The land of Me

Euromnzen auf weiem Hintergrund

Have you ever been to a shop in Britain? It’s lovely. First off, Anglo-Saxons have a natural urge to queue. It’s like the click of a buckle – they snap into place, no elbows or headlocks involved. Just like driving in the UK, it is utterly relaxing (when you’re used to German roads). Also, checkout assistants are usually friendly and will exchange a few words or even banter with customers. You think that’s a given? Here’s your pep talk for shopping in Germany.

German people’s behaviour in public spaces is not exactly one of our flagship qualities. Here’s what it is all about (other than the Hokey Cokey, of course):

1. The non-queue
Don your fighting gear. Germans seem to have an inborn itch to come first. The towel-on-the-deckchair phenomenon is not a myth! My English husband always says, the way to a German checkout is like a Formula 1 race. (Especially when a new till opens – a German will not have you snatch the butter from her bread, as the saying goes.)

Once it’s your turn, know that you’re expected to proceed efficiently. Elderly citizens idly counting their small change will be huffed and puffed at, just as will anyone who doesn’t vacate the packing area soon enough, i.e. in a nanosecond. (Sales assistants may even push your shopping out of the way.)

Oh, and we also don’t do common sense, especially not when it comes to queuing. I’ve tried to use it at several instances, and it ended in arguments each and every time. Picture a counter with two checkouts. What will Germans never do? Form one queue. They will form two queues and join whichever one looks shorter.

If you want to force Germans to form one single file, you need to make them take numbers. This worked so well at post offices in the past that these are now the only places in Germany where the system works (meanwhile even without taking numbers).

2. The Wechselgeldschale
This is a very German phenomenon: people avoid body contact with strangers. So to that end (and possibly to make the process of handing back change more efficient as no waiting for human interaction is required), there are trays for change on almost every German shop counter. The money is placed on the tray instead of in the customer’s hand. And if there is no tray, the change will often be placed on the counter for the customer to pick up.

So now you know what we Germans mean when we complain about our own country as Servicewüste Deutschland, a place deserted of service.

Okay, US-American shop assistants may take it a bit too far to the other extreme. A very dear Irish friend of mine was rather startled when, on leaving a boutique in L.A., she heard the salesperson chirp ‘Missing you already!’ When she turned around in confusion, she saw that the young lady in question hadn’t even lifted her head from whatever she was scribbling. L.A. – so blasé.

Next week, we’ll see what’s really good about Germany.

The Pommes Buddha says: Hooookey Cokey Cokey!

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Out of humour

Clownskopf und Konfetti

As the end of the carnival season is drawing near, Cologne is preparing for six days of celebration. Visitors from all over the world will flock in and be merry. Many foreigners think that Germans love carnival for the sole reason that it gives them permission to shed their otherwise serious face and let their hair down just for a few days a year. But is that really so?

Germans are known throughout the world for many good things. A sense of humour isn’t one of them. I’ve come across this prejudice several times – in Great Britain and Australia. While it may be true that it is not a forte of the German soul to laugh about oneself as systematically as the British do, it would be wrong to say that all Germans ‘go to the basement to laugh’, as a German saying goes.

It is true that, even in laid-back Cologne, people generally seem to have a certain sense of self-righteous entitlement, which I call Anspruchshaltung. For example, complete strangers will pass judgment on anything and everything, from the way you raise your child to the way you ride your bike – not to your face but loud enough to make sure you hear. The concept of queuing in Germany is replaced by the concept of ‘If I cheat my way in front of you, I’m first and you’re stuffed. Hard cheese’! This is just as annoying to many Germans as it is to foreigners.

And yet, humour, in my opinion, is the one thing that unites the world. A (German) friend of mine who recently spent the better part of two years on an aid mission in Afghanistan told me how he ditched all the official advice about treading on eggshells with topics such as sex, religion and politics. Despite being a non-smoker, he decided he’d use cigarette breaks to befriend his Afghan colleagues and just have a good laugh with them. They came to deeply respect him for being the only person to show a true interest in their lives. In the end, they all took the micky out of each other. He was the only German sitting with Afghans during lunch. And the only one who ever got invited to an Afghan house.

So, if you dare, try out your humour with your German colleagues next time. And invite them to pancakes on Veilchendienstag. Read more next week …

The Pommes Buddha says: Humour is the key.

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