Germans are polite, obliging, helpful. Nett, zuvorkommend, hilfsbereit. That is what you might think. And this might be based on your personal experience, as Germans will be like that when you meet them for the first time. It’s their gute Kinderstube, their refined upbringing. Immer schön Danke sagen, always say “thank you,” that is what German parents eintrichtern (hammer home to) their children. Or so the Leitkultur with its Primärtugenden (primary virtues such as Pünktlickeit—punctuality—and Verlässlichkeit—reliability) would like it to be. As soon, though, as you delve deeper into deutsche Kultur—or if you have grown up and become a part of it—you’ll find out that this is not always the case. Leider (unfortunately).
Yes, Germans can be very polite. Until a situation comes up where konstruktive Kritik (constructive criticism) is an der Tagesordnung (the order of the day). Well, at times it might indeed be constructive, but more often than not, it will be destructive. Please refer to my post on pointing fingers. Especially, but not only, in the workplace, German suchen den eigenen Vorteil—they will be looking for a way to enhance their own advantage. And if this means to be a Kameradenschwein and anschwärzen a colleague—of course it was not ME who messed up this or that task but Herr Sowieso‘s little mistake in the planning phase. And even though it was me—as long as I articulate myself much more convincingly than Herr Sowieso, everybody will believe me, no? That is the Ellbogengesellschaft, or dog-eat-dog world. One could either argue from a social Darwinist point of view that it is only natural for humans to act like this, to look for one’s own advantage to survive. Or one could look back into history and find this already in the olden days of masters, vassals, and serfs where the world, and especially Germany (or German speaking states) were streng hierarchisch gegliedert, a very hierarchical society. Nach oben buckeln und nach unten treten, bootlicking your superiors and kicking all those below you—or if the need arises, give those on the same level with you a nice push with your elbow so you can advance to the next level (andere ausstechen). Some also call this über Leichen gehen—metaphorically to step over dead bodies to reach your goals.
This is being egoistisch, selfish. I have shown earlier how Germans like to make up rules of their own liking. Because, you know, jeder ist sich selbst am nächsten—oneself, not one’s fellows, are nearest to one. Not very New Testament-like despite Germany’s Christian heritage (which, by the way, only led to Glaubenskriege, wars between Catholic and Protestant denominations in the wake of Luther’s reformation, or priests preaching to die gloriously for the Vaterland … ). Or to stay with Biblical motifs: nach mir die Sintflut—after me, the great flood. Eingebaute Vorfahrt, anyone?
So much about being nett und zuvorkommend. Actually, this has become so rare that you can astound people with politeness. I was brought up to say Bitte und Danke, to be humble, to be zuvorkommend (which is not to say that I am not egoistisch myself at times, but being selbstkritisch—self-critical—is not the point of this blog. It is to mit dem Finger zeigen.). Now, imagine you are at the checkout line of a Supermarkt. After having finally found a Kasse where the Schlange of people waiting in line for the cashier is not as long as that at the others, you prepare yourself to wield your Bierkästen and other German delicatessen on the Einkaufsband. As you look back, you see a) a Herr with only two Artikel he wants to buy, or b) a Dame who is struggling with a carton she has filled up a bit too much. What do you do? Put your stuff on the Band because you think you have waited long enough yourself and you hast doch keine Zeit anyway? If yes: congratulations, you have become part of the Ellbogengesellschaft. Or would you say: “Möchten Sie vor? Sie haben ja nicht soviel.” (“Would you like to go first? You don’t have that much anyway.”) Prepare to see a verwundertes Gesicht, a face stricken with surprise over meeting a kind person for once (the same will happen if you yield to a car when you don’t have too—a wave will be the “thank you” then). Be also prepared to be thanked again and again, even after the person has checked out. S/he will also wish you a nice day. And honestly, doesn’t this make one’s day? After all, man bricht sich keinen Zacken aus der Krone—it doesn’t hurt to let somebody go first in such a situation, does it? Making other people happy can make you yourself happy too. I call it egoistischer Utilitarismus—selfish utilitarianism. But beware of feeling too smug and looking down on all those people ohne gute Erziehung … Hochmut kommt vor dem Fall (pride cometh before a fall).