Sunday, November 26, 2006

How To Insult a German

I still feel horrible about insulting my good friend Christoph the Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor when he was here for a wild weekend. In the heat of late-night conversation (this was after he prepared his great post-midnight pasta meal for all of us) I called him “typisch deutsch” – “typically German.”

I don't know how I could have said such a thing! It just slipped out. 20 years in Germany and I still can't get used to all the unseen pitfalls in daily communication. "Typical German," you see, is not considered a compliment by Germans. I could see his face kind of sink: “Ah hell, even Eric thinks I’m a typical German. I’ve failed as a human being.”

When Germans call me “typical American”, I take it as a compliment. True, sometimes there’s a bit of joshing there, but in general when people call me “American” it’s more or less good. We Americans, too, talk about ourselves in a generally positive way: "That can only happen in America," for example, is a phrase we use to describe a poor man who invents something unnecessary and becomes rich, not to describe a man who walks into a school and starts shooting kids. "Typical American" refers to our good side. But if you call a German and “German”, he takes it automatically as an insult.

It isn’t an insult at all, of course. On the contrary, Germans today are great examples of modern civilized people. I'm not talking about the lower murder rate in comparison with the US, either - I'm talking about the people you meet on the streets. I enjoy meeting Germans.

Christoph the Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor is a perfect example of the modern German:

He is responsibly and happily married, with children, true to his wife and a good, loving, providing father. At the same time, he is no suburban stick-in-the mud and does not exude a feeling that he is trapped. On the contrary, he stills lives his life more or less the way he wants to. You cannot apply the term "lives of quiet desperation" to a typical German. A man living a life of quiet desperation does not have his own rock band on the side. Christoph is liberal (but not ideologically inflexible - most liberal Germans, like most liberal Americans, are ideologically inflexible, which makes Christoph a cut above the rest); he is interested in new things, in art and culture, both of the “high” and the “pop” kinds; he plays in a rock and roll band and composes his own songs, but doesn’t go around wearing black and three-day-stubble and pretending to be someone he isn't. He is “Protestant” in the sense that he’s a hard worker and good provider, but “Catholic” enough to take the time to enjoy life - something that some of us ultra-Protestant Americans (like me) sometimes have a hard time doing.

But the “typical German” he envisions when he hears those words is someone else: stubborn, backward, unhappy, chauvinistic, small-minded. In fact, I don’t even know any Germans like that and I suspects he knows very few of them, too. Maybe they did exist once, maybe there are still a few of them out there, but they are not at all typical. The Germans I know are pretty much like Christoph: modern, world-experienced, interested, moral, tolerant, with a good sense of humor and a kind of ironical distance to themselves and the world (that means they don’t take things more seriously than the things deserve).

In fact, I find it difficult to find bad things to say about the “typical German.” When I talk about “typical Germans,” I’m talking to the kind of person I’d like to have a beer or two with. They know the art of conversation, they are interested, they are interesting. There's only one problem with a typical German: Sooner or later, as an American, you make some kind of ill-considered comment like, "What's wrong with typical Germans? I like typical Germans." And you utterly insult them.

1 comment:

Stefan said...

Hi Eric,
great post about the typical German! It's true that "typically German" is generally taken as an insult, because we believe that foreigners still connect "German" with the attributes you mentioned in your post.
Try a Google search for "typically German" and what do you find? Exactly. Funnily enough, most of these articles are written by Germans...

BTW, I really enjoy you blog. It's a great read!
Stefan