Tuesday, 1 April 2014

5 Things That Irritate Me About Germany

As some time ago I wrote about  "10 Things I Like About Germany", (http://interculturalmusings.blogspot.de/2012/03/10-things-i-like-about-gemany.html)  I thought it would only be fair to talk about the reverse of the medal. A word of warning though - this post will probably only make sense if you know a bit about Germany and are familiar with its actual day-to-day customs and ways. If you're more of the "Ah, the Germans - beer, sowercrowt and layderhouzn" school of thought, I reckon you'll probably find other sources more palatable. For those of you who've spent some time in Germany and/or know it well, here's my take on what gets to me about this country, and I'd obviously be delighted to hear about your pet hates.

1. Staring
I've written about this (to me) highly annoying German habit before here but it still tops the list of my gripes. Being used to the English way of never ever gaping at people, I'm baffled how Germans can spend so much time unashamedly staring at each other. This is particularly annoying on trains where you tend to have a person sitting opposite you. From looking one up and down to bovine open-mouthed stares, there's every variety. Children are not told that staring is rude and therefore do it just as much. I've since learned that there's a North/South divide with Northern Germans leaning more towards the English manner, but as I currently live in Munich which seems to be Starers Central, this is not much comfort to me.

I may sound like an Australian going on about Whingeing Pommies, but I have honestly never experienced anybody complain as much as the Germans. They complain as if their life depended on it. And as they have little comparison, they take the smallest ontowardness as a personal slight. The - really wonderful - train network (ever used an ICE linking major German cities? Well, I do this quite a bit, and it is just about the most agreeable form of travel imaginable. WiFi, quiet areas, sockets at every seat, snacks and coffee, often free newspapers, a nice dining car with seasonal food, air conditioning that actually works, and an amazing record of being on time - it's a travel dream come true.) But for Germans, it's a red rag. One minute late??? Unbelievable! Carriages in reverse order?? Typical! The Bahn is not the only thing they moan about. They complain about high prices, the internet, e-books, the health service,modern life, capitalism, hotels..., anything and everything. They seem positively unhappy when there's nothing to complain about.

3. Conversation
For which read: "lack of". Have you ever been to a German office party? Or any party? Then you'll know the feeling of having to deal with complete and undisturbed silence. Germans don't ever feel the need to "make conversation" - something they dispise and find "artificial" (gekünstelt). They have no banter and no phrases come easily. They're almost always awkward when in a group. Uncomfortable and desperatly shy they sit around a table, saying nothing. I don't know whether they find it awkward themselves but they tend to do it for a very long time. It takes a better person than me to suffer this cringe-making atmosphere. I've learnt to avoid gatherings of Germans. They're exhausting and  disturbing in an empty sort of way.

4. Sense of Entitlement
As Germany is still a fairly wealthy country, people enjoy generous perks and rich, early pensions. They get 13 (often 14 months) salaries and get paid extra for going on holiday. Of course employers pay an extra Christmas allowance (Weihnachtsgeld). Social benefits are generous, long leaves of absence for both sexes when a child is born, employer funded education (Weiterbildung), tax relief for almost everything including long commutes (which doesn't make a lot of environmental sense) and so on. Probably as a result of this, Germans tend to think their  Ansprüche need to be redeemed at all cost, and feel short-changed (!) when they don't get what they feel they're entitled to just by dint of being there. In the East, where people lived under Communist rule for decades, this tendency is even stronger - maybe people there feel they have to make up for lost time. I find this whole approach to life and society very unattractive, and am still shocked by it. I often wish people here had more of a feeling for how other nations live and that affluence isn't a universal human right.

5.  Sexism
Like the staring this is mostly an unconscious way of behaviour. If you asked Germans about sexism, they would tell you how much they abhor and condemn it. Yet in everyday life it is hard to find a more sexist society in a Northern European country .It isn't the lecherous wolf-whistle kind of sexism, but a deep-seated conviction (shared by both sexes) that men are simply the superior gender, and have to be listened to. A woman will by definition not be taken seriously in any position of authority. Vice versa, a man doing housework, say, will be a figure of ridicule (yes, this is 2014). Jokes about women drivers are perfectly acceptable, as is the conviction that men and women "think and feel differently". Shop assistants will be decidedly politer and more accommodating when dealing with a male customer. Handymen will be condescending towards women, and as a woman you'll be constantly asked what "nice things" you're planning to cook "for when your husband comes home". Women have totally internalised their inferior position in German society, and never complain. If they did, they'd be regarded as weird and called "Emanze", a strange out-dated expression from the 1970s.

I suppose there are things to dislike in every country, and in many ways Germany provides a more pleasant, easy and open society to  live in than many others countries I know. If you find this this post too "complaining", please turn to
http://interculturalmusings.blogspot.de/2012/03/10-things-i-like-about-gemany.html Alternatively, there's a post called "5 Things I Like about Britain" to compare and contrast. http://interculturalmusings.blogspot.de/2012/04/5-things-i-like-about-britain.html

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

On Queuing

If there is one thing Britons are proud of, and one thing that seems to encapsulate "the British way of life" it is the ability to form a queue. If I had a pound for each time someone (usually a recently arrived expat) told me "The Germans have never learned to queue", I'd be very rich indeed. It's also something every foreigner feels obliged to admire.

In fact, it isn't just the Germans who don't form an orderly queue. Europeans tend not to. Or have you ever seen a queue in Italy -or, say Finland? No. The now defunct Soviet Union would be the only other queuing contestant.

And that's what queuing smacks of to me  - deprivation, wartime, rationing, dark times. Queuing says. "I know my place, I am a number and I know it." It says: "I'll do as I'm told. I'm obedient and subservient, I don't make a fuss even if I have to stand in the rain for hours."

Harsh words, I know, for such a beloved institution. But I've always found it quite off-putting. When I first lived in Oxford, I took photos of the endless snaking bus queues that would merge into the next bus queue... of people standing there - motionless, patient, obedient. I found it unnatural and a source of mirth.

Also - not forming a queue does not mean other nations just push and shove their way to the front, elbowing and if necessary head-butting others aside. Not so. When you look closely, queues are mostly a waste of space, and it is much more economical to form small gathering (say in a shop). People have a good eye for  judging when they arrived and who came after them. There is no free-for-all. Quite the contrary, it often makes for polite exchanges "Were you before or after me?- No please, go ahead , I've got time." Or there are enquiries whether it's possible to go first - and so on. This is a very Continental type of small talk which contrary to British expectations isn't at all aggressive or anarchic.

It's how social life generally works in my books, by consensus and negotiation -not via a rigid, pre-ordained structure which is sacrosant. I was therefore pleased to see that in London - probably through lack of space - the endless snaky bus queues don't seem to exist anymore. People also negotiate access more freely. Progress indeed - at least that's how I see it