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OPINION: Is it true that Germans don’t understand sarcasm?

Germans are known for taking sarcasm a bit too literally - but is this stereotype fair? Charlotte Hall takes a closer look.

OPINION: Is it true that Germans don't understand sarcasm?
Satirist Oliver Welke in the studio of the 'heute show' in December. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Sascha Baumann

It’s a stereotype often hurled at Germans: along with their non-existent sense of humour, they just don’t get irony. 

One American in Berlin recalled telling a German friend about the difficulty of finding a flat and said: “If I don’t find one soon, I’ll be living under that bridge.” She pointed at a nearby one. 

The friend was overcome by a serious expression and replied “But do you really think that’s safe?”  

It’s a cliched gag in comedy sketches, too – German person takes sarcastic British person’s word at face value, confusion and hilarity ensues. But is it true that Germans just can’t register sarcasm? 

The short answer is: yes and no. (Or a Jein, for the German speakers). 

READ ALSO: A laughing matter: Looking beyond the stereotype of the serious German

Irony in Germany 

If you’ve ever heard of the German Kabarett shows, the no-irony stereotype might seem a little unfair to you. 

Kabarett is a tradition of satire which targets contemporary events and politicians in comic or surreal ways, and it’s usually dripping with irony and gallows humour. 

It was first developed in France in the 1880s. After it caught on in Germany at the start of the 20th century, it never really left. 

Nowadays, as well as special Kabarett shows like “Die Pfeffermühle”, the genre lives on in more modern formats like “Extra3” and “Die Heute Show”. In these shows, satirists pose as newsreaders and deliver current affairs with a pinch of irony and a punchline. 

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One example of German satire, in which two Mafia bosses speak about opening a German test centre, in the wake of a testing centre scandal. “We would receive 18 per test and no one would inspect it,” one of them says.

In the south of Germany (but elsewhere too), this sense of irony is so strong that it easily flows into everyday conversation, too. There, Germans deliver such dead-pan sarcasm that it’s easy to think they’re being genuine – especially if you’re not entirely fluent in the language. 

But if that’s true, where does this cliche come from? Is it just prejudice, ill-will, jealousy?

It’s all about context

Chatting to an elderly pair of locals in Cologne about this, I made a surprising discovery. 

“We Germans are not exactly famous for our humour,” they said.  

But when I countered that I often heard Germans make dead-pan jokes, and that there was a lot of great political satire, they looked at me blankly for a moment. 

“Oh – but satire isn’t comedy!”

Turns out, in Germany, what is considered “humour” is all about the context. Unlike in the US or the UK for example, there usually aren’t jokes in political speeches, business meetings, or formal dinners – unless they’re specifically sign-posted. 

In short, Germans need a “space” where joking is okay, so that it doesn’t come across as rude.

This is especially true of irony and sarcasm. These are not, as in English, automatically considered “funny”, but rather as a kind of mockery, or a sign of familiarity. 

In fact, one definition of “Sarkasmus” (sarcasm) is worded as “biting ridicule or scorn”. 

It’s not funny 

So, it’s not that Germans are incapable of irony, or even that they can’t understand it. It’s just that it’s used in different ways. 

Comedy or satire shows make sarcasm “socially acceptable” by acting as a sign-post that it’s not supposed to be taken seriously. 

READ ALSO: ‘Germans don’t have a sense of humour? That’s rubbish!’ Q&A with comedian Eddie Izzard

“The audience seems to need this very clear “sign” displayed – i.e. that this is funny, it’s just a joke and it’s not offending.” Rayka Kobiella describes in her guide to German humour

The closest German sarcasm comes to the English equivalent is in everyday conversation between very good friends, as a touch of good-hearted mockery between them. For example, if someone messes something up, their friend might console them with “Ja, hast du gut gemacht, Alter.” (“You nailed it, dude!”).

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For members


Living in Germany: Shorter work weeks, €9 tours and hitzefrei

In our weekly roundup for Germany we look at the debates around shortening the work week, tours around the country and what happens when it gets too hot.

Living in Germany: Shorter work weeks, €9 tours and hitzefrei

Is it possible to have a good work-life balance in Germany?

It’s something that most of us struggle with – how do you balance your job with having a fulfilling private life? We don’t have the answer to that unfortunately, but our story on the German debate on weekly working hours really made us think. Some other countries, such as Belgium and Iceland have taken steps towards offering employees a shorter working week. Meanwhile, the UK is carrying out a massive trial on a four-day week, with 70 companies trying out shorter working hours for six months. In Germany, things haven’t progressed that far, but it is encouraging to see that some companies are thinking about changing how we work. For instance, the Hamburg-based software firm Knowhere will let employees switch to a four-day, 32-hour work week from August for the same salary, and Vereda, a marketing firm in Munster, has already put in place the same system. 

As the world of work changes and we all strive to achieve a better balance, do you think Germany should push for a shorter working week? It certainly would be nice to celebrate Feierabend that little bit earlier. Let us know your thoughts: [email protected]

Tweet of the week

We love the idea of this tour of Germany with the €9 ticket. We’re still trying to think up ideas to add to the list…

Where is this?

To mark the summer solstice on June 21st, visitors gathered at the ring shrine (Ringheiligtum) of Pömmelte in Saxony-Anhalt.

Photo: DPA/Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert

To mark the summer solstice on June 21st, visitors gathered at the ring shrine (Ringheiligtum) of Pömmelte in Saxony-Anhalt. The historical site dates back to the end of the Stone Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age. According to experts, our ancestors celebrated seasonal festivals here.

Did you know?

With summer in full swing, temperatures have been rising. But is it ever too hot to go to work (or school) in Germany? Actually, that can happen. As you’ll no doubt be aware, most homes and many public buildings in Germany don’t actually have air conditioning unlike other hot countries. Of course, Germany doesn’t really need air conditioning for most of the year, but in these summer months it wouldn’t go amiss. 

So if things do get unbearable, German schools and workplaces can declare hitzefrei (literally, heat free), and that means pupils or employees can take the rest of the day off due to excessive heat. However, as you’d expect there’s a few rules around this, which we’ve detailed in this article written in the heatwave of summer 2019. 

READ ALSO: 8 of the coolest places in Germany to visit on hot summer days

If you are having to go to a workplace, your employer should make sure that there are no health hazards. That could mean buying a fan for the office, blinds or giving a special clothing allowance if you’re having to work outside. The decision on getting a day off generally has to be a decision taken by your boss. On very hot days, you’ll sometimes find that cafes or shops close and leave a sign on the door that says: hitzefrei! And the rules on overheated classrooms and when to send kids home depends on the state legislation. Wherever you are during the summer we recommend you stay hydrated, get that sun cream on and wear a hat. 

Thanks for reading,

Rachel and Imogen @ The Local Germany 

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