Antlers or Feng Shui – How Typically German Are the Germans?

Germays largest association: the ADAC  Copyright: ADAC Do we Germans really fit into the pigeonholes we are put into?  Copyright: iStockphoto - Gianluca FabrizioSausages or Asian food? Antlers or feng shui? As the world grows together, it is becoming increasingly difficult to pigeonhole individual countries. Typically German peculiarities are giving way to globalised habits.

When the cuckoo clock strikes six, Inge has dusted the antlers and Horst has washed the car and mown the lawn. Supper is served on time, with pumpernickel and sausages, gherkins and beer. Then all the crumbs are wiped away. The eight o’clock news prompts moaning to be followed by the German folk music show, which puts everyone in a good mood. Welcome to a German cliché. It exists in the minds of our neighbours from Italy and Poland. It exists in the perceptions of people in far Japan and Australia.

But does it exist in Offenburg or northern Recklinghausen too? Not to mention Hamburg and Berlin? Do we Germans really fit into the pigeonholes we are put into? Are garden gnomes, dachshunds and brass bands typical of us? Are we really pedantic, meticulous and well organised?

Garden gnoms  Copyright: iStockphoto - polarica
TV SymbolSlide Show: What is typically German?

Pedantically precise: Clubs

Our European neighbours do think so, as confirmed by a GfK study that polled about 12,000 people. We are also regarded as reliable, amiable and sociable. All these qualities are congenial to typical German clubbiness, where everything is structured, pedantically organised and takes place in a convivial context, whether the focus of interest is a big political objective or golden hamsters. According to the Federal Association of German Clubs and Associations (bdvv), there are some 550,000 registered associations in Germany, putting us well ahead of other European countries. The largest association relates to our favourite toy – how could it be otherwise. The German Automobile Association (ADAC) has about 16 million members. Horst is one of them.

Caring for hamsters and the Banana Label Museum

Germays largest association: the ADAC  Copyright: ADACIn contrast, his wife Inge looks after hamsters in need, which puts her in the best company. With more than 23 million pets – dogs, cats, birds and small animals such as hamsters and rabbits, German animal lovers have many more animals than any other country in Europe. Through the Hamsterhilfe’s internet forum, you can obtain Dsungarian or Roborowski’s, Campbell’s and Chinese dwarf hamsters, neatly separated according to their origin and breed. It also provides information about hamsters, statistics and reports about obtaining them, links and recommended literature. Perfectly organised and structured, comprehensive and precise. Is this typically German?

Jochen Ebert’s Kassel-based virtual Banana Label Museum also seems to be typically German. Banana label aficionados have collected 2675 labels and have listed them meticulously. Background reports on the history of the banana trade, the origin of the labels and academic articles on the meaning of names, labels and packaging in an age of post-modern identity and high capitalism bear witness to thoroughness and seriousness in dealing with, well, banana labels. Is that typically German?

Typically German cosmopolitans

German thoroughness also in dealing with banana labels  Copyright: www.b-a-m.deIn her book “50 einfache Dinge, die typisch deutsch sind” (i.e. 50 simple things that are typically German), journalist Katrin Wilkens identifies punctuality, a love of order, precision and small-mindedness as typically German qualities. In her view, another quality is shame culminating in it being typically German not to want to be typically German. Is that why it is difficult for a German to name 50 things that are representative of her country? Instead, she sidesteps, naming the regional specialities of individual Federal Länder and German personalities.

In so doing, she quite unintentionally draws attention to a phenomenon that comes in the wake of globalisation: Katrin Wilken’s “typically German” Steffi Graf wrote German tennis history with her diligence, discipline and ambition and then married Andre Agassi, an American. They had two children and she finally emigrated to the USA. Among other things, she features in advertisements for Italian pasta and French suitcases. Is that typically German? Or is it not rather the case that lifestyles and life philosophies are no longer tied to their regional origin, but cut right across national borders thanks to geographical and media mobility?

The world is shrinking and habits are emigrating

Hamsters can hope for the care of German pet lover  Copyright: iStockphoto - Gabriela SchaufelbergerIn the big cities, we have a preference today for Asian food, Buddhism, Chinese medicine and English bands. We relax by doing yoga, arrange our homes in accordance with feng shui principles and have trouble finding the right partner. We call ourselves cosmopolitan and are interested in culture while at the same time being consumption-orientated and ecologically committed – all typically German characteristics. Or are they rather typical of Berlin, New York, London, Paris and Montreal? The world is shrinking. Today, an Englishman enjoys a concert in Madrid, just as a Spaniard listens to an opera in Verona and a German goes for a rave-up in Ibiza. Older people go on a pilgrimage along the Road of St. Jacob, and youngsters copy the emo look.

Stereotypes still exist, but today they are globalised and are associated more closely with educational and income levels than with geography. The Banana Label Museum has internet links with its overseas friends that have similar websites and in their forum, the hamster helpers engage in debate with hamster lovers from England and the Netherlands. In the winter, Inge and Horst are planning to indulge in spa treatment at a health resort Sri Lanka. So there you have it – something typically German.


Katrin Wilkens:
50 einfache Dinge, die typisch deutsch sind (Verlag Westend 2009)

Christa Manta
Is a sociology graduate and a freelance editor.

Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
April 2009

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