German Small Talk: NO NAMES

This isn’t bad. Other acceptable topics for German small talk include insurance, heating and energy costs, insurance, restaurants that have opened or closed nearby, insurance, local crime, insurance, insurance, the most recent episode of Tatort, insurance, sales and discounts, insurance, and insurance.

But there’s one pitfall I must warn you about.

Let’s say you’re trying to fit in with your German colleagues, and you begin with this gambit: “I was talking to Ulrike, my insurance agent, the other day, and she told me I could get a better rate on my retirement insurance by switching to Rate Group Norm Cluster 25/A4/36, which will entitle me to a matching government subsidy of €-.00032 on every Euro I contribute. That will really add up over 25 years!”

Congratulations, you’ve done four things right:

First, you’ve steered the conversation to insurance, a subject on which every German, from a captain of industry to the most humble currywurst chef, can chunter on about for hours. Literally hours — I have the scars to prove it.

Second, you mentioned a bargain. Germans love bargains. Among the high points of German lives are childbirth and finding a “perfectly good” vacuum cleaner for “only €24.99” at a local discounter which is “just as good as the big name-brands” but “costs half as much because they [i.e. the Golden Miracle Light Manufactures Corp., 23 山羊肛門 Road, Shantian] don’t bother with advertisements or in-store displays or celebrity endorsements or any of that fooferaw and just focus on making a solid product. If only our German firms would… [insert 4 minutes of general bitching here]”.

Third, you mentioned retirement. The specter of retirement haunts the average middle-class German like Nemesis. I have met Germans who switched from jobs they liked to a jobs they hated solely because the retirement bennies were better. Combining insurance and retirement is like injecting a speedball directly into the conversational centers of the middle-class German brain.

Fourth, you’re using a state subsidy. Germany packs tiny little subsidies from Father State state into every nook and cranny of society. You already played the role of savvy citizen in voting for these perks; now it’s time to play the role of savvy consumer in taking advantage of them.

So you did much right. But you made one mistake, which every German you talked to will note. You used a name. Now you might think this is a courteous thing to do — you’re trying to humanize an insurance agent, as difficult as that may seem. She’s not just another cog in the juggernaut that is the German insurance industry, she’s a person. She’s Ulrike.

But to a German, what you have just done is a faux pas. Ever read 19th or 18th century novels in which one of the main characters is identified only as the Baron of W_____, and all the letters are dated March 19, 18__? That is a trace of a long-standing cultural pattern of discretion. You don’t just casually identify absent third parties in conversation without their permission. What it Ulrike is ashamed of being an insurance agent? What if she’s never told her parents about her choice? What if Ulrike’s marriage is hanging by a thread because of her insurance-selling addiction, and it gets back to her husband that she sneaked into an insurance company’s office to fuel her shameful obsession?

Congratulations! You just ruined Ulrike’s life. I hope you’re happy.

One trick that helps foreigners maintain a proper level of conversational discretion is to imagine that it’s East Germany, and you’re talking about your dissident friends in an apartment you know is bugged. Now, this will make conversations pretty hard to follow. At some point, you may have to say things like: “While I was talking to my insurance agent, another insurance agent came in an introduced himself, and my insurance agent talked to that insurance agent until their boss came in, and invited us all to lunch. So I had lunch with my insurance agent, another insurance agent, and their boss.” This would have been a lot easier and less bureaucratic-sounding if you’d actually given these humans names. But this stilted syntax is, to most Germans, a reasonable price to pay to preserve everyone’s plausible deniability.

So, I have taken the video made by Rache — this human female and added some extra depth to it. You’re welcome!

Zombie Institutions and Zombies in Institutions

A reporter for the Berlin Tagesspiegel visits (g) an evangelical Christian church in Berlin, where the congregation is young, hip, friendly, and enthusiastic. The big mainstream established churches in Germany, Catholic and Protestant, have been hemorrhaging members, but the evangelical churches are growing, even without the official status and tax subsidies the big churches get.

The big churches are zombie institutions — they still exist, even though their primary purpose has nearly disappeared. They still do secondary stuff like run hospitals and schools, but only a small fraction of Germans use them for regularly gathering to celebrate the Christian faith. Germany has a lot of these zombie (or near-zombie) institutions, some huge, some as tiny as a single job. Examples: TV license collecting bureaucracies, various commissions which produce reports and recommendations nobody will ever read, dead-weight older professors and teachers and civil servants who have stopped showing up, or are on various kinds of permanent sick leave.

Part of this is down to Germans. Germans on average, are conservative and tradition-oriented, so they will keep doing stuff that previous generations did, even if it no longer serves much of a purpose. (This is why you still see fax numbers everywhere). Protestant pastors and Catholic priests in official state churches preach to near-empty churches in German cities, but they are government employees with great job security and benefits. You basically can’t fire them.

And they don’t want to quit. In many other countries, people might give up jobs like this, since every workday means being confronted with the increasing futility of your profession. Why not switch to something more fulfilling — some thing people actually want you to do? Because that’s not how most Germans think. Most Germans still show up to do jobs which have become largely meaningless (most of which are in the public sector, of course). Who cares if your job makes no sense in the larger scheme of things? Who cares if nobody really cares about what you do or how you do it? Your psyche doesn’t require you to actually care about something larger than yourself or transform your life into a kick-ass mission to change the world. It only requires that you perform certain assigned duties, in accordance with contractual stipulations. And by God, you’re gonna do that.

The other reason is institutional stickiness. Say you have a 61-year-old schoolteacher, Elfriede, who’s burned out. She starts showing up only a few times a week, and then began daisy-chaining various kinds of sick leave, disability leave, and vacation to the point that she never shows up for weeks, or even months, at a time. (Very much doable if you’re clever).

Now the rest of the staff is faced with a dilemma. Sure, you can fire Elfriede, but you know that as soon as she notices that process starting, she’ll wake up from her magical slumber, hire a lawyer, and fight. She doesn’t want to do her job, but she also doesn’t want to lose it. You may be able to finally fire her, after a 12-to-18 month process, minimum. But you’re still less than halfway done. Now, you’ll need to go through the complex rigmarole of hiring someone new: publishing job announcements, holding interminable meetings to discuss qualifications, commissioning the disability and gender equity ombudsmen to issue reports, holding interviews, negotiating about office space and funding for assistants, etc.

It’s all a huge hassle. Why not just keep her on the payroll until she ages out at 65? It’s only four years, and replacing a retiring employee is easier than firing someone. And during the interminable meetings held to discuss what to do about Elfriede, something magical happens: Other professors and staff realize, quietly, to themselves: “Holy crud, she’s going to get away with it. Which means I can too, when I get to be 61 or 62. That means three or four extra years of de facto retirement, while I’m still accruing pension benefits.”

Does this mean they’ll all head for the exits at 61? No, these are Germans, after all. 80% of them will keep working, and many will keep helping for free even after their official retirement. But maybe 20% of the most dissatisfied and bored fifty-something profs intend to pull an Elfriede. And 30% of the fifty-something profs would at least like to keep that option open. So they vote to keep Elfriede on the payroll, to set a precedent they can follow later.

Germans will keep showing up for jobs that they find meaningless, which keeps zombie institutions alive. And if they stop showing up, German law makes it prohibitively complex and expensive to fire them, which keeps zombies within institutions alive.