Are We All Humorless Germans At Heart?

You'd be surprised how much of my work depends on people with a sense of humor. What I do as a journalist is basically call up experts – historians, scholars, anthropologists, writers of books and treatises, collectors of information, Melvillian sub-subs – and ask them to tell me a little bit about the knowledge they have gathered.

Especially books like "Planet Germany" and my next book depend on experts taking a moment to talk to me on the phone. I write down what they tell me, put it into a more dramatic or exciting order, phrase a question to make it a little more provocative or add a comment to make it funny, and that's that: My job is to repackage knowledge in order to make it more interesting than it seems when it comes directly out of the mouths of scholars.

You remember reading Bill Bryson's exciting, funny, fascinating and page-turning "A Short History of Nearly Everything?" There was probably nothing in that book that you hadn't heard in school – but in the book it was more interesting. That's what I do. Oddly enough, you can’t just call a scholar and pick his mind. It seems like that should be possible. Especially when these guys are being paid with public funds, it seems to me they should be required in their contracts to stand in a booth in a shopping mall or a public square once a week and answer any question put to them by passersby. (Of course, probably no passersby would stop to ask questions, but still…)

In order for me to do my work, I need experts who have a sense of humor. Not every expert will talk to me. I tell a historian something like: "I'm researching the question of whether Hitler would have won the war, if he had had the help of the Jews." Ask a scholar that question, he hangs up on you. With this particular question, I figured it would be too sensitive to ask a German scholar. A common complaint that Germans have about… well, Germans is that they are humorless. And that they have no imagination. Can't think outside the box. So I e-mailed a director of a major technical museum in the US and put it to him. I figured: An American would have enough of a sense of humor to take a shot at that question. Alas, I had overestimated the American sense of humor. It happens again and again, but I never learn my lesson: Americans say they have more humor than Germans, but in practice that's not necessarily true. He wrote back in a rather offended tone that "such a question is not history, it's speculation."

That sentence is not new to me: I had heard it a thousand times in Germany, from the time I attended the university here to the time I worked on books such as this one. But I had not expected it from an American. Ah well, back the drawing board. Maybe I'll stick to Germans from now on.

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