German Humor meets American Mentality

This from German Science Comedian Vince Ebert:

A comment: “A German compliment sounds like this (and I quote my brother): “You look fat in that dress, but great dress!!!”

Another comment: “In the U.S., we have a satirical News outlet called “The Onion” that writes fake stories to make fun of our culture and government. In Germany, I’ve heard their version of this is a website called “Stupidipedia” that’s a satirical version of Wikipedia, that’s full of fake, interconnected information. They made a whole encyclopedia as a joke. The Germans do in fact have a sense of humor, its just over engineered like everything else in Germany.”

“What the hell were you thinking killing all of the Native Americans?”

An interesting comment: “The smoking areas on train station platforms are actually more helping to concentrate the cigarette waste in one place so it’s easier to clean, that’s why I like this system. It’s meant to keep smoke from non-smokers but whatever… It has working benefits.”

One cliché after another. The German people have a wonderful sense of humor.


We returned last week, August 2013, from the United States. My son, Daniel (15), and I did our annual Father-Son USA trip. We stay at my mother‘s home in suburban Philadelphia and travel throughout the region visiting relatives, taking trips to New York City, the Jersey Shore, to Washington DC, and on to Virginia.

It is a special time for us each year. And it involves a lot of travel: airports, train stations, car driving, subways and buses. And it involves a lot of activities: visiting relatives and friends, sight-seeing, museums, eating at restaurants, and many other things folks do during their vacation.

What I notice time and again, however, is how different Germans and Americans are in public. Germans are very quiet in public spaces. Whether in a bus, a streetcar, a subway, long-distance train, or in an airplane, they are reserved.

When they do converse with each other it is done in most cases discreetly and quietly. It is true that German train stations can be loud due to constant public announcements of arriving and departing trains. But the passengers themselves are discreet, both on the platform waiting for their connection, and especially in the train.

Whenever I travel by public transportation in Germany with my son, whose mother is German and who has been raised in Germany, he gets impatient with me when I talk to him at what I consider to be a normal and acceptable volume level.

The greatest contrast for me is when I fly from Philadelphia to Frankfurt. American airports are loud. There seems to be a television hanging from the ceiling ever twenty-five feet with either CNN, Fox or some other channel blaring away. And because network television in the U.S. is fighting so hard to hold viewers (from going to the Internet), they have become rather shrill, almost screaming, as if everything they have to say is breaking news of the utmost importance for the future of humankind.

If the television noise isn’t enough, you have stores, bars, and restaurants located between the gates. American airports have become shopping malls. This is nice. Who would want to go back to the old days when airports were like ugly bus terminals? Impersonal, bland, boring. But notice the noise level at airports in the U.S.

Americans are simply extroverted compared to Germans, at least in public spaces. We Americans are friendly, outgoing. We like to talk, be active, be social. It’s just the way we are. And why not? It’s fun. (Of course, if we’re honest with each other, many Americans simply do not know how to behave in public.)

But I like the Frankfurt Airport, too. Well organized. Quiet. Especially after one arrives from the U.S. early in the morning after a flight where sleep is next to impossible. It‘s almost like a museum. Passengers move quietly and purposely from flight to baggage pick-up, place their things on those heavy, stable carts, move through customs often without having anything checked, then off to either a taxi, a train, or a waiting car. Yes, there are now many stores in the Frankfurt Airport. Yes, it too is a shopping mall, but a German shopping mall. Quiet, reserved, discreet.

Germans are simply introverted compared to the Americans, at least in public spaces.  Germans are friendly, outgoing. They like to talk, be active, be social. But not so much in public space. That‘s just the way they are. And why not, it’s respectful.

Stay with the flow

Germans avoid interrupting the flow of a conversation, a speech, or any kind presentation for several reasons. First, out of respect for the presenter and the other listeners. Second, because they assume they will gain clarity by simply continuing to follow the flow. Third, they do not feel comfortable admitting that perhaps their English language skills are not as good as they should be.

“Klappe halten“

Germans believe that if a person does not have anything valuable to offer in a given discussion then it is better that they say nothing at all – die Klappe halten.

Klappe is a cover, lid, flap. Halten is to hold or keep shut. Germans do not consider it to be impolite if in a discussion one or more people say little or nothing. Seldom do they ask, prompt or summon those who are silent to participate.

To talk about the weather in the German context means to talk about nothing of importance, to have a meaningless conversation, to be superficial. It is a signal to both parties that they have nothing to say to each other. It‘s embarrassing for both.


Schwätzen means to gab or chat about topics of low relevance and in a thoughtless manner which has no value. The Germans speak of dummes Geschwätz – dumm is stupid, dumb, idiotic, asinine, foolish.

Geschwätz from the verb schwätzen – when people in public spaces blab out loud, when students gab during classes, or colleagues do the same during meetings. A Schwätzer is not shunned, but disliked, and not respected. A Schwätzer talks too much and does too little.

More books about Small Talk

Amazon Germany lists 196 books with ‘small talk’ in their title. The best sellers are Small Talk für Dummies, Small Talk – Nie Wieder Sprachlos (Never Again Speechless) and Small Talk – Die Besten Themen (The Best Topics).

The typical table of contents reads: What is small talk? What purpose does small talk serve? In what situations do you use small talk? When can small talk be dangerous or uncalled for? When do you need small talk? What topics are appropriate in small talk? Which topics are dangerous in small talk? Small talk and body language. How to react to small talk? How to deal with small talk in difficult situations?

Nearly two hundred books. What does this tell us about small talk in Germany?

Schweigen ist Gold

“Speech is silver. Silence is gold.” German children are taught to only speak when they have something intelligent to say. Idle banter – to speak or act playfully or wittily – is viewed as superficial, a lack of education, poor upbringing. It is considered impolite.

Supermarket checkout

At the supermarket check out somewhere in Germany. Cashier to customers: “28,35 Euro”. The customers silently passes the 50 Euro bill to the cashier. “21,65 is your change”. The customer packs up his groceries and leaves the store.

This type of limited conversation at the supermarket check out is not a rarity. Until a couple of years ago this was a common interaction. Nowadays, you will get a “good day” or “have a nice day” from the cashier before he puts the groceries in your shopping cart to make space for the next customer.

However, the cashier would never asked the flour- and sugar-buying customer if they are going to bake today. Furthermore, if a customer buys cereal and milk the cashier would never ask, with a winky face, if they are someone that likes breakfast for dinner. The cashier would also not say how much he likes cookies if someone was buying some. The check out is a place where you pay, not for small talk.

Personal nice. Professional better.

In small talk situations Americans seldom jump directly into the business subject matter. For Americans business is always to certain degree a personal matter. In fact, Americans prefer to work with people they like, and who like them.

Germans, on the other hand, can and will do business with you even if you have little or no personal relationship. Most importantly, they want to know if you are good at what you do. Personal is nice. Professional is better.