A humourous discussion about the German obsession with the ‘zettel’ and its seemingly contradiction to their up-front nature.
There are many fascinating written genres in the German language, but one of the most fleeting and briefest also happens to be the most amusing and informative of them all: the zettel, or zettelbotschaft – in English, the posted note, announcement or sign. These little notes appear in countless different places ranging from an apartment building foyer to the walls of a shared flat to street lampposts. If you take a moment to consider their content, they actually say a lot about German culture, and I have come to discover that the zettelserves as a rare outlet for an even rarer form of expression in Germany: sarcasm. I’d venture to say that I’ve read more sarcastic commentary in the several hundred notes I’ve seen than I’ve heard in my 15 or so years of German conversation. Needless to say, the sarcasm often comes in the form of passive-aggression, but that’s beside the point.
So without further ado, I’d like to take a little journey through Berlin’s “World of Notes”, paying particular attention to what they might tell us about German interpersonal interaction (notable in this case is the fact that the interaction is not face-to-face) but also just appreciating the hilarity of the subject matter and style of language. Like many other things in Berlin, the world of notes there has taken on a life of its own to become the most interesting and colourful in all of Germany. This reality is evident in the rising popularity of a newish website with the goal of spotting these fleeting little notes in the wild and recording them for posterity. Notes of Berlin!
It’s called ‘Notes of Berlin‘, and has recently eclipsed five million page views; the site founder was also kind enough to let me use some of his content, so thanks to
The WG note
The Wohngemeinschaft, or WG (shared flat), is fertile ground for posted notes. Place a group of 5–10 students or young people in close quarters with a shared kitchen area and you’re bound to have some good old fashioned aggression; but often, this aggression is not expressed in person, either because the aggressor cannot find the aggressee at the moment the aggressor wishes to express his/her thoughts to the whole Gemeinschaft (community) and is unable to arrange an all-hands-on-deck WG meeting on short notice, or because the author opts for the ‘passive-aggressive’ note. Our first example (see photo) comes from a wonderful book by Oonagh O’Hagan called Ich brauch den Schinken. Wirklich! – Ein Bilderbuch aus dem ganz normalen WG-Wahnsinn (I need that ham. Really! – A picture book from the totally normal world of shared-flat insanity), and is a great example of the avoidance of face-to-face confrontation. I couldn’t be more for it in this case, though, because I think we can all agree that a simple “Hey, can you give me that thing back, thanks” would have been a lot more boring than this. I’m also quite curious as to what ‘that thing’ was, and why they couldn’t just name it in the note. One wonders…
Any current or former WG resident also certainly knows the kitchen note, and they’re very rarely about something positive. I didn’t live in a WG when I studied abroad, but I remember seeing the exceedingly complex charts of scheduled tasks and regular duties to be done in the flat, with each resident neatly pencilled in for each area in successive weeks. I also remember that those charts were almost never obeyed, and that conflict and hijinks ensued. The composer of example two (photo) has obviously taken some time to include artwork along with his/her aggression. After just two examples, it’s also already patently clear that nearly all zettel contain at least a few exclamation points, often in a row (which, incidentally, are exceedingly rare in other written genres of German). Another favourite of mine from O’Hagan’s book: “Warum ist mein Bett so feucht?”
The mehrfamilienhaus note
The mehrfamilienhaus (apartment building) note is a relative of the WG note in that it also addresses issues of living together with others; but here, there is even more distance between the writer and the readership. They tend to be pretty harmless (like the carefully-penned one directed at us the other day announcing that somebody had mistakenly received our mail), but now and again you get an interesting one, like two months ago in our apartment, when a neatly handwritten note hung in the hallway with the following bulletin: “Would you all be so kind as to close the front door until it latches so people don’t shit in our entryway? Thank you, your neighbours.” Amazingly, not more than a month or so later on Notes of Berlin, I spotted the gem to the right: “Which dirty sow is crapping in the entryway? Where are we living, anyway? You dirty pig, clean it up! Just don’t get caught while you’re doing it….” And then there’s this fantastic shift in style on the second sheet: “It would be very nice if the party responsible for the faecal matter in the hallway would promptly remove it. This is an imposition on the residents as well as the cleaners.” I love this note because you can almost see the process the writer went through: First, the unbridled anger as the hallway stench still lingered in his/her nostrils; and then, as they had a little time to cool down a bit, they taped on the more measured, prudent response using immaculate and sober formal German. The two poles of German-note style captured in one example.
Artistic flourishes can also be found in the apartment complex (after all, WGs are located within apartment complexes when they’re not part of exclusive student housing). In this example, I don’t hold out too much hope for the artist successfully reacquiring their pilfered doormat – after all, I don’t know too many doormat thieves that are likely to return to the Tatort, much less heed the demands of a posted request for the return of the stolen goods. This aside, I’d like to recognise the courtesy of the composer in including the approximate purchase price of a new mat.
One last, and very concise, mehrfamilienhaus favourite of mine that was posted next to a long, unsightly smear on the wall of the stairwell: “Bitte keine Nahrungsmittel gegen die Wand schmeißen” (“Please refrain from throwing food products against the wall”).
The ‘so-was-tut-man-nicht’ note
This particular zettel species isn’t defined by the place in which it’s posted, but rather by its purpose. The ‘so-was-tut-man-nicht‘ note (or the ‘we-just-don’t-do-that’ note) makes a statement about appropriate behaviour – and more importantly, it’s about imploring others to follow suit. Being a culture where orderliness and stability is a highly valued thing, this is one of the most common types of zettel in Germany, and of course in many cases these are properly manufactured signs, but they also exist in zettel format. I think the first SWTMN note I encountered long ago during my first stay in Germany was the infamous ‘Bitte im Sitzen pinkeln‘ (Please potty while sitting) note, which in the ensuing years has become so popular that myriad commercially produced signs can now be purchased and posted (just google ‘im sitzen pinkeln‘ and enjoy the ride). This behavioural nudge of course is necessitated by the ubiquitous German shelf toilet, which requires precision accuracy in the standing position to avoid unsightly spray on your clothes and all bathroom surfaces. This note is understandable enough I guess, though I personally don’t feel the need to post a sign above our own trusty shelf toilet. I figure if my guests feel they’ve got sharpshooter aim, then have at it, and hopefully they’ll be mortified enough to clean up their own mess in the event of a misfire (I’m beginning to reconsider my words even as I type, though, because precise aim and Party machen don’t exactly go hand in hand). The Chermans don’t risk this eventuality though.
In the restaurant sign on the left, the SWTMN takes aim at the widespread pet peeve of food photos in public. I love this one for a variety of reasons: first, instagrammen as a verb. Verbing nouns is twice the fun in your second language as far as I’m concerned. Then of course there’s the irony of the closing remark forbidding the instagramming of the sign itself. Admittedly, I don’t know where the creator of this note came from, but if they are in fact German, this is about as good as German humour gets.
My other favourite in this category is far too long to post a picture of on here, but it’s a tome left near the mailboxes lamenting the fact that postal package traffic has increased exponentially of late because everyone shops on Amazon and the Net these days. A quick side note for context: if someone isn’t around to receive their delivery, the package is usually delivered to a neighbour who’s home. So clearly, this person works from home or doesn’t work, and is constantly receiving and doling out packages to his/her neighbours. Though I sympathise to some extent with this person, I can’t really imagine feeling the urge/need to post all of these thoughts in the hallway, much less wax philosophical about the evils of online shopping and my own personal hostility toward modernity.
So what’s with all the notes?
To some extent, all cultures post hand-written announcements, notes, signs, etc., but in my experience, the German note is particularly prolific and a lot more interesting. More art, more creativity, and more exclamation points in more situations. When I sat down to think about it, it seemed to break one of my primary preconceptions of the Germans; namely, that they are quite direct and honest, often to a fault. In the case of the note, they seem to be eschewing face-to-face contact and directness in favour of the impersonal request or expression of disfavour. I think a German friend of mine put it best: “The Germans are direct, but they also tend to avoid face-to-face contact…” (think here about dead-silent U-Bahn cars and the utter lack of smiles or greetings among strangers on the street) “…so in this case, they avoid face-to-face contact to prevent conflict.” In sum, they can fulfil their desire to express their innermost thoughts and preferences without all of the discomfort and possibility for intense argument and conflict that come with face-to-face interaction with strangers or semi-strangers. Maybe German directness applies primarily to friends and acquaintances? Lately though, I think they also just enjoy getting a little creative and funny, even when they’re angry. At least I like to think so.