It is a little-known fact that the Germans don’t have a word for ‘awkward’. So, I assume there must have been something of a ‘culture clash’ when I was standing in front of a class full of young German men around five months ago. I was trying to teach them about the British sense of humour and, by way of comparison, I inadvertently told them that the Germans didn’t have a sense of humour.
The worst thing about this faux-pas was the class reaction: I thought they were going to hurl objects at me or scream abuse because of my xenophobic small-mindedness, but they didn’t. They sat in complete silence. It was the most brutal thing they could have done.
I admit that I am perhaps more prone to fits of social discomfiture than most, but I defy any Briton not to have felt awkward at that moment. The slow breathing, the hum of the laptop, and a class full of impassive Teutonic eyes; I could feel the back of my neck start to sweat. My hands began to play with my face. And I started making odd, intermittent noises. I was certain that my German pupils could sense my distress – and I was also certain that they found it hilarious.
This certainty was based upon one word: Schadenfreude. In English we have adopted certain words from our German counterparts – Zeitgeist, Doppelganger, Realpolitik – useful, clever words which make us sound more intelligent than we actually are. Schadenfreude is another of these words which is often said but not understood. A literal translation of the word would be ‘joy from or through pain’. In translation this sounds slightly sadomasochistic – and when I explained this to my German friends they found it highly amusing, the reason being that the word is so normal in German that the Germans also don’t even consider what it really means. Like sharks, they just sense it.
So, because of their rumoured, instinctive awareness of ‘pain’, I was quite sure that my class could sense my social distress as I gradually descended into a paranoid wreck. Apparently, though, this was not the case. It emerged some time after the event, as I was chatting to a few of the same students in a slightly more relaxed situation, that they had had no idea that I had felt awkward at all.
Now, admittedly, one might think that this could be down to German manners or my ability to hide my social ineptitude. But this is simply not possible, given that the Germans are incredibly frank, and that I am incredibly self-aware. The real reason why they could not sense my pain, and couldn’t find it funny, is because they don’t understand the notion of awkwardness.
A German friend of mine recently attended a seminar on cultural differences in the workplace. When the seminar came to discuss how to cope with working in Britain, they warned the audience that the British do not enjoy silences in conversations and will try wherever possible to fill these silences with jokes. They went on to explain that these attempts at humour can sometimes be rather confusing for their German colleagues as they often have nothing to do with work, or with what was being discussed previously.
What the German seminar was trying to explain was the notion of the awkward silence, a phenomenon that is both non-existent and untranslatable in Germany. The Germans do not have a word for ‘awkward’. Nor do they have a sense for what ‘awkward’ might mean. When I asked a German friend of mine what he felt when there was a silence in a conversation, he answered “nothing at all”, going on to add that “if there is a silence in the conversation then no one needs to say anything, because no one has anything to say”.
This brutal rationalism, which is expected from our Central European chums, is rather humbling. In fact these words were an enlightenment: I was aware for the first time of my conversational sins.
It is tempting, when one hears such efficient logic, to make remarks such as: “If only we, as a nation, could be this sensible, we’d avoid so much embarrassment, so many misunderstandings, and generally awkward situations – maybe then we too could be the best economy in Europe etc. etc.”
But, statements such as these are missing something very crucial – namely, that the Germans are not known for their wit. Moreover, not only are they not famed for being funny but, if truth be told, a sense of humour is considered as the last bastion of Britishness against the ever-strengthening Hun. Gone are the days when we could pride ourselves on our sportsmen or sportsmanship, our strong economy, or our strong work ethic. Instead, we must content ourselves with our ability to laugh in the face of despair – and be proud that we can do it better than anyone else. If we were to lose our sense of awkwardness to the Germans, then perhaps, heaven forbid, they too could start to be funny!
Now, of course, this is jingoistic hyperbole. The Germans do have a sense of humour. They do laugh. Sometimes. The problem is that the German sense of humour is very difficult to ‘get’.
For example, after I had recovered from my state of hyperventilating embarrassment at the front of the class, I managed to ask them whether they had any jokes. After the customary silence, a low, blunt, monotonous voice slowly offered up these words: “We do have jokes.”
This made me excited, as hopefully you are too. A German joke seems like an oxymoron in English, and so a sense of cultural discovery inevitably tingled through my nerves. So here is the first one:
“A sausage walks up the stairs and then realises it’s got no legs.”
Then, after a slight pause, another, slightly longer one, came:
“There are two snails sitting on a branch; one of them falls off the branch and the other is called Maria.”
This is not what I expected. The myth, perpetrated not only in Britain but also in Germany, is that the Germans are stiff, severe and mercilessly logical – and in many ways they are. Yet these types of jokes, which are rather standard gags in Germany, throw a spanner in the works. They’re nonsensical, verging on the absurd. They’re called Antiwitze, or Anti-Jokes, and, according to wikipedia.de, they are ‘jokes which play with a known joke formula – but in which the required logic of the joke formula is disregarded in a surprising fashion, and through this surprise an alienation from the serious narrative model is permitted’. Of course, the way the Germans explain their Ant-Jokes doesn’t really help cast off their staid image, but the existence of them does prove one point: at least they can laugh.
Crucially, however, and this will sound strange to a lot of people, laughter is not what the German sense of humour is about. To tell the truth, the Germans are some of the funniest people in the world, but their sense of humour is so difficult to comprehend at first that they have been branded with this tag of ‘unfunniness’.
The German sense of humour is rooted in their solemnity. Their language is inflexible in its grammar, encourages incredibly long sentences, and likes to simplify things by putting nouns together rather than by creating new clauses. And it is this unmoving, rigid and serious language which forms the bricks of German humour. The mortar is provided by the most terrible recent history of any western European nation. The two together are a recipe for comic genius.
As I was walking back with a friend one night from the town’s mandatory Irish pub, he offered to tell me a little about the town in which I was now living. As a relative newcomer, I gladly accepted. He began with: “As you might well have already noticed, there are not many old buildings left in Passau. This is because you bombed us.” I didn’t really know how to react to this. I was certain that he must have been having a laugh, but at the same time the gravity with which he said these words and the gravity of the subject matter didn’t give away any sense of irony.
Of course he was being ironic – but he had to tell me that. And this is the problem for us. The Germans do have a sense of humour; we’re just not very comfortable with it. And this is a recurring theme. The awkward feeling that we get when we’re put into these grave and serious situations, a feeling which is untranslatable into any other western European language, is what makes us think the Germans don’t have a sense of humour. It is also what makes our sense of humour so unique, and fundamentally what makes us British. It was Germany’s Shakespeare, Goethe, who said: “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.” It’s sickening how much the Germans get things right.