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.

„Archie ain’t afraid“

„I am not afraid that the book will be controversial, I’m afraid it will not be controversial.“ Flannery O’Connor, American author

„If an individual wants to be a leader and isn’t controversial, that means he never stood for anything.“ Richard Nixon, former U.S. President

„Dollywood is a family park, and all families are welcome. We do have a policy about profanity or controversial messages on clothing or signs. It is to protect the individual wearing or carrying them, as well as to keep down fights or problems by those opposed to it at the park.“ Dolly Parton, Entertainer

„Just because you say something doesn’t make it controversial, and it doesn’t make you a bad person.“ Charles Barkley, former NBA basketball player

„You can’t have a university without having free speech, even though at times it makes us terribly uncomfortable. If students are not going to hear controversial ideas on college campuses, they’re not going to hear them in America. I believe it’s part of their education.“ Donna Shalala, Secretary of of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton.

„Controversial proposals, once accepted, soon become hallowed.“ Dean Acheson, Secretary of State under President Harry Truman.

„That’s the heart of it: My shows were not that controversial with the American people. They were controversial with the people who think for the American people.“ Norman Lear, Author and producer of the American television series All in the Family.

„One of the lessons from Sept. 11 is that America requires a long-term presence in those parts of the world that endanger us. This notion has become controversial, but frankly, the need could not be clearer.“ Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York City.

Discussion. Disagreement. Argument.

“Relating to or causing much discussion, disagreement, or argument.“ So defines MerriamWebster the term controversy. „Abortion is a highly controversial subject.“ Or „a decision that remains controversial.“ Or „He is a controversial author.“

First know use is 1583. Synonyms: argumentative, contentious, disputatious, hot-button, polemical. Antonyms: noncontroversial, safe, uncontroversial.


Bit which topics are safe, which unsafe, in the American context? Which will not lead to an argument, which will? How can a person not native to the U.S. know the answers to these questions?

Safe topics?

Violence and Caution

Violence contributes to the American tendency to avoid controversial subjects. The U.S. has some of the highest crime rates in the world, including approximately 83% more total crimes than Germany. For example, the murder rate in the U.S. is more than five times higher than in Germany.

Avoiding controversial topics allows Americans to find a safer way to communicate with people they don’t know. It allows strangers to get to know each other in a non-threatening environment. If you’re too straightforward and offend the wrong people in the U.S., it’s much more likely to end badly for you.

Bleeding Kansas was the term given to Kansas during the American Civil War in the mid-1800s. Kansas was a territory at the beginning of the war, and so unlike most of the states, which were divided into free-state (Union) and slave-state (Confederacy), Kansas contained people who strongly supported one side or the other.

This led to an outbreak of neighbor-against-neighbor violence, including several massacres such as the Pottawatomie Creek massacre (in which five slave-state supporters were murdered) and the Marais des Cygnes massacre (in which five free-state supporters were murdered). Kansans who wanted to remain safe had to find ways to avoid discussing their allegiances.

George Tiller was an abortion doctor in Wichita. In 1986 Tiller’s clinic was firebombed. During its rebuilding Tiller displayed a controversial sign: “Hell no, we won’t go.” In 1993 he was shot several times while in his car, but survivved. In 2009 he was killed in during church services by anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder.

The creators of South Park, a satirical cartoon, have faced many death threats from people offended by their controversial material. One of the more prominent threat campaigns occurred in 2010 after the show featured a character meant to represent the prophet Mohammad wearing a bear suit. This campaign was largely led by Jesse Morton, who was arrested and pleaded guilty to making threatening communications and conspiring to commit murder.

In 1979 in Greensboro, North Carolina an anti-racist march was confronted by members of the Klu Klux Klan. Things soon turned violent, and the white supremacists, who were armed, shot and killed several marchers.

Political Correctness

Political correctness language (also known as PC) aims to avoid any form of descrimination or perceived discrimination against social, economic or political groups defined by race, gender, religion, ethnicity, age, disability or sexual orientation.

See gender-neutral terms such as firefighter in the place fireman and firewoman, police officer in place of policeman and policewoman; value-free terms describing physical disabilities, such as visually impaired in place of blind and hearing impaired in place of deaf; value-free cultural terms, such as Holiday season and Winter holiday, in place of Christmas.

Limbaugh. Moore.

With a weekly audience of 15 million people, famous conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh has the highest ranked radio talk show in America. Beyond being an outspoken promoter of conservative values, he has gained his notoriety by being the man who supposedly says what everyone is thinking, but are too afraid to say out loud.

On the other hand, many consider a lot of his remarks to be at the very least distasteful and inaccurate. Nevertheless, the controversy he stirs up has made him one of the most well paid media figures in America. In 1992, Limbaugh published his first book, The Way Things Ought to Be, followed by See, I Told You So in 1993. Both became number one on the New York Times Best Seller list, The Way Things Ought to Be remaining there for 24 weeks.

On the other side of the political spectrum is a man often described as being the left liberal counterpart to Rush Limbaugh: documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. Michael Moore has produced three of the top ten highest grossing documentary films of all times (Farenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine, and Sicko) all of which take a critical standpoint of various American laws and social policies in topics such as topics such as globalization, large corporations, assault weapon ownership, the Iraq War, the American health care system, and capitalism.

In 2005 Time magazine named Moore one of the world’s 100 most influential people. Moore’s films, and his ‘hands-on’ approach to getting evidence are so controversial that his films were all produced independently, largely from funding which he himself contributed or lobbied for. There are many who claim that he inaccurately represents issues by only supplying evidence to support his own point of view.

Different kinds of patriotism

Americans and Germans have different definitions of patriotism. Germans are still skeptical and critical about their Germanness. Many refer to themselves more as Europeans than as Germans.

Americans are also critical of their country, of their government, and are quite aware of their problems. But it is one thing when Americans debate among themselves (within the family, so to speak) and quite another thing when an outsider does it. Americans have a personal relationship with their country. Criticism of America is criticism of Americans.

Even though it cannot be said that German people are not proud to be German, overt displays of patriotism are mostly limited to soccer events. In fact, it was until recently that overt displays of national patriotism were still frowned upon in the aftermath of World War II. Bringing a German flag to any rally in Germany is also still equated by many with nationalism.

As the Federal Republic’s third president, Gustav Heinemann so aptly put it in the 1970s: “I do not love any nation. I love my wife.” While American salute their flag at the beginning of every sporting event within the country, Germans do so only to distinguish themselves from opponents of another nationality.

Cocktail Party

Americans say: “There are three things you never address at a cocktail party: sex, politics, and religion.” All three are perceived as private or overly controversial for an occasion like a cocktail party, as a metaphor for information interactions.

Discussion of religion and politics could make some people feel that you are either in agreement with them or opposed, feelings which could provoke tense conversations. Discussing sports, weather and family are considered to be safe topics with which to begin a conversation.

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.