In all seriousness: German humor…or the lack thereof

In researching political cartoons, Germany, and the Eurocrisis over the past couple of months, there has been no shortage in finding humor. Many of the cartoons I have come across have provided a chuckle or two. Of course – as my last blog post suggests – humor is relative: what is funny to me doesn’t necessarily make it funny for you. When it comes to Germany and the Germans in general, it seems the rest of the world has the notion of the Germans being very serious, humorless people. Expressionless faces, neither emotions, nor smiles, and a rigid, hard-sounding language that sounds more like a constant threat than a peaceful sound wave.

Global Cowboy ‏@weirdomobile
I end up mixing German into English whenever a situation beckons seriousness. What type of weird subliminal slip is that? #multilingual

I was thinking to myself, “I wonder if the Germans would be laughing at the cartoons I’ve found over the past couple of months?” There is no straightforward answer to this thought; so I’ve decided to take a look at the Germans and their ‘humorless’ stereotype and ask myself whether the Germans are indeed the world’s least funny people as South Park suggests.

South Park Germans least funny people in the world

It is quite possible that you have already seen the popular youtube video of the German kid screaming and pounding his fists against his father’s keyboard in anger because Unreal Tournament isn’t loading fast enough. Despite its disturbing qualities, what makes the video funny for most of us is its absurd and over-the-top behavior – how could someone act like that? As unfair as it may be, the most common answer I tend to gravitate toward is ‘typisch Deutsch.’

The kid’s behavior and South Park’s assertion of Germany being too serious and the least funny may not be too far off. According to a Telegraph article from 07 June 2011, an international poll found that “Germany [is] officially the world’s least funny country.” Many of the pollsters saw the Germans “as being more focused on rationality and efficiency rather than humour.”

To me, the previous statement makes a lot of sense. The Germans are very punctual people, don’t complain, exhibit a good work ethic, and are – for the most part – rational thinkers. Could herein lie the reasons for the stereotype?

When I was living in Magdeburg, Germany, a good friend and I used to play a little game and it went something like this: walk around and say ‘guten Tag!’, ‘einen schönen Tag, oder?’, or simply ‘wie geht’s Ihnen?’ I always thought such expressions were harmless and rather friendly gestures – in America, and other countries of course, this is generally the case. To many Magdeburgers, I guess not. We would receive a variety of responses: cold shoulders, looks of confusion, or, the best yet, ‘Was willst du von mir?’, ‘Was?!’, or something like ‘Ich kenne Sie nicht! Warum reden Sie mir an?!’ Of course these responses were mixed in with more positive ones; nonetheless, I don’t believe I have ever experienced a ‘What do you want from me?’ after saying ‘Hello!’ to someone on the street in Columbia. Despite this personal experience coupled with the awareness of your typical, serious-face German stereotype, is it still fair for me to call the Germans a ‘humorless nation?’

I’m going to postulate that Germans do indeed have a sense of humor; it is just different. Many suggest it is a language issue – translating a German joke into English just doesn’t cut it as part of the understanding of the joke gets lost in translation. Let’s look at an example printed in The Bild in March 2011: two mates are sitting at a table in the pub. One says to the other: “Tell me, do you sometimes get smog in your bedroom?”

“How come?”

“A bad atmosphere and no traffic…”

Good joke, huh! Wait…what? If you didn’t understand the joke, you’re not alone. To understand it, one would have to know that the German word for traffic (verkehr) also means sexual intercourse. Haha, right? (I thought the joke was funnier before I knew the meaning of the word – the humor rested in its almost nonsensical stupidity!)

Germans have a sense of humor South Park

As the Guardian explains to us, “Some people have suggested that the rigid structure of the German language makes joke-telling difficult. For example, important verbs are withheld until the very end of a long sentence as soon as you insert a conjunction such as “because” or “if”. Actually, though, this can help a comedian because it builds suspense. A good comic can lead an audience down one track, only to surprise them with an unexpected verb as the punchline. “
As this explanation seems fairly logical and quite possibly true, one would have to admit that the Germans would probably rather drink some beer or schnapps than tickle each other’s fancies with jokes. Germans do, however, laugh (which is another stereotype all on its own) which, to me, shows the lighter – and less often seen – side of the Germans:

So, back to the last question. Is it fair to call Germany a ‘humorless nation?’ As much as I want to say ‘no’ just to be fair to the Germans, I am going to go out on a limb and say ‘Yes!’ It is fair! They do indeed show glimpses of possessing a sense of humor. Some laugh and some smile (just like Americans!); nonetheless, as an American I am ok with the Germans being more serious. I have grown to like their seriousness, and, to be honest, I have had quite a few laughs because of it. How can you not find humor in the kid freaking out because Unreal Tournament isn’t loading? Is he being real?! Doesn’t the idea of him being German make it that funnier?

To be more fair (if it’s possible at this point), it isn’t necessarily the behaviors of the Germans that is always funny – reactions toward the Germans and their seriousness is quite amusing, too. People get serious in talking about the Germans being too serious. Seriously? As the authors of the blog ‘What we’re sinking about’ write to their German friends:

“Dearest German friends and colleagues, stop being so damn serious. Like really, quit. Lighten up. Laugh. Spin around in your office chair a couple of times, throw a smiley face in at the end of your email, anything.”

I get a kick out of the Germans being serious and humorless but I also respect their serious attitude toward life. Even if it is a stereotype! It is refreshing to know that they are out there in the world being serious – and being serious on our behalf! It makes me smile when I think of it, actually. At the very least, we can laugh at their seriousness and humorless attitudes. Is that not humor in itself?

Although the video below has nothing to do with the stereotype, we have at least another reason to be thankful to the Germans..

British game show host laughs at German name

One thought on “In all seriousness: German humor…or the lack thereof

  1. Don’t ever make the mistake of asking anyone from Magdeburg how he is doing. I was born there, I know. It took me years in the US to get rid of my natural response “What do you want from me?”
    Great article.

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