National Stereotypes: The American/German clash.

Disclaimer: before you go any further, please know that I have many American friends whom I love, admire and respect, nor do I claim any superiority in knowledge or morals. The following are just observations. Just promises me you'll read until the end.

As a native English speaker in a foreign land I have between four and five possible nationalities: British, American, Australian, Canadian and perhaps South African. The first two options are the most common and more often than not I am considered American. What's interesting is the difference in the treatment I receive from shop assistants, depending on the nationality they choose to give me. Sometimes they just ask, other times they just assume. When they assume I am usually American. The look of disdain that is shot across the counter top always gets me hot under the collar and I have no deep connection to America other than a few incredibly good friendships. If I am asked about my nationality and they find out that I actually come from England, they become curious, partly because I'm a brit that speaks another language and they seem to find it endearing and partly because everyone wants to go or has been to England and found it quaint and pretty. However, after an incident at the post office last week where I was treated so appallingly by the postman on account of my parcel coming from an American clothing company, I decided it was time to investigate a little bit more so I asked range of people, from the girls in my office, to my friends in the coffee shop, to my housemates why this was the case. The grand verdict (albeit a gross exaggeration): the Germans are not big fans of the Americans, particularly after recent political events. There were two reasons that came up a lot in my conversations and can be neatly divided into a cultural and political framework (the German's have always been so neat with their arguments)

The first reason that came to most people minds was usually a cultural one. It has to largely with the fact that the German manner is almost contradictory of the American one. Although they both possess a level of arrogance, the nature of this arrogance is still conflicting. The American arrogance stems from success, largely based on wealth and a sense of moral superiority, whereas the German arrogance stems from an intelligence, that while at times proved incredibly dangerous, still continues to drive them through the cultural ashes of former disgrace to re-emerge as an efficient and participating nation. In short, the American confidence is based on rhetoric and faith, whilst the German confidence stems from hard, sometimes painful realities. It is the American rhetoric that also clashes with German culture in the idea of a nation being great or morally superior. As you can imagine, the German’s are now rightly sceptical of such ideas and tend to shudder inwardly whenever they are articulated. My housemate Peter stated rather dispondently, that he finds it hard that the American’s can say that they are ‘proud to be American’ and revel it their belief of their nation’s supremacy yet it is social unacceptable for him to say the same about Germany, even though he loves his country dearly.

There is also the argument that American culture has invaded Germany and weakened its traditions and commerical art. The essence of winding streets of the Altstadts, along with the magnificent tongue of pavement that leads tourists from the Bradenburg Gate to the centre of Berlin have been offensively peppered with Starbucks and Pizza Huts that serve averagely tasting food and drink for a price, but because they’re ‘American’ and are often mentioned in popular American TV shows, are considered cool and hip places to hang out. This year I’ve been pretty devestated to see the beautiful, German Autumnal window displays and St.Martin’s festival attire replaced by tacky Halloween costumes and American candy, which whilst cute and adorable in American towns, looks wierd and out of place in Germany. The theatres that produce original German theatre and reproduce the old classics remain empty, whilst the European tour of Saturday Night Fever is sold out. It can also be quite an expedition to find a Cinema that is showing original German films: out of the twelve films showing at the large cinema outside the Hauptbahnhof, only one of them was German; the rest were either American or English films dubbed over by German actors. I find my German cinematic refuge in the small, independent Kunstkinos that tend to be tucked away and require prior knowledge in order to be found. 

Language was another cultural element that seems to frustrate the Germans. It has nothing to do with their accent or their use of German, but rather their lack of. If you are living in Germany it is only polite and RIGHT that you should at least attempt to learn some of the language - even if it's just a few phrases! If people can see you are trying, you are allowing yourself to be vulnerable and they tend to be kinder and at times even encouraging! The amount of times I have stood in queue and been deeply ashamed of the Americans (and indeed the British) in front who have brashly ordered their coffee in English is embarrassing. Once again, this is a gross exaggeration as I have met a good handful of Americans who speak flawless German and who are deeply loved by their native speaking friends. Unfortunately, they seem to get tainted with the same brush, which really upsets me, but that’s a point for later down the page.

Politics also played a huge role in the conversations I had, usually accompanied by a rolling of the eyes or a shaking of the head. As I said previously, the German’s are incredibly intolerant of political propaganda, they are, afterall,  first hand witnesses of its damaging consequences. Another political reason was the ignorance of some of the American politicians. One friend said they couldn’t help but laugh when a woman called Obama a Communist, because as a country that has ACTUALLY experienced Communism Obama is nowhere near that end of the scale. Mitt Romney’s use of the European Welfare state as a weapon against Obama has also been sharply ripped to pieces. As one of my friends said: ‘How can they proclaim to be a land of fairness and equality, if only some people have access to healthcare and higher education?’ and naturally the environmental conscience of America deeply annoys the ecological Germans. In this light they are considered wasteful and irresponsible. German politics is not perfect, but it is balanced in a coalition of voices to the point of being a tad boring (as Franziska told me!) and this makes the level of fairness not exemplary but still far more achievable. We must also remember that a German unified state is still a relatively new concept and is therefore devoid of deeply entrenched political entaglements that seem to ensnare the current progress of American politics. As a country that feeds of rhetoric, dreams and promises, American presidential candidates have to promise the impossible guarantee of stability and security, whilst the German candidates have to be pratical, straight-forward and ,above all,completely  bereft of radicalism. This puts the two countries at a political head to head, for although they both claim to believe in democracy, their efforts to achieve it are completely different.

As someone who is searching for a functional Socialism, I tend  to sympathise with the Germans for there is a lot about American culture and politics that really disturbs me, however I am wary of buying into to national stereotypes. As the American man I spoke to on Saturday told me ‘the Americans have some of the worst stereotypes in the world, please don’t lump us all together’. The fact of the matter is, nationality is often just a stamp on a passport and a misleading pinpoint on the world map that tells us where we belong, when in fact we can really belong anywhere. Yes there are often cultural clashes thrown into the mix, but we are all more alike than we are different. In the same way most of my German friends don’t adere to the German stereotypes, so too do my American friends tend to stray away from their cultural norms. People are individuals and deserve to be treated as such, particularly in customer service situations! Although this post may seem critical of American culture, I am more concerned at the way it effects how people treated and responded to. I’m sure most of the world would like to give the American political leaders a piece of their mind (as I’m sure would most Americans!) but taking it out on someone who is alone, in a foreign culture and feeling pretty vulnerable is completely unacceptable.  Furthermore, if American culture is really so offensive, why do we keep buying into it? Why don’t we just do an Italy and make Starbucks and Pizza Hut illegal? Finally, I like to think that we are all above politics and cultural differences, so let us not ride on the rhetoric of peace and equality, nor tear it down with cynical realism, but rather let’s seek to find a balance between the two and do what politics and culture cannot: love and accept the individuals on our doorsteps, with a full heart, an open mind and an honest tongue. 


  1. Interesting point about Americans being very proud being American. I love Germany dearly but I struggle to be proud of my background, we have a lot of bad history that stops us from doing that/fear of being judged badly.
    Nina from little nomad

  2. You are so insightful! So true.