One of the hardest traps to avoid in a foreign country is making excessive generalizations. Though I find myself constantly wanting to say “Germans are so…” or “In America, we tend to…,” I think I’ve kept myself reasonably in check, including on this blog.
Now I’m going to open the floodgates. Here goes.
It’s no surprise that public investment on a national level is much higher here than in America. People pay more in taxes and get more in government services, like health care and schooling and, let’s admit it, infrastructure. But I’d also argue — and I’m not sure whether it’s a cause or consequence of the national counterpart, or some combination — that Germans prioritize the public aspects of their personal and social lives to a much greater extent than Americans.
I’ll explain what I mean, starting on the personal level. In America, acquired wealth — whether through savings or a promotion or some sort of windfall — tends to go mostly toward upgrades on a personal/household level. The old PC is ditched in favor of the new Macbook Pro, or the radio in favor of the Bose sound system, or the, uh, book in favor of the iPad. When we talk about America having the highest standard of living in the world, we tend to think mostly within the household. It’s undeniable that our gadgets and appliances are fancier than Germans’, and our home lives are unquestionably more convenient.
Germans, though, place a higher premium on what I’d call external pleasures. Vacation certainly tops the list; most Germans get six weeks of it a year, and they take full advantage. Germans also seem to eat out quite a bit more than Americans (and I’m talking about actually sitting down to a leisurely dinner with company, not grabbing a burrito from Chipotle and bringing it back to your desk). And even students without much money make a point of going out to — and spending cash on — art openings and film screenings and shows.
I’m not going to pass judgment on which set of priorities is better. But I will point out that studies have shown that money spent on experiences tends to make you happier than money spent on stuff. A new $1,200 computer or $800 flat-screen TV brings you great pleasure and excitement for a few days, but then it becomes the new status quo and stops giving you much of a jolt, whereas, say, going out to a nice dinner and a show once a week keeps delivering results, well, every week. And it’s what I’m calling the external stuff that tends to be more experiential, while the internal stuff is more tangible. So unless Americans continually buy new gadgets — which many do — the argument can be made that Germans are getting more happiness for their buck (or euro).
And then there’s the social level, where I’m getting into even murkier territory. I know it bucks every stereotype, but I feel this sense of collegiality that exists among Germans that I just don’t see as much in America. Today as I was eating lunch at my desk (how very American of me), three different co-workers popped their heads into my office to wish me a “guten Appetit.” Leave alone for a minute the fact that we don’t even have a way to say that in our own language; it’s also just not something people would tend to do in America. In the land of “good fences make good neighbors,” people are taught to mind their own business. Here, everyone minds everyone else’s. That’s not always a good thing, of course — Germans are known to yell at unsuspecting foreigners for jaywalking or recycling improperly. But there’s a sense — again, not sure if this comes out of social democracy or breeds it; probably more the latter — that everyone’s in it together, and no one’s business is entirely one’s own.
This also has implications among friends. Time and again, I’ve been surprised when someone I’ve met just once before — briefly — gives me a big clap on the back and a grin and wants to know all about how I’m doing. For a country that’s outwardly so formal, people can be awfully familiar. I’m still trying to sort out exactly how these concepts fit together, and I think it has something to do with people knowing their place, as silly as that sounds. When two colleagues who have known each other for years are still addressing each other as Herr Schmidt and Frau Müller, there’s no false pretension of friendship. In America, we call our bosses by their first names and attempt the same conversational tone with them as we would with friends, even if we don’t like them and feel incredibly phony in the process. In Germany, I think, by establishing the boundaries of the relationship at the outset, people can be much more comfortable and cordial within those boundaries. And when people do meet as friends, without any sort of formality, there’s an instant sense of kinship that forms. Maybe I’ve got this all wrong, but I think there’s logic to it.
There’s some question, though, about how much longer Germany’s “team spirit” can really last. I was reading an article recently arguing that this sense of togetherness is inevitably undermined when immigrants start flooding in and people start feeling various resentments. It starts on the national policy level, where Germans are suddenly reluctant to extend the same social benefits they’ve enjoyed to a new population that tends to be, like most new immigrant groups, socioeconomically disadvantaged and culturally isolated. (See Sarrazin, Thilo.) There’s generally an inverse relationship between the ease of a country’s path to citizenship for immigrants and the degree of social benefits provided by the government. In other words, when a populace finds its unity threatened by perceived outsiders, it’s less likely to “spread the wealth.” America has always been a land of immigrants, where the previous wave resents the next wave, and people don’t want to shell out for the people they perceive as taking their jobs or dragging down the economy or moral fabric or whatever. Germany hasn’t really experienced that a whole lot yet — if Germany’s ever had a major wave of immigration, it must have been before it was really Germany. Can the social cohesion necessary to keep up a welfare state continue to exist as these ethnic tensions and resentments grow? I don’t think anyone knows the answer. But you have to wonder, if Germany starts cutting back on its welfare programs on a national level, whether the sense of collegiality on a personal and social level will also diminish.
Does this make sense? Am I just spouting bullshit? Tell me what you think in the comments — I’m curious to hear your thoughts.