Humor of German Attitudes

Humor of German Attitudes is adapted from ‘Easy, Tiger’, a humorous article by David Sedaris from the New Yorker magazine of July 11, 2011.

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I started preparing for a trip to Germany.

So I downloaded all thirty lessons of Pimsleur German.

Again I learned “How are you?” (“Wie geht es Ihnen?”)

In Japanese and Italian, the response to the latter question is “I’m fine, and you?”

In German it’s answered with a sigh, and a slight pause, followed by “Not so good.”

I mentioned this to my German friend Tilo, who said that of course that was the response.

“We can’t get it through our heads that people are asking that only to be polite,” he said.

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In Japanese 1, Lesson 17, the actress who plays the wife says, “Kaimono ga shitai n desu ga!” (I want to go shopping but there’s a problem and you need to guess what it is.”)

The exercise is about numbers, so her husband asks how much money she has. She gives him a figure, and he offers to increase it incrementally.

Similarly, in the German version, the wife announces that she wants to buy something.

Her husband asks how much money she has, and, after she answers, he responds, coldly,

“I’m not giving you any more. You have enough.”

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There’s no discord in Pimsleur’s Japan, but its Germany is a moody and often savage place.

In one of the exercises, you’re encouraged to argue with a bellhop who tries to cheat you out of your change and who ends up sneering, “You don’t understand German.”

“OH, but I do,” you learn to say. “I do understand German.”

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It’s a program full of odd sentence combinations.

“We don’t live here. We want mineral water” implies that if the couple DID live in this particular town they’d be drunk like everyone else.

Another standout is “Der Wein ist zu teuer und Sie sprechen zu schnell.” (‘The wine is too expensive and you talk too fast.’)

The response to this would be

“Anything else, Herr Asshole?”

But of course they don’t teach you that.

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On our last trip to Tokyo, a representative from the real-estate agency met us at the front door, and when I spoke to him in Japanese, he told me I needed to buy myself some manga. (Manga is the Japanese word for "comics" and consists of comics and print cartoons, sometimes also called ‘komikku’.)

“Read those and you’ll learn how people actually talk,” he said. “You, you’re a little too polite.”

I really don’t see this as much of a problem, especially if you’re a foreigner, and any perceived rudeness can turn someone not just against you but against your entire country.

Here Pimsleur has it all over the phrase books of my youth, where the Ugly American was still alive, and kicking people.

“I didn’t order this!” he raged in Greek and Spanish.

“Think you can cheat me, do you?”

“Go away or I’ll call the police.”

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Humor of the Sound of German by David Sedaris



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