on public transit, where things only work efficiently and politely if passengers actively stay aware of the intentions of others. In Berlin, the opposite seems to apply. I have never seen so many people push their way onto a train where it is clear that the car hasn’t yet disgorged the passengers trying to exit. I’ve never seen so many people stand resolutely in the doorway inside the car even though half the train is obviously trying to exit. The solution is always to get off and stand right by the door, getting back on and usually claiming a seat as soon as the exiting passengers have left. I’ve also never seen so many people get up from their seat to head for the door in the middle of the train trip to the desired station. This means that these passengers, who want to be right up next to the door when the doors open, end up stumbling through a moving train, often stepping on others and bumping into people. The stop times at stations in Berlin aren’t leisurely, but they are also more than sufficient, even at peak hours, for people to exit and enter the trains.

On a side note, my wife has been visibly, heavily pregnant for the past three months. She travels on the S-Bahn almost every day. Only a handful of times has anyone offered her their seat. I also rarely see this happen in respect of the elderly or disabled. It happened to her without fail on our last trip to London on every crowded tube car we entered.

Why are Germans so astonishingly bad at using escalators, where one woman blithely standing on the left will block forty people who want to walk by – and no-one says anything?

Finally, where did the absurd tolerance for beggars on public transit come from? I know that Berlin is a tolerant city and that most are well aware that large numbers of people here are not especially well off. But the number of people who were filthy, dishevelled and incoherent who stumbled through the trains this summer asking for spare change was very high (and only a couple of them were former Lehman employees). I’ve never once seen anyone from the transit authority step in and encourage an unwashed reeking drunk who is clutching or barking at passengers for spare change to leave the train, and for that matter, I’ve never once seen a ticket controller and a beggar or homeless newspaper vendor in the same car at one time. What is up with that?

In almost all other aspects of public life, Germans act in an exemplary (often too exemplary) fashion, with enormous sensitivity to the fact that they are in public. If you drop a piece of litter in a German city, you can expect to be accosted and asked to use a garbage can. If you sit in your car running with the motor on, invariably someone will tap the window and tell you to shut the engine off and stop polluting the environment. Good luck not being lynched if you use your mobile phone in a library, walk in a bike lane, jump a queue or cross on a red light with small children nearby. Why do simple rules about accommodating others completely and utterly break down on the Berlin public transit system? It isn’t a class thing: Berliners of all walks of life, age, income level and degree of intoxication use public transit at all hours.

I suspect that it is the absence of visible, listed rules or guidelines. It isn’t that people would read the guidelines and suddenly figure out that they have been blocking the doors of subway cars for the last ten years. Instead, guidelines would visibly make it clear to everyone else that there is a set of expectations for behaviour on public transit. Acting in a way that violates these expectations gives rise to justified public ire. If there is one thing that a certain very common breed of Germans (which are disproportionately represented in the public service) absolutely revel in, it is pointing to a rule and informing someone else that they are breaking it. I suspect that if the Berlin public transit authorities published more Richtlinien (not Verordnungen!) on how to behave in a streetcar or subway (without a friendly child-appropriate mascot), we would suddenly see a decrease in poor passenger behaviour. Simple “walk left stand right” (links zielorientiert laufen, rechts planlos herumgucken?) signs on escalators would help, as would designated seating for the pregnant and infirm.

I remember being told that about a decade ago, the Berlin subways changed the announcement that “the doors are opening – stand back” to include “please”, and that this change was actually debated. Maybe my expectations are too high, and maybe Berliners actually enjoy the pushing and shoving and resolutely ignoring other people that accompanies a trip on a crowded S-Bahn here. I think the small change of some signage could be a help though. Any thoughts on this from Andrew’s readers?