All work and no play makes Germans crude stereotypes

Sat, Aug 25, 2012, 01:00

SINCE THE turn of the year, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the German-Irish relationship – in January I moved to Hamburg for six months, experiencing first-hand the exceptional quality of life that Germans take for granted (in short, they have it sweet). I’ve had some preconceptions confirmed and others contradicted, learning a lot about the idiosyncrasies of the German people and their culture, as you do when you live somewhere new.

But one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned, something that is at once quite remarkable and yet also somewhat unsurprising, isn’t about the German people at all, it’s about us – by and large, nobody in Ireland knows all that much about Germany today.

This is a hunch, of course, born out of anecdotal and admittedly flimsy evidence, but it dawned on me as the months went by and I’d return for occasional weddings and assignments and the like. Every time, the same muddled conversation kept happening.

“How’s Berlin?” someone would ask. “Erm, actually I’m in Hamburg.” “Are you enjoying Munich?” somebody else would enquire. “I’m sure I would, but I’m up north, other end of the country.” And it went on: “What’s Düsseldorf like?” “Much craic in Frankfurt?” “How’s life in Cologne?” “Is Stuttgart treating you well?” Now, not everyone is going to be paying a lot of attention to the details of my living arrangements, and at first I thought this was a conversational coincidence, but I suspected, after the umpteenth time, that it hinted at something deeper than an inability to differentiate one German city from another. After all, would people keep asking me how Leeds was if I’d moved to Manchester?

I began to think that to many Irish people, Germany isn’t a real country as such, but a vague European entity, a series of interchangeable urban spaces occupied by bankers and bureaucrats and decorated with the occasional car factory. It is defined in our popular imagination not by the reality of the country as it exists but by a series of lazy stereotypes (and stereotypes about Germany are among the laziest of all).

Our common language means we will always be more exposed to British, American and even Australian cultural exports, while German movies and TV series are unlikely to make much impact. That’s an undoubtedly important factor in shaping perceptions of a place.

And while not ideal, that wouldn’t be a big problem if Germany were just another European country. But Germany is not just another European country. With the euro crisis spinning on, Germany is increasingly the only force of gravity holding it together, for good or ill. And our relationship with the place is now defined by the response to the financial crisis, our fate dependent on Bundesbank mandarins and German coalition partners talking tough for their constituents.

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

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