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Germans have a sense of humour

Ask a few thousand people, as one study recently did, which nation they think is the least funny, and Germany will appear top of the list. Of course, despite the headline on that particular article, this doesn’t make Germany officially the country with the worst sense of humour; it means that people’s personal opinions are in accord with national stereotypes, which isn’t a surprise (after all, a lot of people agreeing on a personal opinion is pretty much what a stereotype is). The question left woefully unanswered here is: do these stereotypes have any basis in fact?

No smoke without fire, of course, and I’ll gladly raise my hand and confess that I personally find most German humour dire. But what I have come to learn in two decades of living in the country is that this doesn’t mean Germans can’t do comedy. It means they do comedy differently.

The key to understanding this comes, improbably, in teaching business English. In many textbooks for this purpose there’s a section on cultural differences, and an introduction which says something like this:

Hans is trying to chair a meeting with participants from different countries, and he’s having problems. It’s already ten minutes past the official starting time, and while the Germans are ready to start, the Brits are telling stupid jokes, the Saudis are swapping business cards and the Americans insist on asking after Hans’s family. What advice would you give him?

As the lesson progresses, it turns out that, among other things, Germans have to be told that Saudis show their esteem for each other by studying each other’s cards, Americans like to establish some rapport before getting down to business, and the British use humour as a way of sweetening a bitter pill. “Listen carefully to the Brits’ jokes,” counsels one book I’ve used. “They may be using humour to make criticisms.”

Two things emerge from this: humour is a cultural phenomenon; and different cultures use humour for different purposes. Think about those two facts for a moment, and it dawns on you that it’s pretty much inevitable that we’re not going to see eye-to-eye on what constitutes good humour.

Breaking it down as simply as possible, the British use humour as a way of making everyday life bearable; Germans use humour to escape everyday life altogether. And right there we have the makings of one big culture clash.

British humour is often so subtle, most non-Brits miss it. The point is, it goes on all the time, and so it’s not belly-laughs you’re after: it’s little pleasantries, witty word-play and understated banter, enough to raise a smile and a chuckle perhaps. This is sprinkled throughout the day, tiny grains of salt to add flavour to an otherwise bland existence. Real laugh-out-loud moments do exist, but there aren’t too many of them because that would be too much of a good thing.

German humour, on the other hand, is saved up for certain moments, and is designed not to make you see the funny side of life, but to see the funny side and forget about everything else for a while. Everything about it is supposed to transport you to another world. It almost doesn’t matter if the jokes aren’t funny: what counts is that normal rules are suspended for a while. Hence all the things that go to make up an average evening at a German comedy club: music to make you stamp your feet and sing along, outlandish costumes, silly voices and the kind of acting that would be considered over-the-top in the most risible vaudeville routine.

As a result, Germans make a very sharp distinction between serious and funny, hence Hans’s discomfort at his British colleagues’ tendency to make light of a serious business meeting. It’s no accident that many British comedians are also good actors, while few German comedians are. Indeed, it was precisely this which prompted German TV producer Alfred Biolek to entice the Monty Python team over to Germany. German TV audiences appreciated the slapstick. Alfred Biolek appreciated the fact that the sketches were well-acted, something he’d never known before.

Few things illustrate this more than the reaction of a friend of mine to the British television series Doctor Who, which has been shown in Germany but never really took off. He told me he gave up very quickly, because he couldn’t work out if it was supposed to be a comedy or not. That it might be a drama with some elements of surrealism and a fair amount of humour was a concept he couldn’t quite get his head around.

Having understood all that, you can begin to discern how Germans came about their reputation. While Hans is frustrated at the Brits’ failure to take the meeting seriously and will later be astounded, when he takes them to the local cabaret theatre, at the way they just can’t seem to relax and enjoy themselves, the Brits despair at Hans’s inability to take a joke and will later be appalled at the clownish antics the Germans think are funny. Neither side will be impressed by the other side’s sense of humour (or perceived lack of it).

So no, Germans are not humourless. That doesn’t mean I feel compelled to laugh at their jokes, but those jokes are funny to them, and they do enjoy a good laugh as much as anyone else. It’s just that different things make them laugh.

© 2011 – 2018 by Andrew Bossom — all rights reserved.