There is a lot of truth to this Economist article about German humour and I refer back to it a lot.

Shortly after moving back to Germany in 2012 after decades of absence, mainly in Anglo-Saxon countries, I took my kids to the Berlin zoo. The children were two, four and seven at the time, and had already developed a keen sense of irony – or at least they understood that dad doesn’t always mean things literally, because, you know, it’s funny. So we queued for our tickets, trading silly jokes. Like me, the kids are dual citizens of America and Germany, though at that time, fresh from California, we still felt more American and more at ease in English. But we deliberately spoke German, to help us acclimatise to our new home. In a mood of levity, we approached the ticket window.

The lady behind it informed me that the price for the elder two was such-and-such and the littl’un was free. “What if I pay you a bit extra and you keep them?” I suggested. The kids chortled and started naming prices that might clear the market.

The lady stared back, horrified. Then, slowly, she leaned forward to look at my children, who stiffened. “Your dad does not really mean that,” she said. “He does not really want to sell you.”

That pretty much killed the mood for all four of us until somewhere between the giraffes and the polar bears. “Why did she say that?” my daughter asked, in English, as though out of an instinct for cultural self-preservation. As I pondered the question, I couldn’t help but think there was something peculiarly German about the lady’s reaction. First, Germans really, really struggle to grasp non-literal meanings. Second, Germans really, really can’t help but say when they think you’re wrong.


This opening story on literalism is great but there are more points in there, like the need to correct people and how isolating and grating this is for foreigners.

The point I take from it which also relates to the fact that street slang is segregated in Germany (as opposed to France). Educated Germans will not use words from the street register in normal conversation for fear of looking uneducated. You can see this for instance in the criticism Rezo gets for his use of mixed language in his serious videos. ‘Wrong’ use of language is used as an excuse to put people down. This happens to me as well every time I make a mistake.

The counterpoint is that anything said in High German is considered to be true or at least intended to be a statement of fact. The literalism is the baseline for all interactions at that level. They are literally incapable of feigning.

You can imagine the problems this creates and how unfixable they are because they are so deeply embedded in the culture. The only way out is through. The Rezo generation needs to create a new culture and the old needs to die off.

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