“Streber” or what Germans think of pursuing happiness

4 Jan

„Neues Jahr, Neues Glück“ – new year, new luck. We are four days into the new year and after all the frolicking and shenanigans of the holidays it is now time to get serious again.

The word of today’s post is “Streber”, an insult of the highest order in the closed universe that is high school. Strangely, it is one that has been mistranslated for years. When I was in high school I was led to believe that the English equivalent was the word ‘nerd’. Now, after watching an unhealthy amount of American TV shows and Hollywood movies, I know better. Nerds are shy, awkward and terribly uncool teenagers who sometimes happen to be really smart. However, you can be a nerd without being a math whiz. There are all kinds of nerds, my favorite being the marching band nerd. I can tell you from personal experience that they have a habit of turning into really hot indie musicians once they grow up.

The German “Streber” is a different breed altogether. The one thing he has in common with the American nerd is being uncool but that is where the similarities stop. And it is not even a true similarity because the alleged uncoolness of the nerd is defined by the volatile coolness standards of the average high school population.

The “Streber” has per definition extremely good grades and rubs them in everyone else’s face. Another very popular “Streber”-move is the dramatic announcement: “Oh my God, I am certain I failed the last test” only to then walk out with an A. They are not merely good in school; they define themselves over their academic success. This irritation is often accompanied by ruthless opportunism and the tendency to be really uptight. (Reese Witherspoon demonstrates perfectly what I mean with her performance as Tracy Flick in the 1999 movie “Election“.) Much like with the word “Spießer” the details of the definition differ depending on the person you ask, but everyone will agree that it is a negative word.

The word “Streber” is derived from the verb “streben” – to strive or to pursue. And right here we come to a significant cultural difference. The American Civil Religion revolves around a document that includes the famous words “the pursuit of happiness”. It is part of the American cultural DNA to strive for success and the people who get it are not expected to be shy about it. Pride, confidence, visible satisfaction with your own achievements – these are all part of the acceptable social behavior. Try to be like that in Germany. Go ahead, I dare you. If you do well at anything you are supposed to be humble about it. Never mention it yourself and if somebody else congratulates you on your achievement shake your head, hunch over and say something like: “Oh no, I wasn’t that good, really. I guess, I got lucky.”

So, if you are a seventeen-year-old who gets an A in a term paper after studying really hard for it and then come out of the class room doing a victory sign, you are breaking the social code and must be punished, for example by earning the label “Streber”. And since everyone already hates you for being good at something as lame as school, you might as well be as irritating as you can be.

2 Responses to ““Streber” or what Germans think of pursuing happiness”

  1. Dan January 22, 2012 at 3:28 pm #

    Just to break your strain of thoughts a little. but I have a little addition to make.
    The most common interpretation of the word “Streber” you mentioned and I agree with your notion that this is actually quite sad being negatively labelled just by trying to achive.

    But to get down to my point: A “Streber” is not neccessarily a good student. It might be someone, who does the exact same thing struggling from the worst grade possible to a mediocre grade. In that situation the word isn’t used that often, but still would be fitting.

    For instance, my best friend at school WAS actually a not-so-good-student who at one point really did everything what a “Streber” would do. He fought his way from D’s and E’s to C’s and B’s finally managing to leave school with a low B-average.
    Opposite to this I personally was called a “Streber” throughout my whole school career which in fact I never was. I wouldn’t say I was lazy in school, but I never developed any of the mentioned characteristics of a “Streber”. I did a quite natural thing to do. I found out that any subject with words in its center suited me and any subject with numbers didn’t.

    I basically finished just slightly above my friend averages and now comes the long run.
    That kid aced university like nothing, he now works in a position he enjoys constantly moving upwards the career ladder, because he doesn’t really know better. He simply learned to always better himself. He is the ultimate “Streber” and I am goddamned proud of him. Whenever I see a kid being “insulted” as a streber I am tempted to just go over to him and tell him that this is actually one of the biggest compliments you’ll get in school.

    (and I have no idea what spurned my rambling here, I just wanted to comment on your post, sorry about this)

    • Elle Aura February 13, 2012 at 7:55 pm #

      Hi Dan,

      thanks for the comment and feel free to ramble on. There is enough space here 🙂

      Elle

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