The Germans are fanatics about punctuality, many of them drink beer all day and few of them have any sense of humour whatsoever. Well, those are the stereotypes, but what’s true?
This week I caught up with a light-hearted discussion programme on the Deutsche Welle German national news site that offered a welcome break from the kind of Paddy’s Day introspection we are prone to at times such as our national feast.
The short programme was a delight and led me on to rediscover a clatter of European jokes in a book called De Qui Se-Moque-T-On?, translatable from French as “Who Do We Mock?”
The book is stuffed with every national stereotype you can think of, but it’s also funny in spots.
The Irish joke section is a compendium of “Paddy the Englishman, Paddy the Scotsman and Paddy the Irishman” gags, and yes, our man always comes out tops.
Famously, the French can’t stop mocking the Belgians, the Spanish like to pick on the Portuguese, the Germans slag the Poles and so on. But nobody ever escapes.
The Spanish stereotype is epitomised by this one: “A recent survey of 10 Spaniards found 11 of them felt superior to other races.”
The French got a particularly English take with: “After creating France, God found it to be the most beautiful country in the world. So, to balance things out, he created the French.”
But the French had their revenge on their old neighbours and foes: “Heard about the daring Englishman? He ate an After Eight Mint at 7.30.”
When it came to Germany, we got: “Do you know why so many philosophers are German? Have you tasted their food?”
That brings us back to stereotypes because, yes, food is one of those German stereotypes featured in the Deutsche Welle discussion.
Our video conversation described typical German food as either “fat” or “hearty”, and the two women involved in the talk said a typical lunch – try pork knuckles with dumplings – made them want to sleep.
One interviewee felt the problem with German food was that it was just not deemed to be “cool”. But doubts about German food are widespread, with a 2019 survey saying 50pc of people in Germany disliked it.
All were unrepentant about German punctuality being a reality – and a virtue.
They rightly said being late was impolite and signalled that you deemed your own time more valuable than other people’s.
Equally, there was a view that this punctuality spreads into being meticulous about many things in life, in leisure as much as in work.
“Working through a to-do list is a very German practice,” we were told.
Do they drink beer a lot? Short emphatic answer: yes. The average of 90 litres per person per year puts Germans near the top of the toper league.
But here’s a little-known fact from that discussion: the Czechs put them in the shade with twice that average yearly intake.
So, to the serious business of laughter. Is the late comedian Spike Milligan’s caricature of Germans as joyless accurate?
Here there was some hesitation and division of opinion. We learned there is a maxim that alludes to their shyness about being seen to laugh too much. Laughter in the workplace is deemed to be a cousin of idleness and lack of commitment.
One participant cited a German aphorism: “We go to the basement to laugh.”
But all agreed German people are courteous and friendly to strangers, although this trait is leavened by a deal of reserve and shyness.
These are the kind of discussions that can be circular and interminable. However, most of us like to engage in them, at least occasionally, if only because they remind us of one singular truth about national stereotypes – they aren’t old for nothing.