A Beginner’s Guide to German Humor
The Germans are known for their cars, not for their humor. Edeka’s latest TV spot, a German supermarket chain unknown outside the country, prove, however, that the Germans can be very creative and do indeed have a sense of humor.
Many of you have grown up in a mono-cultural world, like living only in France, for example. Some people are introduced to other nationalities and other cultures only later in life, through personal or professional choices. That was the case for me: At the age of 18, I fell in love with a German and followed him to Frankfurt two years later. I stayed there for 20 years, got married, and my children were born there.
Old stereotypes die-hard
In my first job, working for a big French food company, I learned how Germans work. Most of my colleagues were German. Only the marketing department differed, as about half of them were French. It was there where the most laughter occurred too! We worked hard and late into the evening, but we took time to exchange bisous in the morning (that means “exchange kisses on the cheek”), to have lunch and coffee breaks together, and to chat for two minutes at the photocopiers. At the time, we were all less than 30 and found the Germans to be rather uptight and entirely unfunny.
It took me time and maturity to understand that what I was labeling “uptight” and “unfunny” was in fact only the separation of private from professional life, which is so dear to Germans. In private, Germans love to laugh, and comedies are successful at the box office. In 2011, Untouchables was a huge success in Germany as well. And in 2014, the French comedy “Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au Bon Dieu ?” reached third place in the German box office, beaten at the last minute by the Hunger Games and Hobbit sagas. Furthermore, 7 of the 10 best German films of all time are comedies!
The importance of being taken seriously
Stereotypes abound, and the one about Germans not being funny continues to linger. Yes, at work, the Germans are very serious, but in their free time, they are completely different. If you have never lived in Germany, and the extent of your contact with this country involves working with German partners, you have never had, and will probably never get a chance to spend any personal time with them.
Germans certainly won’t joke around in the office or reveal their senses of humor. That wouldn’t be serious enough! And it is paramount for a German to be taken seriously. Think about your business dealings with Germans: they are always extremely well prepared, even down to the finest details. At a business meal, they talk about…business, automobiles or Bayern Munich, the most famous German soccer club in the world. Naturally, they don’t talk about their families or their vacation plans. That could be mistaken as a lack of seriousness.
A strong separation of private from professional life
Germans spend hours working in the office, and the German word “Arbeitszeit” literally translates as “time to work /work time”. They “live” at night, on the weekends and during their vacations. Even then the German word “Feierabend” is revealing. Virtually untranslatable, it literally means “evening to party”.
Edward T. Hall, an American sociologist and intercultural expert, has identified certain dimensions to explain cultural differences. He noted in particular that the Germans are task-oriented people, while the French prefer personal relationships.
In my example, it was important for me and the other French members of my team to talk and to spend time together for coffee or lunch. Our German colleagues focused only on the work to be done at the office. They found us to be very inefficient. In their eyes, leaving the office late wasn’t a sign being devoted to our work, but simply as a lack of efficiency.
In Latin cultures, like in France, where interpersonal communication is very important to get information and resolve problems, the distinction between work and free time is much less important. There is therefore more room for laughter and humor.
Globalization helps break down intercultural barriers
Fortunately we live in an increasingly mobile world and intercultural barriers are lower than they were 20 years ago. Meeting a German manager who appreciates a good restaurant is much more commonplace than before, but you won’t see him loosening up or telling a joke. It would make him far too uncomfortable.
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to speak at a conference about my favorite subject, intercultural marketing. Invited by the Minneapolis Euro-Chambers of Commerce, my audience included Americans from varied backgrounds, such as German, Swedish, and French. In my speech, I emphasized in particular the impact of stereotyping that we carry within us, despite our best efforts.
The Germans aren’t humorless; the German humor is certainly different from mine, from yours, but it does exist. I closed my speech with this Mercedes advertisement, a spot created and produced by German advertising agency, Jung von Matt. Watch it. There’s no dialogue; it is exceptionally crafted and very amusing.
German advertising isn’t particularly known for its creativity. But there is talent, as evidenced in these two spots. It’s the marketing and managing directors who stifle creation by wanting to stick to the facts.
Even though I was born in France and grew up in France, I am deeply steeped in German culture, since I lived and worked there for more than 20 years. The more comfortable I am in a professional relationship, the more my French side emerges. And what does that look like? I give myself more leeway, and I tell silly little jokes to make people laugh. With a new customer, I will be serious through and through. There’s no humor, no joking, and especially nothing personal. Otherwise, how would I be taken seriously?!!