All work and no play makes Germans crude stereotypes
Given that situation, it’s incumbent on us to have a better understanding of the country and its people. Attitudes here seem to be shaped by notions about the crap sense of humour, a fastidious observance of petty rules, a taste for beer, würst and schnitzel, maybe a new admiration for their national football team, and of course that timeless gag: “Don’t mention the war.” As perceptions go, they range from bogus to spot on – the fastidious observance of petty rules can be infuriating – but cumulatively they paint a very inaccurate picture of the German people.
For all the rule-following, there’s a widespread tolerance for non-conformists and a respect for individualism that we could do with adopting in Ireland.
But it’s not just the Irish who have an inaccurate perception of Germans. Earlier in the year, the Pew Research Centre published a survey of attitudes across eight European countries that found all bar one felt Germany to be the hardest-working country in Europe, with the Greeks widely felt to be among the most idle. The only people who didn’t share the perception of the hard-working Germans were the Greeks, who felt they were the hardest-working, which caused some mirth.
The reality is different from the perception – according to OECD statistics, Germans worked an average 1,413 hours in 2011, right down towards the very bottom of the OECD rankings and way below the OECD average of 1,776 hours. Irish workers were not much better, recording 1,543 hours; right at the very top of the European countries came, you guessed it, Greece, with an average of 2,032 hours worked. Take that, lazy stereotypes.
Of course, German productivity is much higher than Greece’s. I suspect this is because there’s a drastically lower tolerance for things being done half-assed in Germany than almost anywhere else, but all those hours not spent working are spent enjoying parks, having barbecues, playing sports, hanging out with friends, and going on holidays. The pre-eminent social priority in Germany isn’t working hard or saving money, as the conventional wisdom would have it, but living life well.
Every country is more complex than it can possibly seem to an outsider, inevitably, but I reckon Germany is one of the most misunderstood developed countries in the world. For our sake, it’s probably time we began to understand it a bit better.
Shane Hegarty is on leave