Friday, October 3, 2008

A German View on America

An American friend recently asked me how Americans were currently perceived in my home country, Germany. He figured that the image of the “Amis”, which is what we like to call US citizens, was still affected by the alarming proportions of the war on Iraq. Now, one thing I am absolutely certain of is that Germans never directly made your citizens responsible for the war. We only criticized your government (which was - and is to this day - a legitimate thing to do).

Having lived in the United States for some time, I found it difficult to give my friend an untainted answer to his question. So I decided to initiate a small survey, asking friends and family back home about what they think of Americans today. The results were both funny and serious. Some answers were very much expected, others were quite surprising.

Here are some of the answers that most of them would give me, whether they have been to the United States or not. Number one: Americans are fat. (They didn’t say “big-boned”. They actually all said “fat”). Number two: Americans are stupid. (Not “uneducated” – “stupid”). And Number three: Americans are all armed to the teeth.
Are these answers surprising? Probably not. Clearly, all three opinions display another stereotype about the American people. But isn’t there some truth to every single one of them?

Like so many other things in the USA, education is really only good if you can afford it. Unfortunately, this leaves many young people behind when it comes to receiving proper education. So it’s not fair to say that it’s their fault to be “stupid”. However, what I have experienced in America so far is that people are extremely curious about other cultures. I am constantly asked what life in Germany is like. Even if some of these questions can be incredibly ridiculous (Do they have electricity in Germany?), it still shows that there is a natural curiosity. The only problem is: The average American has no access to relevant information. The local news channel prefer to cover stories on crime and rape rather than foreign affairs. In school, US History is often more important than World History.

A similar account can be made for the obesity of the American people. That Americans are way too – sorry – fat cannot be denied. But it is really not surprising. Just take into account that you’ll get a hamburger for 49 cents at your local McDonalds but pay $1.29 for an apple in the grocery store (Good luck finding an apple that actually tastes like an apple). At a time of economic despair like today, the lower and middle class have little choice but to eat cheap junk food rather than an expensive home cooked meal. No wonder that all of the 50 American states have obesity prevalence rates of more than 20 percent. That’s a lot of body fat.

Some Germans also pointed out that the USA is full of opposite extremes. So for every obese person out there you can probably find one super fit, athletic, tanned and oiled person out there. “There is no healthy balance,” says one friend. You can find the same double standard when it comes to sexuality and alcohol. No one talks about sex, every one has it. Teenage pregnancies are the result. You can’t buy alcohol under the age of 21. Teenage kids develop the hobby of binge drinking.

That Americans love their weapons is a well known fact throughout the world, and it is also the one thing we cannot help but laughing at. The idea that every person should have the right to defend themselves and their property and is therefore allowed to keep a gun in their house, is nothing but ridiculous. Oh wait – it is also pretty scary. Unfortunately, a student running amok is no longer an American phenomenon. At this point, Germany would like to thank you, America, for this new export item!

Now let us not be too harsh on the American people. In my survey, there were also a lot of good things being said about America. Most of those Germans, who have actually been to the USA before, said that Americans were always very friendly and helpful. Coming from a country where fellow citizens think you are crazy when you initiate a conversation with someone you don’t know, I would have to agree with my friends on their perception. Americans are probably the most polite, obliging and outgoing people I know. This attitude is often perceived as a form of superficiality, probably because Americans immediately call everyone they’ve just met their new “friend”. In Europe, it takes a little longer to earn that classification. Over here in the US, however, people just randomly start talking to you on the bus or in the streets and if you look lost, someone will immediately offer their help. In Germany, it’s every man for himself.

The current state of the American economy appears to bring up two notions in the mind of the German people. On the one hand, we are extremely worried about the extent of this downfall and how it will affect our own economy. Its dimensions can already be felt on a daily basis in Germany. The sad thing: our economy was only just recovering from the 90's aftermath of the German reunification. And now it's blown into pieces just because some people over here feel the need to live their lives beyond any reasonable scale. This leads us to the other notion: Schadenfreude. For years and years Americans bathed themselves in their blooming economy, not thinking further ahead than to next month’ credit card bill. Some Germans, especially those of a younger generation, fell that America's arrogance and recklessness is finally getting its payback.

Patriotism is a concept very much surreal to the German people – for obvious reasons. When we visit the USA, the first thing we notice are the flags in your front yards and on your cars. United they stand – for better or for worse. But it is this patriotism that we feel is often misused by those in power. “Americans are very easily manipulable,” says another friend of mine, referring to the fact that many don’t question what the government and media tell them. Germans are very much aware that the constant threat of evil many Americans fear is a result of Washington’s manic propaganda. Last but not least, we’re all pretty much staggered when we see an American’s obsession with religion. And we can’t help but wonder if it is actual belief – or pure show. That politics and religion go hand in hand is also very disturbing.

I have to admit that, in my survey, I mostly interviewed people my age. So I was thankful when one of my friends was able to get her grandmother, Inge, to offer her opinion. Inge is 80 and has experienced the Allied occupation in Berlin at the end of WWII. “I am deeply grateful to America,” says Inge. “During the occupation, West Berlin could only be supplied through the American airlift. I won’t ever speak ill of the American people.”

One thing I have to mention about everything that’s been said so far. Many of my and my friends’ opinions are based on stereotypes and they are oversimplified. There’s plenty to analyze and to elaborate on. We might laugh at your country a whole lot, but we’re also very fascinated by it. The truth is: Whether good or bad, we copy pretty much everything you guys do. We also follow your current affairs and politics with eager eyes. Germany is very excited about this young and dynamic presidential candidate of yours, hoping that America will make the right choice in November. In this spirit, there is nothing left to say but: God help America!

24 comments:

Dr.Ronald Wills said...

Obesity is certainly a growing problem. Over the last 20 years, obesity in adults has rocketed with more than 60% in men and 50% in women. And the signs are that this problem won't improve. In children aged between 2 and 15, 28% of girls and 22% of boys are overweight. http://www.phentermine-effects.com

Zach Wallmark said...

Interesting observations! I think the impressions of many Europeans mirror the "culture wars" that are taking place within the US was well - cosmopolitan, educated people can tend to see the others as fat, stupid, and obsessed with guns. There is also a political component to this: in what areas do you typically see the highest levels of obesity, poor education, and NRA memberships? The red states. I wouldn't be surprised if many readers/writers on this blog agree with the impressions of your German friends (but, of course, these impressions wouldn't apply to them;).

Anonymous said...

I was googling how Germans perceived Americans for a school assignment and I stumbled upon your page. Your thoughts and the thoughts of your friends have really helped me. I've only ever been to Italy in Europe and it seems like the Italians either hate or love Americans. There is really nothing in between. But thanks for your input and I really cannot disagree with anything you've said.

Anonymous said...

In vielen dingen habe ich genauso gedacht, bevor ich hierher kam. zum beispiel, das amerikaner nur junk food essen und alle dick sind...das ist natuerlich nicht bei allen der fall. ausserdem sind mir die amerikaner als sehr offenherzige und freundliche menschen begegnet.

Anonymous said...

bevor ich nach amerika kam, habe ich auch gedacht dass die amerikaner fast nur fast food essen, was mir von den amerikanern selber bestaetigt wurde, dass sie sehr viel fast food essen. meiner meinung nach stimmt das auch und ich hab selber gemerkt, dass es sehr teuer ist hier gesundes essen zu bekommen. dafuer stimmen aber auch die positiven dinge ueber amerika, da sie meiner meinung nach sogar netter und hilfsbereiter sind als die deutschen.

Anonymous said...

I find your article interesting. Thanks for posting it. I have worked as a salesman for two German Companies. Both men came to our country with nothing and attained great wealth. It is very easy to find one's faults. I immitated both Mafred and Dieter so many times over 8 years that I have never laughed so hard in all my life. Germans have no sense of humor and appear to be emotionless,
rigid, strict,and seem very analytical. Manfred is flat out a legendary genious in my particular business. His huge enterprise basically ran itself. I think Germans are very intelligent but as stupid as America is, it is obvious that we are the most successfull, powerfull, compassionate country in the history of this world..so far. That is probably why we pay more attention to our own history. We are fascinated with our success. The smart Germans immigrated to the united states and built our nation. I am of German heritage and so this region of the US. I am very proud to be of German heritage.Ich bin Ein Berliner!

roxics said...

You have to realize though that the US is a big country. Much like Europe, each State will have its own culture which fits into the whole of the country culture. Plus within each state there are good and bad areas. All depends where you live.

I went to a very good public school. But if I were to travel down the road some, there were schools that were not nearly as good. Like night and day.

Most Americans that I know are neither stupid nor armed to the teeth. Some own guns, there is nothing wrong with that. While it is true that some crazy people use those guns in harmful ways, the majority do not. In fact I wonder if more people would be detoured from using them if we all carried them more openly. Keeping each other in check.

As for fat, I can't debate that. But if you look around there are plenty of us that are not fat. It just all depends on where you are at and the individuals themselves. But it's true that in our busy lives it's often cheaper and easier to eat junk. Plus the way our society is set up, unless you live in a large city like New York City you pretty much drive everywhere. We don't get as much walking exercise as Europeans do.

But I don't think it's fair for Europeans to call us stupid. We make mistakes. We are human. When it comes to politics, this is a large country to have to shift on a national level. But we didn't become what we are by being stupid.

I've been to Germany before, when I was 19 years old. The landscape is definitely different. The German people were very nice and the country is beautiful. I have a lot of respect for the German people. I am of German heritage myself. But that's what we Americans are, a melting pot of the world.

Anonymous said...

I just feel the need to add a note on the obesity issue. When you look at statistics concerning "obesity" in America, you need to look at how are standards compare to other nations. I am always getting compliments on my looks. People say I am very slender and attractive, but our standards say that I am over-weight. Pushing obese. Her whole life, my mom was considered under-weight until just a few years ago. She has not gained any weight, but now they are saying she is over-weight too. So, yes, obesity is getting worse, but how much of that is it getting worse, and how much is just our standards getting more extreme? I would be curious to see how many of your friends would be told they need to lose weight, if they went to an American doctor.

Anonymous said...

Im an American with deep German heritage. I will not argue the obesity issue nor the corruption of our government but owning guns is freedom. From criminals and tyrants. Look at your neighbors in Switzerland. Very gun friendly and most own fully automatic weapons which is a privilege not many Americans enjoy. The German government joined the fight in Iraq and works side by side with the US military. Germany has blood on its hands just as much as the US. Let's keep the hypocrisy to a minimum.

Anonymous said...

That outgoingness is something I love about America. So easy to make friends. Just spark up a conversation with anyone, and people are so willing to help each other. I think that's a good ethic.

It's only superficial if you keep going with it in spite of having nothing in common. There's some great people I randomly talked to who are now close friends and I am so happy I did.

When I was young I didn't avail myself of this social norm as much, because I didn't notice it and was worried that I might come off as awkward. It became apparent as I grew older just how ridiculously nervous I was being.

The "stupidity" problem really gets to me though as an intelligent American. I knew all 50 states and the name of every country in the world by 1st grade. Yet I've seen people on video shown a blank map and get the most easiest things wrong. One person thought Australia was "North Korea"! Seriously!

Like you said we're a country of opposite extremes. For every stupid American you have an American who is so intelligent as to be disillusioned with this status quo, at times to the point of depression(and I've been there myself). I know some very intelligent people who never vote (not me I always vote) not out of apathy but disillusionment. If I didn't love how social America is I'd probably consider moving somewhere else, and I might if there's a good culture that has just the right combination of sociability and intelligence.

I can't believe the Republican Party even exists! They are like fascists. Our Democrats are like European conservatives. Granted Democrats are sometimes reasonable and if I was in Europe I'd probably call myself "moderate" and sometimes vote Conservative. But politics here is so far to the right that the most conservative people who aren't considered extremists in other parts of the developed world would be liberals here.

Night Rider said...

The article is interesting and is pretty much truthful. The reason we don't have the same standards as before is mainly due to black people who run up our entitlement and healthcare costs and the democrats who are spendthrifts, addicted to spending. The only one thing I disagreed with was about valuing American history over World History. Chances are, most Americans won't really be able to apply World History or make good use of it anyway and it's expected that one should know about one's own country. It is sad as an American I have more things in common with people of other nations than my fellow citizens. I do not see the reason why America should act as the police man of the world or should protect the likes of U.S. lite, Israel if it means starting wars and sacrificing our relationship with our true allies.

Anonymous said...

That people can't really help being "stupid" because you need money to get a good quality education doesn't hold water. We have libraries and internet access. Even if you are homeless you can go there. No excuses.

What you do need money for is to prove what you know so you can get degrees certifying that you know it and then get a job.

Also a much bigger problem is people who straight up ignore information, particularly people who cling to "creationism".

Anonymous said...

Obesity is actually really sexy - that's why American women are the best in the world!

Anonymous said...

I think these opinions are totally over-generalizing... I have never been obese, never really drank alcohol much, and have been extremely curious about other cultures from a young age. Europeans and Americans both have their own advantages, and it's ignorant to say that we are all "extreme".. I know very few obese people, by the way. Don't forget how large this country is, there are bound to be all types of people.

Abhi said...

Germans dug their own grave by not opposing German migration to US.

Anonymous said...

I am an American high school student and I have to agree with this guy. He/She has lots of good points. To be completely honest America needs to get over it's self, we have a vanity issue and need to get over it. One thing I've noticed it that when we come up to a problem like the Boston Marathon Bombings. Yes, that was a very tragic thing to happen, and yes we need to put a stop to all this violence, but the thing is though there are lots if Middle Eastern countries that have to deal with that shit each and every day, but yet we sit around here and say that that's their problem. America need to stop looking in the mirror and teach it's citizens to become a citizen of the world first and a citizen of America second.

Anonymous said...

What makes the Boston Marathon incidents few and far between is the serious and extreme reactions. If nobody gave a crap about local bombings people would feel more free to preform them. For example the death rate of officers in Texas are very low for its resident ratio. That is due to the fact that if your are even involved in the killing of a cop. You are given the death penalty. Let alone if you the main offender. Therefore if the United States makes a big deal, and severely punishes the offender, it will affect the mind set of the inhuman slime. forcing him to not only weigh the morality in the balance but the reaction as well.

Excuse my grammar in just a stupid American.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting when people equate guns with freedom. Personally, I see them as a symbol of danger, threat and opression. I could never ever feel save if everybody was allowed to carry guns as they please. Never mind the danger of accidents (and those do happen frequently, when kids in primary school end up shooting their friends/classmates/siblings, and suddenly everybody is shocked, like they couldn't see it coming). I very much agree with the point made about center/right/left-wing politics. Every time somebody in the US calls Europe "socialist" or even "communist" I don't know whether to cry or fall to the floor, laughing my ass off. I don't think many of those people know what they are talking about, to be quite honest...It's especially hilarious if you consider the fact, that in many European countries, the conservative parties are in power at the moment. Obviously not everyone in the US is fat or stupid but you can't blame Europeans for getting that impression when they are asked if they have electricity/fridges/washing machines/trees/cocoa/statues of Hitler/a language other than English/cars(I'm sure Germans love that one)etc.
Also, one should get their facts right before going around accusing others of hypocrisy: Germany DID NOT join the US in the war in Iraq. And it's doubtful that there is a country out there that doesn't have blood on its hands...but I don't think that is actually relevant to a discussion of gun laws, tbqh.

Anonymous said...


I think all of the opinions mentioned do have some truth to them. I have lived in Germany now for over a year, and it is interesting to hear your perspective because I am guilty of thinking many of the same things about the people of Germany. With that said, I think there are some points worth addressing.

What I found most surprising upon coming here (and a perception I disagree with in the article above) was that I assumed all Europeans were (on average) very thin. And that we, as Americans, by comparison would be considered "fat." After spending the year traveling all over Europe, I realize that this is not the case. Rather, (1) Eastern European countries are much thinner and (2) people tend to be generally thinner in large cities all over Europe. However, suburban and rural populations in Western Europe tend to be just as bad or worse than the U.S. After having traveled all over Germany, I have to say, I think the German population is just as heavy. And the statistics are at least somewhat in line with this observation. In America, 1/3 of all citizens are deemed "overweight or obese" whereas there are a number of polls taken in Germany that put the German "overweight or obese" rate between 25% and 36%. The German diet seems to be just as fattening as the American diet. However, instead of a Big Mac and fries, every meal is served with a heavy portion of carbohydrates and starches (spetzle, rice, potatoes, dumplings, and noodles). One point I will concede on, however, is that the youth in Germany tend to be thinner than our youth. So there is that, at least.

Anonymous said...

(Continued) I also thought the comment about education was interesting, "Like so many other things in the USA, education is really only good if you can afford it. Unfortunately, this leaves many young people behind when it comes to receiving proper education." I think that the German system can be just as limiting. In German schools, high potential students are identified early, and only those students go on to attend college, and even less graduate school, as we have come to know it in America. The rest learn specific skills, such as becoming a welder, through apprenticeships. You may still call learning a trade "schooling" or an "apprenticeship," while we call it "on the job training," but it's the same thing. We are no better or worse when it comes to education. While the U.S. System is* limited to those who can afford it (which is actually a higher number than most like to think due to government grants, low interest loans, and scholarships), the German system has the potential to incorrectly identify young children as either high or low potential, due to the fact that many children/young adults do not reach their full maturity until college. And there is far less mobility within the German system once you are identified as either high or low potential. Whereas in the American system, I can mess up early on in life, but still have the option to make something of myself in college or in my later years.

Anonymous said...

(Continued) Finally, I thought the comment on gun ownership lacked insight, "That Americans love their weapons is a well known fact throughout the world, and it is also the one thing we cannot help but laughing at. The idea that every person should have the right to defend themselves and their property and is therefore allowed to keep a gun in their house, is nothing but ridiculous." Having lived in Germany now for a year, I can see exactly why you would have this view. But you are applying it within your own understanding. In Germany, I think it's safe to say that most people (not everyone, but most) grow up and end up living in the same town that they were born in, or at least within a close distance to where they were born. So everyone knows everyone. There is not the same anonymity that exists in America. Additionally, my landlord explained it best when he said "In Germany, we believe that if everyone throws their bucket of water into the river, all our boats will rise. This is how the German people think." It explains why Germans are so focused on supporting small, community businesses. And even further explains why the crime rate is so low. There is more of a community focus, rather than an individual focus like in the U.S. I have left my front door open for the majority of my time in Germany-completely unlocked-and nothing ever happens. Crime seems to be extremely rare. Whereas, in the United States, I was robbed many times throughout my life, all in different areas of the country, all in different classes of areas. In one instance, I personally had to defend my home after having a big time drug dealer move in across the street from my home in a very nice neighborhood. Many break-ins (my home being one of them) had occurred and there were people on heavy drugs roaming around my neighborhood, reportedly looking in people's windows. There was a real threat. So what is "ridiculous" in Germany is not so ridiculous in the United States. And having the right to be able to defend yourself in a country with higher crime rates isn't all that ridiculous at all. It actually makes a lot of sense.

Anonymous said...

(Continued)With that said, there are some basic assumptions that you are dead on about. We are easily manipulated. The majority of our population believes what they are told on T.V. and we don't question things as we should. The media outlets only report on narrow stories (as you had mentioned). We care more about someone in sports making a racist comment than we do about the attack on Benghazi. There are a lot of people who live beyond their means. And we out far too much faith in the financial sector to determine what types of borrowing we should be doing as individuals. We are an aggressive nation with our hands in every conflict. That was all wrong. I hope we can change those things as a country.

With that said, I still truly believe that America is one of the greatest countries in the world. Not THE greatest. But one of the greatest.

Anonymous said...

I am a well-educated U.S.-American who has lived in Germany. The comments and questions that I got from people there did not demonstrate superior knowledge, intelligence, or worldliness. They were just as ignorant as anyone's. Not to mention, many Germans who later visited me in the U.S. behaved more like "ugly Americans" than I ever did abroad. The fact that many Germans are so eager to negatively judge another culture shows a lack of intercultural awareness, not a better education. Sorry, those of you who laugh at Americans, you are not that much different than we are.

Ron said...

I think your observations and the opinions of most young Germans of the United States and her citizens is fueled by deliberately skewed statistics and socialist propaganda. The 'stupid American' and gullible American labels are at best ironic. Most Europeans in general and Germans in particular,have come to confuse the acceptance and regurgitation of leftist sophistry as intelligence and strangely as some indication that their lockstep is actually free thought. Americans are more likely to trust their own experiences and common sense over political claptrap and leftists sloganeering.

Still it doesn't matter. The US and Germany have had an artificial 'friendship' for some 70 plus years. Germans were friendly to Americans out of angst over Soviet domination. When the Berlin wall fell, so too did German need for U.S. protection and the need to pretend friendship. Americans grew complacent and grew to feel fond of Germany over the course of those years that masses of American GIs were based in Germany. Many Americans married German women and were charmed by their host country's beauty and the passivity of it's people. Many Americans are proud that they could trace their distant ancestry back to German speaking lands, long before Germany became a nation state. Germans have never felt a natural affinity with or affections for Americans other than that demanded out of fear of the Soviets. In the larger picture, Germany has looked east for expansion, alliance and resources. The German ostpolitick, eastward lean has returned. The German tendency towards collective thought over individual thought has reemerged. It is destined that the U.S. and Germany will cease to be allies and probably will face off again in a cold or perhaps even hot war.

I had also fallen under the 'glamour', the 'spell' of believing the Germans were fast and true friends. It was easy to do so as most of my life Germans seemingly shared a common interest in representative government and mutual friendship. Now large numbers of Americans are aware of the long term trends and the distain that Germans feel towards Americans. We (Americans) need to remove US military personnel from Germany and treat them as a potential foe or ay least exclude them from any confidences afforded friendly nations. It's sad that the friendly relations are over but they we were just the temporary proverbial 'strange bedfellows" made by politics and now need to move on.