That German isn’t one of the easiest of languages to grasp may have been no surprise for British expat Susan Nowak, but she wasn’t prepared for “the thornier problem of cultural asymmetry when it comes to humour.”
Probably, like many unsuspecting and, dare I say ‘naïve’ ex-pats, I was somewhat unprepared for a culture shock on moving to Germany. An embarrassing admission from a moderately well travelled person. Having backpacked for a number of years through Australasia, Thailand and Indonesia I had dismissed the idea of having to really adapt to life in a country that is after all just across the water.
An underestimation of elephantine proportions!
Contending with language
Naturally there is the language to contend with. Any mortal who has undertaken the gargantuan task of making some sense of German grammar will need no further expansion on that subject. I will just say, for anyone currently battling through, determined to master the Teutonic tongue, panic not, you are not alone. One of my favourite quotes may provide you with some solace:
“In early times some sufferer had to sit up with a toothache, and he put in the time inventing the German language.”
(Notebook #14, 11/1877 – 7/1878)
I have reached a kind of student-like state of Zen when it comes to my proficiency of German. I make mistakes a-plenty but hey, there are worse things in life. What I don’t find so easy to bear is the considerably thornier problem of cultural asymmetry when it comes to humour.
During a visit to the gynaecologist, undergoing my annual indignity with as much cachet as one can muster with your thighs wrapped around your ear holes, it was requested of me that I try to relax. My answer that “internal tranquillity is somewhat challenging when you feel like you’re having sex with the Tin Man”, was met by an awkward silence.
The problem was not a lack of wit, but simple confusion. She didn’t know who the Tin Man was!
And therein lies the problem.
‘In’ jokes are out in Germany
My humour staples, the ‘in’ jokes shared over the years with friends and family that stem from a generation of television, music and radio, fail to raise even the slightest titter simply because in Germany they have never heard of them.
It may seem like an insignificant point, but humour and irony are the beating heart in the chest of most Brits.
If deciding between sixteen words for ‘the’ or deciphering single nouns that are longer than your average English sentence doesn’t have you heading for the next Lufthansa agent, perhaps the idea of living amongst people who have likely never heard of The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, The Generation Game or Morcambe and Wise may just entice you…
Illustration credits: Michele Carloni @ fantisola