Archive | July, 2012

„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.