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Teach me to Laugh, Herr Boyes

Roger Boyes is an Englishman and Berlin correspondent for the London Times. He can often be seen on German talk shows commenting on international affairs (in perfect German). Now he's written a book, "My dear Krauts," which is designed to help Germans learn to laugh. First, I'll give you the gist of Boyes, then I'll add my take:

Germany is in urgent need of "humor development aid," Roger Boyes, the London Times correspondent in Berlin.

The Germans are a nation of paranoid schizophrenics who can't decide whether to love or loathe themselves, says Roger Boyes, the Berlin correspondent for the London Times, whose new book "My dear Krauts" marks the start of a one-man mission to help the country lighten up.

"It's not that they can't be funny. In fact they like a good laugh. It's just that they're a bit slower on the uptake than the rest of the world. And they don't understand irony."...

The problem is that for Germans, humor is confined to certain events or times -- such as a comedy show on television or the week-long Rhineland carnival season, says Boyes. "Humor is in a ghetto. It's stockaded. But why can't it invade every part of life? Why can't wit be part of normal daily life?"...

Boyes admires Germany because it's safe and clean and people who should take their duties seriously in fact do so. Further, he admires German seriousness about friendship. But

[o]n the downside, public debate in Germany is stifled by a collective need for consensus, says Boyes, who has grown tired of the nation's endless cycle of turgid TV talk shows, which usually focus on minor changes to the generous welfare system and seem to set the agenda.

And then there's the negative energy the nation exudes. "They had all the Turks cheering Germany during the World Cup, which may have been a starting point for a discussion about integration. Did they have that discussion? No. Instead they've spent the last few months returning to the anguished debate about immigration being a problem."

Note to Germans cultural critics: your reaction to Boyes should not take the form of a turgid diatribe about how this chauvinistic Englishman has violated Germany's dignity and failed to take a konsequent (morally serious) approach to the problem. If you do that, you're proving his point.

Let me add a few of my own observations here. First, as Boyes correctly points out, the problem is not that Germans "have no sense of humor"; the problem is that deploying irony, or even taking a light-hearted tone to a particular subject, is perceived by officially-minded Germans as undignified. I see here a cultural memory-trace from the 19th century, when solid bourgeois parents recoiled in horror at the thought their sons and daughts might become actors or actresses.

Serious things are accompished by serious people. „Res severa (est) verum gaudium“, it says on the wall at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, where the orchestra of the same name plays: "True joy is a serious thing". Mere entertainment? Witty remarks? Making people laugh? These are unimportant skills, best honed and practiced by people from the lower classes. It's not uncommon to read biographies of German intellectuals from the 19th century and 20th century in which it is casually noted that they were never once seen laughing. Not. Once. Ever.

Now, things have loosened up considerably in Germany since that time, but there's still a trace of stigma attached to light-heartedness and irony. It is largely banished from almost all social endeavors that are labeled "serious." So that means at academic conferences, business meetings, literary readings, classical music performances, even some family gatherings etc., one is only allowed to go so far with any joke.

This leads to misunderstandings, especially between Germans and Anglo-Saxons. An example: Let's say you casually remark during the intermission of a classical concert that the conductor's gestures make it look as if he's building sandwich at a Subway fast-food restaurant. This will be taken by many Germans as a rather serious insult, because (1) you are not respecting the conductor's position (after all, he has talent, studied so long to get there, etc. etc.) and (2) you have violated his dignity by 'making a fool out of' (verarschen) him. Once you see that your little joke comment has visibly shocked the poor Germans, you can try to explain it: "No, no, I think he's doing a fine job and I'm enoying the concert. I was just trying to make a witty remark about his unusual conducting style."

Then comes the inevitable reply: "But why is it necessary to make a witty remark about him, when it disrespects him?" At this point, the Anglo-Saxon realizes he is standing on one side of a cultural divide, the German is standing on the other, and this divide is unbridgeable. (Are witty remarks ever unnecessary?). Different meta-languanges are being spoken here, different sets of neurons being activated, thousands of hours of different cultural training are being brought to bear. Note, however, that you are certainly allowed to criticize the conductor, if he's actually doing a poor job. For that matter, you are allowed to criticize him far more brutally than you would ever be allowed to criticize him in the Anglo-Saxon world ("This gesticulating idiot is brutally raping Tannhaeuser and should be sent to prison!"). You must, however, take him seriously.

What I wonder, however, is how much contact Boyes has with young, hip Germans. He seems to be of a certain age himself, and is a correspondent for a famous newspaper. Thus, he probably spends countless hours with politicians, business leaders, diplomats, professors, etc. Whatever their other accomplishments, these folks, in Germany, are almost never witty or entertaining. Even if they are capable of wit in private, that all goes out the window whenever they have anything official to do, such as talking to a journalist. The po-faced earnestness begins to pile up quickly, and soon reaches ankle-depth.

Younger Germans, however, are a different kettle of fish. Assuming you're hanging out with relatively well-educated folks, they will all speak, read and understand English, and are likely to be on intimate terms with Monty Python's Flying Circus, the Simpsons, and various other sources of irony. This generation can recognize and deploy irony with the best of them. Regardless of your opinion of Harald Schmidt, or of movies like Liegen Lernen, Goodbye, Lenin, Herr Lehmann, and Schtonk, they reflect an extremely high level of irony-consciousness. It may sometimes be a sort of melancholy-tinged, slightly world-weary Middle European irony (actually my favorite kind), but it's irony. Any German under 50 knows of Germany's reputation for dreary earnestness (yes, many have seen Sprockets), and many are dedicated to personally countering this reputation in word and deed (without, however, slavishly copying Anglo-Saxon cultural patterns).

So, to sum up: Boyes is correct to note that there's a lot less wit and irony floating around German society in general. But there's plenty of exquisite irony to be found, if you look in the right places.