JH, October 24, 2012
About ten years ago, I was first asked to explain German mentalities to French businessmen. A bank had run into difficulties with their German partners, and they could not understand why. The HR division set up a series of luncheon debates with the managerial staff. How to catch their attention, how to open their minds? It took me some time to come up with this picture
(that I will explain below) which serves its purpose rather well. I have used many times over ever since; lately, for example, at the opening presentation for the directors of the French chambers of agriculture (who travelled to Berlin to find out why, dammit, German agriculture now outperforms theirs) or for the board of a major Parisian construction and housing company (who looked to understand what is at stake for France in the 2013 German elections).
Seen from farther away, France and Germany are neighbors, two countries sharing not only a long border along the Rhine but also a bag full of memories. Their common history dates back to Charlemagne. Reconciliation politics, the Elysée treaty, the Franco-German Youth Office helped overcome the traumata of the Second World war. For more than fifty years, they have sat by side in the European cruiser, steering it more or less adroitly through many heavy waters. Why should their peoples not have learned to get along spontaneously, the whole lot of them?
The fact is that French and Germans are very different. Their cultural reflexes are diametrically opposed, which make their compromises a good common grounds for the other Europeans to adhere to. Recent glitches and hasty agreements at various peaks of the Euro crisis may seem to indicate the contrary - but it remains basically true. Over the years, and all those negociatons, exchange programmes and cooperations, have the French and the Germans learnt to understand each over? It's an uphill struggle. Not all the French and German that come together for business are familiar with the cultural stumblestones that lie down their way. When talks come to a dead end, they sometimes look at one another and wonder what strange creature they see. Do they like each other? I would say that they are Facebook friends.
The French (who cherish sparkling conversations over detail) tend to find Germans (who prefer expert talk to a brilliant argument) boring. Like many other Europeans, they are not so sure that Germans know how to spell fun. After many years spent outside Germany, I can understand their doubts.
Humour is certainly not the first word that comes to your mind when you think of Germany. It is probably the last thing that foreigners will expect. Much of it is linked to language, and jokes are difficult to translate. This is where the above picture sets in. It will give you a glimpse of a component of humour, that is amazingly strong among Germans: irony. The picture picks up on the stuffy souvenirs and birthday presents popular back in the Fifties, when visitors were regularly confronted with walls and shelves full of embroidered sayings and greetings. It has kept a font of way back when, but the colors clearly whisk away the stale air of the households that used to collect and cherish such objects...Herzlich willkommen to 21st century Germany!