“Many people say that Germans don’t have a sense of humor. Is that true or is it a stereotype?”
Although this question appears to have little to do with the complexities of Americans and Germans collaborating, it is a very serious question. Why?
Humor is very important
Having a sense of humor is critical to remaining mentally and emotionally stable. We all know what happens to us as individuals when we live and work without humor. Without laughing. At ourselves. At each other. At the world.
We become overly serious, sensitive, on edge. We lose perspective, balance, lightness. At some point we lose hope. We lose faith.
But what if we maintain our sense of humor, but believe that others do not maintain their sense of humor?
We may choose to avoid them, “because they don’t have a sense of humor.” In doing so, we may miss opportunities to discover that they, indeed, have a sense of humor. We might misjudge them. Count them out.
Most definitely a stereotype
“Germans don’t have a sense of humor.”
This is most definitely a stereotype, and unfortunately a common American stereotype. It is as ignorant a stereotype as when Germans think, and often say, “Americans are superficial.” Let me make the case not only for German humor, but for great German humor.
First: Of those Americans who interact personally with Germans, it is normally in the business context. Germans separate the professional from the private. When at work, the Germans are more work and less play.
Americans, in contrast, distinguish less clearly between the professional and the private. When at work, the Americans mix work and play moreso than do the Germans.
For those Americans who interact with Germans only, or primarily, in the work setting, they may never experience Germans in a personal, relaxed, non-work setting.
Their stereotype – “The Germans have no sense of humor” – is based on their limited experience and/or on what they hear other Americans say, who in turn may have limited experience with Germans.
A little common sense
Second: Let’s use a little common sense here.
Germany is the fourth largest economy in the world with only 80 million people. German society is exceptionally successful, stable, safe, socially conscious. Anyone who has spent time in Germany recognizes this immediately.
Can a people be that capable, that successful without having a sense of humor? Can any individual be successful, stable, safe without having a sense of humor?
History and humor
Third: Let’s look at German history.
One need not be a student of German history to know that the German people have gone through some very challenging times over the last hundred years or so. Let’s go back.
Bringing the two Germanies together after unification in October 1990.
West and East Germany on the front-line of the Cold War from 1949 to 1989. A Nato-Warsaw Pact confrontation would have meant war almost exclusively on German soil, including possibly the use of theater nuclear weapons.
The difficult years after the Second World War, a war that ravaged Germany, too.
The politically instable years after the First World War, including military occupation and the hyperinflation of the 1920s. Before then the First World War, a war that ravaged Germany, too.
And those are just events of the 20th Century. Going further back into European history, century for century, tells the story of wars, crises, disasters of many kinds.
Can any people go through such times and not only survive, but also thrive, without maintaining their sense of humor, as individuals, as a people?
Fourth: The Germans enjoy life!
They do. Spend some time with them away from work. They get four to six weeks of vacation a year. And they take them. All of them. They travel. They have endless hobbies.
And when they take vacation, they don’t work, they play. No constantly checking emails. No working a few hours a day. They play. They recharge their batteries, so that when they return to work they are fresh.
Fifth: German humor is multifaceted.
The Germans are a joyful people. Spend some time with them. Go out to dinner. Go to a beer garden. Go to a café on a Sunday for coffee and cake. Go to the Christmas markets, to Carnival celebrations, to summer open-air concerts. The list of festivities is long.
Take cabaret. It is a German invention. To understand cabaret you have to be well-informed, intelligent, and have a keen sense for irony. Yes, the Germans have slapstick humor, and it, too, is funny. But cabaret is a higher, more sophisticated form of humor.
No self-irony, true
Sixth: Germans don’t have a sense of self-irony, of self-deprecation.
This is true, and I have not yet analyzed why that is so. And it might be a reason why Germans do not find it humorous when Americans are self-ironical or self-deprecating.
My ex-German wife, as well as my German-American son, often say to me: “Why do you put yourself down in front of other people?”
Germans seldom understand that American self-deprecation is a form of self-praise, it is self-congratulatory, at times subtle, at times not so subtle.
Culture and Language
Seventh: Americans and Germans may find different things to be humorous. This is the case in any culture.
If Bob tells a joke and his German colleague, Anna, does not laugh, perhaps Anna did not understand the joke, or did understand it, but does not find it funny. Humor is culture-based.
And remember, if Anna tells a joke to Americans, she is doing it in the English language. Not her mother tongue. Humor is very difficult to translate into another language. Americans then do not find Anna’s jokes particularly humorous.
I am an American. I laugh at the Germans. The Germans laugh at me. We laugh together. The Germans have a great sense of humor. The Americans, too. Get together with each other. Away from work. Get to know each other. You’ll laugh !