Monday, March 31, 2014

Typically German?

Intolerance, schadenfreude (spitefulness), stubbornness,
smugness (narrow-mindedness), nitpicking, bureaucracy, jealousy (©Wikipedia)
According to Rolf Sachs, his exhibition Typisch Deutsch? (Typically German?) at the Museum of Applied Art in Cologne is intended to clear up out-dated prejudices about German traits. In taking the stringent trash separation practices of his paternal ancestors for a ride he places trash bins of various colors in front of the museum entrance. The bins are marked Intoleranz, Schadenfreude, Sturheit, Spießigkeit, Pingeligkeit, Bürokratie, Neid.

Sorry, which of those negative traits are really so typically German that we have to put them into the trash? You encounter intolerance, bureaucracy, and jealousy all over the world. Stubbornness is a rather personal feature and narrow-mindedness quite often is the result of strict upbringing. The cliché of stubbornness you often find in novels, theater pieces, and movie plots where, e.g., at the happy (?) end an Irma la Douce has - not without difficulty - transformed the stubborn but honest cop Nestor Patou into a bon vivant.

That leaves nitpicking and schadenfreude. It is true that many Germans are Prozesshanseln (litigious persons); they like to go to court for nullities. A typical issue may be the neighbor's high tree casting a shadow on the plaintiff's lawn. In Germany litigious persons are encouraged by the relatively small costs of court cases of a low Streitwert (amount involved).

As a student I once set myself the goal never to see a doctor or a lawyer. As you may imagine doctors I could not avoid but lawyers I managed not to see until three years ago when my neighbor took all the apartment owners in our building to court. We, the other owners, did not like some iron bars he - without being authorized - had placed in front of some windows in the entrance hall. Stepping out of our apartments made us feel like being in a prison. We simply and courteously asked him to remove the iron bars. To make a long and ugly story short: For the first time in my life I found myself in court. Needless to say, our neighbor lost his case but we all still had to pay our lawyer. Do you understand that I just say Good day and Good bye to the guy who has changed the course of my life?

That leaves the trait Schadenfreude being so typically German that the English speaking world adopted the word not having an equivalent in their language. There is even a German proverb: Wer den Schaden hat, braucht für den Spott nicht zu sorgen (The laugh is always on the loser).

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