“Willkommenskultur” or Welcome to Germany, here is your complimentary compound noun

26 Jun

I work in education. Currently I am coordinating a program that aims to qualify immigrants to become social workers in Germany.

In this function I attend a lot of conferences and network meetings with all kinds of people who deal with immigration and integration of immigrants. It is a fascinating field and currently a hot button topic in German politics.

See, unlike most countries in our neighbourhood Germany is still going pretty strong economically. We have jobs, we have capital, and we have a high standard of living. Unfortunately we are also lazy when it comes to making babies (The blame for this is often placed on me and my fellow academically educated women. I know. I should be ashamed of myself). Hence, we don’t have people to fill these jobs.

What to do? Import human capital. Okay okay, let me put it in a nicer way: Why don’t we get all those unemployed Spanish young people here and they can fill all those jobs? And just to be clear, I am not talking about strawberry picking here. We are especially desperate when it comes to highly skilled jobs.

The whole idea of opening up our borders (not just to EU-citizens) and inviting well educated foreigners into our beautiful and rich country has only one problem: The German mentality. Specifically, our history of being, let’s call it distrustful, of people who weren’t born here and have an accent, or, heaven forbid, don’t speak German at all. So a number of smart people have figured out that it will not be enough to throw money at the problem. In order to get these well educated people here and in order to actually make them stick around we can’t just offer them jobs. We need to change the way they are being received in Germany. That goes from the way they are being treated at city hall or when they want to register their child in kindergarden to whether they get invited to dinner by their new neighbours.

While the practice is still somewhat lacking, we have already coined a beautiful word that includes all of that: “Willkommeskultur” – a welcoming culture or atmosphere. “Wir brauchen eine Willkommenskultur” – we need a welcoming atmosphere – is currently being uttered by every politician into every micro- and dictaphone they can find. It is an election year, after all.

I really like this word. It is a beautiful promise. “Willkommen” is a friendly sentiment. It is a greeting and an invitation to enter your house, your life, even your heart. And this beautiful invitation is put together with “Kultur” – a German intranslatable if there ever was one (No, ‘culture’ is not exactly the same. I will elaborate another time.)

If only reality could be shaped and molded as easily as the German language. But alas, we are a long way from it.

After spending an entire day at an immigration conference and hearing the word over and over again, it has lost all meaning to me. But here is hoping. Who knows, maybe we can change. Maybe one day we can deliver on the promise that we are linguistically making right now. Maybe one day the case manager at the unemployment agency will not ask you routinely whether your parents were born in Germany. Maybe one day my Hungarian friend and me will have the same experience at city hall instead of her being asked to produce three different documents of identification and me being waved through with a friendly hello. An education manager can dream.

“Stil” vs. style or of true and false friends

10 Apr


I received another request on Twitter. Thanks, Alex. Keep them coming.

Now, let’s get to it. Is there a difference between the English word ‚style‘ and the German “Stil”?
The dictionary says no. Why do we use both words in German? Well, that’s easy: Germans sometimes use style because we have a tendency to incorporate English words into our everyday conversations, thinking it will make us sound cool (sic).

Still, I find your question tricky. Is it really the same? I have to admit that it evokes slightly different connotations with me. The word “Stil” makes me think of my mother, an extraordinarily elegant women, intelligent, decisive, strong-willed yet soft-spoken and always mindful of etiquette. The word style makes me think of ray bans and pink polo shirts, the universal uniform of every German business student. Reading this, I feel like style makes me think of outward appearance, your clothes, the sound of your voice, the way you portray yourself, while “Stil” is more of a state of mind, a “Geisteshaltung” if you will. This state of mind of course also expresses itself through clothes, speech and potrayal but it goes deeper beneath the surface.

Now, keep in mind that this is purely my very personal interpretation. On paper one word is the exact translation of the other and in today’s Germany you can use both words interchangebly. The way we perceive language and how we feel about certain words is always informed by the context we grew up and live in. So maybe my differing interpretations here trace back to my mum. Maybe everybody else in Germany will tell you that the words are exactly the same.

When two words sound the same in two languages but mean different things, we call them false friends. My favorite example of this is “pathetisch” vs. pathetic. Style is not a false friend. However, I wouldn’t trust this friend with my deepest secrets. It is not evil per se but chances are that style will rat you out in exchange for an iPhone five. “Stil”, however, you can trust. “Stil” will carry you through trying times and make sure that your old pal dignity sticks around, no matter what.

“Anerkennen” or is seeing really believing?

4 Feb


The other day I received a request on Twitter to explain the difference between the German verbs “erkennen” and “anerkennen”. At first I thought: that’s easy. “Erkennen” means to recognize and “anerkennen” means to recog…wait a second! Look at that. I never noticed that there is only one word in English for two entirely different things.

Okay, so to break it down, “erkennen” means ‘to make something out’. Me for examle, I am near sighted. Last summer I lost my glasses while partying too wild at a wedding and I had to wait two weeks to get new ones. In those two weeks I had trouble to read signs or recognize people on the street. Recognize as in “erkennen”.
Anerkennen is to recognize as in ‘to accept’. As a teenager I spent some time wishing my brother would accept that I know stuff, too. I wished he would recognize my knowledge and opinions. Recognize as in „anerkennen“.

Maybe the somewhat wobbly ‚donkey-bridge’ (ahem, mnemonic device, obviously) to help you remember the difference could be to think of the phrase ‘seeing is believing’. I can see the face of my teacher (erkennen) but I can’t believe he is supposed to be smarter than me (seine Intelligenz anerkennen). The tricky thing in spotting the verb in a sentence is the German habit of splitting up verbs. So the sentence might look like this: “Ich erkenne Ihre Autorität nicht an.” Look to the very end of the sentence, if you find an “an” there, it is “anerkennen” and not “erkennen”.

Oh and one more thing. The problem of having only one word for two things is not exclusive to the English language. In German for example we don’t distinguish between heaven and sky. Strange, right?

“hilfsbereit” or the difference between things and people

6 Aug

Hello all,

I have a new apartment. It needs a lot of work before I can move in but I am fortunate to be surrounded by people who offer their help (let’s hope they mean it). In this context I noticed something that is probably tiny and insignificant but this is the internet. If I can’t talk about insignificant things here, where can I?

In German the word for people who help you with stuff is “hilfsbereit”. Well, it is the adjective to describe them. The obvious English translation for this is ‘helpful’. But when I translated the word back and forth in my head a couple of times – yeah, I do that for fun sometimes – I noticed that we have another German word for helpful: “hilfreich”. Apparently I am not the only one who ponders the difference of “hilfreich” and “hilsbereit”, as this forum article shows.

In the forum the distinction is explained like so: “hilfsbereit” only talks about the intention to help, “hilfreich” says something about the actual ability to help. Seems to make sense, right? I don’t know. The longer I thought about it the more I felt that “hilfreich” is a strange word to describe a human being. I might be the only one but it strikes me as odd. I personally find tools, instruction manuals, and directions “hilfreich”. Those are things that help me. People that help me are always “hilfsbereit”.

In the next two weeks when I will be painting my apartment I hope that many people stop by and help or even just hang out with me. And I don’t care whether they are DIY experts or complete amateurs who drink beer and play a song on the piano while I scrape off the old wallpaper. I will still be happy that they were willing to come by and help in any way they could. I guess I only use “hilfsbereit” for people because unlike “hilfreich” it does not include judgement of their ability. It just appreciates that they are ‘ready to help’. And I am grateful.

„Selbstzweck“ or my experience with bureaucracy

31 Jul

Hello there,

I have been planning to write this post for a while now. I kept putting it off because I feared it would put me in a bad mood. Well, today doesn’t look like it is going to be the best day of my week anyway so I might as well get it over with.

“Selbstzweck” is one of those words that I would like to call “very very German” but maybe I am wrong. Maybe this is a universal problem. The trusty lion offers only one translation in English: end in itself. I guess that is accurate. “Selbstzweck” basically means that you are doing something without having an external aim or cause. You just do it for its own sake. When I researched for this post I found several areas in which it is actually a positive or at least neutral concept. The most famous example would be “l’art pour l’art”. Another one comes from Catholicism where the dogma says you can celebrate a mass with nobody attending. The priest celebrating it is enough.

I, however, connect this word with one very particular part of life and this is where we get to the depressing part.

My job recently required me to have a lot of dealings with people who work in public administration. There were endless meetings in chic meeting rooms with bad coffee and conversations with people who have spend the better part of their lives reading and writing files. I have no general problem with our political system or the people who work in it and I totally understand that the massive undertaking of running a country with more than 80 million people living in it requires an insane amount of planning and certain administrative rules and rituals. But all too often, you, as the normal citizen who has an idea and asks for help in making that idea come true, find yourself in the position where you want to grab them by the shoulders and shake some sense into them.

All these mechanisms that smart people once put in place in order to make things run smoothly seem to have a habit of developing their own life, detach themselves from the thing they once used to serve (the people, the community, ideas…) and become “Selbstzweck”. Suddenly the content of the decision is less important than the question of who is making it. Because whether my program gets funded or not ultimately does not make a big difference to the people in power but breaking the chain of command can shake the entire operation to the core.

So yeah, bureaucratic process as “Selbstzweck”. My program ended up not getting funded by the way, which means that I will have to face the next “Selbstzweck”-hell, also known as the German agency for unemployment. Oh well, not the best day of my week.

“Einen Korb kriegen” or what baskets have to do with dating

25 Jul

So the other day a friend of mine got rejected, meaning a girl he liked turned him down. He wrote me about it in an e-mail and the phrase “I got rejected” stood out to me. It seems so absolute. You are rejected! What a horrible sentiment.

Maybe it is the non-native speaker in me that immediately goes to a dark connotation here. You, as a person, are not good enough to be in my life. Also, the phrase can be confusing, when I read it first, I didn’t know if he was talking about a girl or a job application. I thought about this phrasing and how we would put it in German, and it occurred to me that we have a kind of wonderful, slightly outdated but still used phrase for this situation: “Einen Korb kriegen” – to get a basket. This phrase really only applies to the romantic rejection. You can’t use it if you get turned down for a job or aren’t allowed to enter the United States.

I have never thought about the origin of the phrase but researching for this post I found that it goes all the way back to the middle ages. There are a whole lot of customs revolving around asking someone to marry them that involved a basket in one way or another and subsequently there are several theories as to where the phrase comes from. If you speak German you can read about it here.

Years ago when I had gotten my heart broken yet again a good friend of mine gave me this advice: “Go out, and get yourself a basket.” Now, you have to admit that sounds much nicer than: “Go out, and get yourself rejected.” What he meant, of course, was, put yourself out there, get turned down once or twice and it will help you to diminish your fear of rejection. I liked the phrase because unlike “getting rejected” it seems more situational. The truth is, if you meet someone you like and you get up the courage to ask them out and they say no, there are a million possible reasons, a ton of which might not even have anything to do with you. The other person could be in a relationship, not in the mood to be hit on or simply having a crappy day. If you had asked half an hour earlier or later it might have been a yes.

When you get a basket the subtext that comes to my mind is really just that. You got turned down for a date. It doesn’t mean you are not desirable or impossible to love, it doesn’t mean the other person hated your smell; it just is what it is. And thus, a basket is somehow easier to live with than a rejection.

The bad news is rejection still sucks. Even in German.

tweet tweet tweeeeeeeeeet

12 May

Just a quick announcement:

I am now on Twitter. You can follow me @EllenAura where I will post every new article and maybe other stuff, too.