Between honesty and politeness

There’s a fine line between honesty and politeness and Germans are known abroad for not beating around the bush. Kate Müser and Waslat Hasrat-Nazimi at Deutsche Welle in Bonn explore the rather direct questions they’ve had to answer in Germany.

Note 1: Towards the end Kate states that it is impolite to discuss politics in the German context. This is not correct. In fact, it is just the opposite. Many comments below the video on YouTube are by Germans stating this clearly.

Note 2: Another German commented, and rightfully so, that the opposite of direct is not polite, but instead indirect. The commenter goes on to state that Kate’s ironic winking about how German directness can be impolite is an unfair judgement of the German people.

Controversial !

Germans seek out lively discussions. And lively are those involving clear differences of opinion. And the more complex and relevant the topic, all the more interesting the conversation.

Except for topics which are plainly too personal and sensitive, Germans are willing to address almost any controversial topic. They enjoy the intellectual give and take. Controversial discussions are a form of mental chess.

At a deeper level Germans want to demonstrate that they are well informed, are proud of their high level of education, want to show a broad world view, that they are anything but provincial. Most importantly, Germans want people to know that they think independently, critically, do not simply agree with the masses.

“I won’t accept this prize“

In 2008 leading literary pundit Marcel Reich-Ranicki was supposed to receive the German television award for his life’s work. Reich-Ranicki also came to the awards show and listened to the laudation by Thomas Gottschalk. However, in his thank-you address he had little thanks left for the award that he a just been presented with.

Instead, he explained, that he had already received many important prizes in his life, and that it had never been difficult for him to say thank you. But today, he was “in a very horrible situation“, as he was forced to “somehow react” to the prize which he had received, and was asked to be “not too harsh”.

“I don’t want to offend anyone. No, I don‘t want to do that. But I would just like to come out and say that I will not accept this prize. If the prize had come with money I would have given the money back, but it didn’t come with money. I can only fling this object […] away from me, or throw it at someone’s feet. I cannot accept it! And I also found it terrible to have to suffer this event for five hours.”

Reich-Ranicki’s speech left his audience perplexed. During his speech the cameras continued to capture shocked expressions amongst the members of the audience, here and there and embarrassed grin, a few laughs. Reich-Raniki was bold enough to call the German Television award, which many of the attending actors and producers used to sing their own praises, ‘rubbish’. Freely and without restraint. Controversial. Typical Reich-Ranicki.

Willing to argue

The dictionary defines streitbar as follows: [constantly] prepared, having the will to, argue, with someone over something, to critically and activelydispute something; to fight for or about something, to take a stand for something or someone, a fighter; [older] prepared for battle; warrior-like, brave.

The adjective streitbar has a very positive connotation in the German language. In recalling famous persons one often reads the sentence Er war streitbar – he was streitbar.

Politicians are ever more frequently characterized as being streitbar. Streitbar does not mean that one seeks out conflicts in a negative sense. Rather, it means to stand up for ones beliefs, and not avoid serious confrontations.

The Dragon Slayer

At the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall Wolf Bierman, a famous songwriter and harsh critic of the former East German regine, was invited to speak to the German Bundestag.

Instead of singing, Biermann addressed a few words towards Bundestags President Norbert Lammert: “Mr. Lammert, I am glad that you lured me here. And as I know you to have a sarcastic sense of humor, I already have some idea that you were hoping that I would take a few jabs at Die Linken (the far-left political party made up of primarily former East German communists), but this I cannot deliver. I my career as a dragon slayer is over.”

Lammert: “I too can help you, Mr. Biermann, with a tip about our house rules. As soon as you run for office in the German Bundestag and are elected, then you may speak here. Today you were invited to sing.“

Biermann: “Yes, but of course I did not accept keeping my mouth shut in former East Germany, and I certainly will not do so here. A dragon slayer cannot bravely take down the remaining hoard of dragons in one fell swoop. You have been beaten. [light applause] And for me it is punishment enough that you must sit here. […] And so you are all destined to sit here and tolerate this, and I will indulge you. […] I know that those who sit here are the pathetic remnants of that which has fortunately been conquered, and I am happy to be able to sing a song here “The Encouragement“. […] I altered you with those songs while you were all still in power.“

A time for celebration. The opportunity to celebrate the reunification of Germany. A few nice words. Words of reconciliation, perhaps. But they missed their mark. Even in such a moment it continued to be important to Biermann to remain critical and to criticize; to not let himself be ‘lulled into’. Showing bravery in the face of controversy.

Sensitive topics

Topics which in one culture would be considered sensitive (controversial) may not be considered so in another culture. This is the case with the German and the American cultures.

In discussions with Germans – friendly, respectful, but well-informed, interested, and critical-minded – it is not uncommon for them to raise the following topics with their American counterpart:

The wars in Afghanistan and Irak, U.S. drone strikes in the Middle East and Pakistan, the base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, the Abu Ghuraib scandal, CIA-sponsored torture, the murder rate in the U.S., gun owneship and NRA influence, the increasing gap between rich and poor, the NSA spying scandal, the ominous power of Google, Apple, FaceBook and American-dominated social media.

Compare and contrast

Duden, the famous German dictionary, defines kontrovers: entgegengesetzt (opposite, contrary), strittig (contestable, debatable), umstritten (contended, contentious). Synonyms are: gegensätzlich (opposed, antithetic), in sich uneins (in disagreement), widersprüchlich (contradictory), zwiespältig (conflicting, ambivalent), anfechtbar (challengable), angreifbar (attackable, vulnerable), kritisierbar (open to criticism), disputabel (disputable). From the Latin controversus: facing or standing against; contra: against and versus.

Entgegen. Gegen. Wider. All meaning against. Germans like clarity. Not black and white, but take a position. This or that. In many ways the German people defines itself by comparing itself over and against other peoples, in how they think, act, work, live.