The Joke Was On Me

Sometimes I forget that humor is not cross-cultural; that people of certain cultures are more sensitive to history or stereotypes than expected. I’m a half-black, half- Irish, all American New Englander,  I’m not new to the world of stereotypes, it’s something I laugh about now. Being in Europe, you come across a lot of people with a lot of ideas about Americans. We can either take it seriously or get pissed off (which would lead to being pissed off quite often) or we could laugh about it. I like laughing about it. But to think everyone can do that would have been wrong. And it was wrong.

The G-Man and I love laughing about stuff. I like to do this German accent of a rich guy, where he says ohhh ja I love driving super schnell in mein Audi (you can almost hear how that would sound reading it right?) And this isn’t original. This is how I thought Germans spoke because of watching The Simpsons growing up. We thought Germans love chocolate, bier, always wear lederhosen/dirndls…. anyway, when you grow up you realize that these are just stereotypes, but that’s what makes it funny. It’s not true but it’s funny. I’ve laughed many times about Family Guy’s use of the New England accent, or the way they poke fun at Black culture. And you know, everyone makes fun of the Irish. There are moments when people vehemently believe these stereotypes and treat you poorly because of it, I don’t like that. But I’m also not like that. 

So what’s my point? My point is that I made a joke and I offended “my friendly” Germans with it. They took it so deliberately, and believed I was being malicious. What was the joke? Just a play on German stereotypes saying that Germans love driving fast in their cars, bier, pretzels, World domination/ war starting, and telling other countries and cultures why and how they are better (This last point was G-Man’s- not mine at all). He thought it was funny, but is it true? No. These are generalizations, humorous but not true overall. I lost a friend for posting this joke, I cried for an hour straight this morning, and I offended others with it. And I felt like such a fool and a jerk because of it. I deleted it and I felt guilty most of the day.

But it got me to thinking. Are we supposed to sit at tables here and have Germans tell us what’s wrong with our political system, make jokes about how are culture is overweight, how we are loud, obnoxious, poorly dressed, how come all of our states have such different laws (?), why do we always have big toothy smiles in most of our pictures….? (You name it, I’ve heard it) Yes, we are supposed to sit there, disagree but play it cool, offer answers and not take it personally. So why can’t they? And how could friends feel that I was being so rude, disrespectful, and inappropriate —- they know me, they know how I am, why would I purposely try to hurt them? Why, for that matter, would I go on a serious bashing of all Germans?… Lest you forget, I’m marrying one and living here! I will have a whole new German family soon. It makes absolutely no sense.

No I’m sorry if I’m using this platform to be a whiny expat blogger, but I find this situation confusing, emotional and irrational. I apologized as best I could, I spent time reflecting and feeling upset for being so callous. But now I’m unsettled. Was it inappropriate? Was I a big fat jerk? Because right now, I couldn’t be happier to be leaving this country tomorrow for a short trip to NYC and I’ll be dreading that moment when I have to come back here. Maybe Nürnberg is not the place for me, maybe we ought to move to Berlin or Ulm or something. I need to actually make friends and feel like I belong here. What do you think? 


16 thoughts on “The Joke Was On Me

  1. As an expat you are an outsider and whilst it may be totally fine for G-Man to make a joke about German stereotypes, it is not okay for you. Just like it is okay for a US friend to joke about US stereotypes but you get offended when your German friends do it. Stay away from making any ‘jokes’ about stereotypes until you have lived here a very long time.
    Also, if you are offended by your German friends talking about US stereotypes tell them. Germans appreciate honesty. If you pretend it doesn’t offend you, then they will think it doesn’t. Tell them why it offends you, relate it back to stereotypes about Germans that offend them so they can understand.

    Being in a big city does help in finding more expats, but not when it comes to making friends with Germans, they live everywhere. Try to find common ground instead of looking for the differences. But also grow some thick skin when it comes to the problems your native country has, no country is perfect, but if you are going to get offended every time someone say something bad about the US, you won’t be happy anywhere but the US.

    1. That’s not really a problem for me. I don’t get bent out of shape if someone says bad things about the US, or my culture for that matter. As I said, I think it’s funny more often than not, and also it can be because people don’t understand how gigantic the US is in comparison to their country. I know no country is perfect…. I know, I know, I know. Finding differences when living abroad is easy, finding a common ground is necessary for communication purposes and for making friends. I’m not that awkward to understand these things. I just seemed to have dropped into a city where Germans tend to push you away more than embrace you, and it’s not for the lack of trying.

      I do understand I’m an outsider, believe me I feel that everyday walking down the street. I feel that every time I attempt German but before I do the German helping me says it in English. Germans don’t confuse me for another German, my skin color usually gives me away on that one. I guess I just didn’t think about me as outsider when I made the joke, you know? I should have been more cognizant.

  2. Outsider or not, you do NOT need to apologize. This makes me so angry because I understand where you’re coming from. Too often do I listen to Germs talk about how all Americans are fat and we are lazy. Those are just plain rude stereotypes. As for the joke you made…that was NOT uncalled for! It’s true! They like to drive fast on the autobahn (not offensive at all)…they do love their beer and pretzels…(also not offensive)…I don’t get why people are so bent out of shape about absolutely nothing!

    When they say crap about Americans being fat, lazy, or otherwise….I usually point out that all Germans are Nazi’s and that shuts them right up. Two can play the game of cruel stereotypes but you were not in the wrong here. You didn’t say anything that was that terrible. It was funny and cute and the fact that these Germans are so uptight is sad. They will never, ever let loose. But that’s what makes being an American so amazing 🙂 We grew up living “free” rather than growing up as perfectionists.

    I’ve been here long enough to judge the situation and I’m marrying a German in 24 days. Nothing against them but definitely something against people in general, German or otherwise, who can’t take a little joke. I’m on your team girl! (Sorry I just let out a novel on your blog! This makes me so LIVID!!!)

    1. Miss SugarandSpice, you and I should definitely be friends! I already gave my two cents privately, but basically I agree with you 100%. Considering the nature of the “American” jokes I hear all the time, I thought these were funny. Especially because that very same day, my (German) husband made it a point to tell me about this survey he found that talked about all the ways Germany is a much nicer place to live than the US! Nothing I can do about people being offended, but I can at least throw some support to team USA. 🙂

      PS The Autobahn TERRIFIES me! All that super schnell driving…

      1. Thanks ladies for your support. I mean it. I was a mess about this, and I wasn’t sure how things got so messed up from a little joke. I needed some friends. The Autobahn is really scary!

  3. 1) if you lose a friend over a joke then that person is not a friend. they did not take the time to tell you hey listen that wasn’t nice, and more importantly to take the time to understand your reasons behind the jest and work towards an apology or road to understanding.
    2) that being said i do notice that they welcome their own more easily that welcoming an outsider but as far as being “pushed out” at least because of joking about stereotypes, this i have not come across just yet. not like the way you describe it. maybe because i live in a university town, maybe because im too callous to notice, maybe because if you’re gonna be uppity about it, i dont have time to waste on you. maybe you just need to move 🙂

  4. When you return from New York visit Lörrach, Baden Wurttemberg. Lörrach is located in the Southwest corner of Germany, 20 minutes by car or train from Basel, Switzerland, and 20 minutes from Alsace, France. I lived in Augsburg for seven years and although I miss my wonderful German friends and they are true friends, I wouldn’t live anywhere else in Germany now that I have found this area. Lörrach is smaller then Augsburg and Nuremburg however the people are friendly and open due to the borders they share with Switzerland, and France.

  5. I’ve now been here for getting for eleven months, and I’ve noticed the following: In many ways it is difficult being the outsider and being fairly isolated, culturally speaking. In some other ways – in many other ways – it is irrelevant, and often people find it interesting that you come from another country/culture. I think in general Germans are very open to talking to people from other places and they are genuinely interested to find out a bit more about you and why you’re in Germany, although actually making friends with them is a different matter. It is easier for me than for you, I think, because I think UK and German cultures are closer than American and German cultures. This is something that maybe not everyone would originally realise. But nevertheless, the cultural differences are a challenge to overcome.

    It took a while before my boyfriend and I talked about this (it came after I had a bit of an emotional ‘oh my God I miss my friends and have practically none here and I feel really lonely blah blah blah’ moment), but being surrounded by a different culture all the time, that sometimes makes fun of your own IS taxing, it is difficult. You laugh when people make fun of Americans, exactly the right response, don’t take it seriously, but as Riayn said, if it does start to bug you then do just tell them. As Riayn also said, Germans appreciate the honesty and won’t take offense. But yeah, then sometimes you do the same back – say ‘well we eat McDonalds all the time, but you drink beer and eat sausage all the time which isn’t much better!’ (knowing that neither the Mcdonalds or beer and sausage statements are true) – and suddenly everyone is a bit prickly.

    Something to do with this, I think, is that you are the outsider – you have chosen to live in this country and so what ‘right’ do you have to criticise it, you should be adjusting to your new home (not my opinion, just I think how a lot of people think, although I do think it is important to accept that things are different and to some extent to fit in with this whilst still maintaining your own national pride and identity). We are the natives, don’t laugh at our country on our home soil. That is of course a massive generalisation and in my experience here, so many people are generous and understanding and aware that it is sometimes a challenge for me and that stuff is different for me. But I think it’s sometimes something along those lines.

    People laugh at UK food (universal opinion of UK food is that it is crap – used to be the case, not any more, generally speaking) or eccentricities of the weird British, the fact that I can’t cope with German summer temperatures because it rains the whole time in the UK (obviously continuously and we never have warm weather, ever), and so on, and to start with I just laughed it off too – teasing is part of British culture, anyway, so I’m used to it!

    But actually, after a while, I started to really not find it funny and found myself getting really wound up and defensive of all things UK whenever someone made fun of it, which is not like me at all. Even getting defensive of stuff which normally I would criticise too.

    The theory, then, is this: Because I have no British friends here, I have no one with whom I have a common reference point. I have no one with whom I have the shared experience of living abroad, who is living here now, and with whom I can laugh about the eccentricities and weirdness of the Germans, from a British perspective. At the moment, if we’re doing some cultural teasing, it’s about the weirdness of the British from the German perspective. With my small number of German friends I can’t get my dose of payback, good-hearted retaliation because there is no one to share that common reference point, and it feels a little one-sided, which I think has eventually worn me down into a state of utter non-humour, which is a real shame. If it’s just me trying to say that, yeah, you think British food is crap, but potato dumplings?! So much vinegar in salads? Hello? then it just sort of comes across as a bit picky, or like ‘oh look, it’s the crap British food that has given me no sense of what is good food or not’, or, I don’t know – it’s not the same. It’s just me against ‘them’ and it’s just different.

    Another thing that I really notice is that sometimes, because I do come from another culture, I do something totally normal, one of those normal, boring, daily things that you do without even questioning it because it’s just a part of normal, boring, daily life, totally trivial, and someone questions it. Like how much water you use to boil an egg. They think you’re doing it wrong and sometimes I find my basic behaviour is questioned. The majority of my feelings when this happens is ‘that’s really interesting – I never considered that it could be done differently’. But a little part of me feels like I’ve been accused of doing something not properly, and that from the German perspective, my way is ‘wrong’.

    Don’t get me wrong – although I have only a few friends here, I have been made to feel so welcome and I have received amazing support from my boyfriend’s extended patchwork family, so many people have been incredibly understanding and supportive of me. But the cultural ‘isolation’ is a challenge and can be difficult.

    This was a very long, essay-like reply – I’m sorry! I think my advice would be to keep joking, but steer clear of war-related references (understandably a lot of sensitivity about that still). Not sure how much of a helpful answer that was…

  6. Here are a German re-patriate’s 2 cents (was living in South Africa and Panama for 7 years): I agree totally with Vanessa when she says: a friend you can lose because of a joke hasn’t been a friend in the first place.

    I also think that Jenny is right when she cautions about jokes like “Germans like starting wars”. This is in fact a sensitive issue since it is often heard that Germans should still pay (e. g. bail out other countries) in view of what the Nazis did to them. And this view is quite controversial. Even Helmut Schmitt, a well respected previous chancellor recently supported that view in a newspaper article (“Die Zeit”, published on 27 Sep). As you can imagine many Germans disagree as they feel that they have been blamed for crimes committed by their grandparents for long enough. It may be a bit like blaming todays Americans what had been done to American Indians 200 years ago.
    By the way: when it comes to the prejudice that Germans tend to think that their ways are superior: there is a kernel of truth in it. When I was living as an expat I sometimes did so as well – and to be honest: in some ways I still do.

    1. Thank you for your perspective on this; I meant no harm with the war joke, I just didn’t perceive it to be personal or something worth being sensitive about. Especially to people I called friends. I like Germany, I haven’t been here long but it gets better, but this had me ready to jump a plane home.

  7. What exactly was wrong about what you said? Me as a german can agree to all. (except the war thing, but nowadays a german should be familiar with that).
    Perhaps your friend was one of those germans hatting cars. They also do not have a lot of humour. The husband of my sister is one of these.
    Really, what you said was not to be angry about. Normally, when a german says: that is really “german”, he does not mean it is a good thing. He means, it is something we have to change.

  8. Hello and don’t be too upset. I’ve been here for 25 years and can say with all confidence that Germans can be (even those you love and who love you) tight-assed, closed minded, uptight jerks. When you come back from your visit show no fear. You can’t believe the hurtful, dimwitted things I’ve had said to me. I’ve had to let friend sknow that dishing out “directness” is a two way street. Maybe these folks aren’t for you. There will be others,

  9. My dear Ellie,

    You need to get with Jenny and Sugar/Spice, hop a train to Munich and have an expat gal pal’s weekend full of fruity cocktails at hotel bars full of foreigners, shopping on the Maximillianstraße, and endless whines…er, jokes cracked in stupid Hogan’s Heroes spaghetti-German accents. A couple of gay fellows might tag along to go ooooh-aaah at your new shoes.

    It might not help the problem, but it can’t hurt.


    The Honourable Husband
    Expat Humour Martyr

    P.S. Jokes and German culture? Don’t get me started….

    1. Let’s do it!!! Please. Munich is a 2 hour train-ride away and I could use meeting and speaking freely with people again. Name a weekend, and I’m there!!!

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