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“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.

“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.

“Krawall” – or let’s rock and roll

26 Mar

I wrote this text about two weeks ago but didn’t publish it because I wasn’t quite satisfied. Today I had to finish an assignment for work and since I am a professional procrastinator I, of course, now found time to edit it. By now International Women’s Day has come and gone but I still like the text and don’t want to wait one year to publish it. 

Hello everybody. Yesterday was International Women’s Day. I like it a lot because I lived in Poland where students give flowers to women on that day and because I work with a bunch of Russians now who all congratulated me. My mother doesn’t like the day because as a former citizen of East Germany she associates the day with dictatorial politicians trying to utilize yet another symbol for their indoctrination. In any case it is as good a day as any to reflect on feminism and women’s rights. (Let me use this opportunity to highly recommend my friend’s blog discipline and anarchy. It is very smart, you’ll see.)

I personally think we have come a long way but we are so not out of the woods yet where gender equality is concerned. However, this blog is about language so let me try and segue into today’s word.

One thing that just won’t die out is the cliché of feminists being angry men-haters. Internet discourse on feminism paints you a picture of some crazy, screaming, yelling, kicking, uber-emotional bitch that would love to take a sledge hammer to your car, that is, if she could lift it. Which she can’t because, wait for it, she’s a woman!

Women’s rights are an issue where you can wait for tempers to explode and emotions running high. And maybe it should be. Yes, we all want to rationally and calmly discuss important matters but some things can also just make you mad. And this particular cliché of feminists being angry men-haters really bugs me. It usually comes to the party with its friends ‘shrill’ and ‘shrew’. That is the kind of stuff that makes me mad. Sledge-hammer-mad, you might say. And there is a lovely German word that captures how I feel in those moments: “Krawall”. Oh, I love it. Actually, to do it justice we have to add an exclamation point to it: “Krawall!” It just rolls off your tongue like two powerful and precise punches. A worthy battle cry.

Leo gives a whole list of possible translations, some of which, I have never heard of. One of the possibilities is ‘riot’. Yes, in its extreme form, “Krawall” can be so disruptive and even violent that you can call it a riot. But I would say “Krawall” is what happens before the riot. It is loud and messy and some things break. It gets attention and people use the opportunity to let their anger run wild.

The word is rather old-fashioned and like with many of those they get a bit of a cutesy connotation these days (another example would be “Backfisch” – I will explain another time). I guess that is why I don’t feel “Krawall” is necessarily connected to violence. I despise violence in any form, but “Krawall” can in some contexts even have a positive connotation in my eyes. This shift in connotation can also be seen with the expression “Ich bin auf Krawall gebürstet.” It used to mean that you are looking for a fight. These days some people use it in the sense of ‘I’m gonna tear it up tonight! Rock’n’roll!’

After all this talk about disrupting public order I want to assure you that I am a civilized woman. I would never intentionally hurt someone of damage their property, no matter how much misogynistic bullshit comes out of their mouths. But sometimes, when I am hearing or reading stuff like that, I take a deep breath and yell “Krawall!” as loud as I can and it makes me feel better.

“Doch!” or the power of defiance

25 Nov

“Das funktioniert nicht.” “Doch!” – That doesn’t work. Yes it does!

A reader told me the other day that I should write a post about the German word „doch“. I have to admit, to this day I have never even thought about this little, seemingly unimportant word. It used to be just the tiniest piece of plankton in the ocean of words that is my mother tongue. But I have been told that the Russians have adopted it because they don’t have it in their language. Then I thought about possible translations in the languages that I speak. I can’t think of anything in Polish, but that doesn’t say much. My Polish is not as good as I would like it to be.

In English there isn’t a word either that would express the same thing as “doch”. You can sometimes use the word ‘too’. As in: “You don’t dance.” “I do too!” But it is not the same. “Doch” is powerful. It is defiant like a three-year-old stamping the ground and insisting on candy, only less whiny. “Doch!” is positive. It is a slogan strong enough to serve a political movement. And now that I think about it, it kind of has.

In 2008 the Obama campaign coined the extremely successful phrase “Yes, we can!” It was so successful that it was copied by politicians all around the world, the most amusing example probably being Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who used the Persian version of the slogan in the 2009 Iran elections that led to a people’s uprising. The spirit of “Yes, we can!” is pretty much exactly the same as that expressed with “doch”.

It stands for determination in the face of obstacles. It is the same determination that has been glorified in countless Hollywood movies. You know which ones, underdog wins in the end. There is another phrase in German that fits this mood: “Jetzt erst recht!” – now more than ever! But I prefer “doch”. One little word, no questions left unanswered.

“Streitgespräch” or how to fight right

22 Nov

Fighting is exhausting, fighting sucks, fighting is important. There is an entire industry teaching people how to fight in the right, constructive, and respectful manner. Said industry calls it ‘conflict management’. But in the end we little human beings more often than not succumb to the urge of behaving like proud, petty children.

Someone recently mentioned to me that hardly anyone is lucky enough to receive a decent fighting education at home from their parents, so most people develop rather destructive strategies. Either they just power through every opposing argument and debate with a force that can be likened to physical violence or they just pretend to be deaf and mute and wait for it to be over. Most people associate fighting with something bad so they try to avoid the open conflict at every cost. One friend of mine said fighting equals wanting to win minus competing. When you put it like that it just comes across like a selfish waste of time. I don’t particularly like fighting either. I am scared of the moment it turns nasty and becomes all about hurting each other and name calling. It takes tremendous effort and constant reflection of one’s own action to become a “good” fighter.

Now while I am writing all this you might have noticed that the English word ‘fight’ can be misunderstood. Am I talking about a verbal exchange of arguments and accusations or an actual fist fight? The answer is, of course, the former. I hate violence. Period. One German word that I particularly like is “Streitgespräch”. It consists of the parts “Streit” – fight, and “Gespräch” – conversation. There is no room for a misunderstanding here because the German word “streiten” only means a verbal fight. For the physical option we have “kämpfen”. But the best thing about “Streitgespräch” is that it is at the same time a name and an instruction; a reminder, if you will. Folks, keep it civil! We are just having a conversation, after all. And it also frees fighting of its bad reputation. A conversation is not inherently negative. It is neutral. How we feel about it depends on the content so there is no need to avoid it right from the start.

So next time, when you start to feel the bad vibes in the room, invite your opponent to a “Streitgespräch”. Make a cup of tea, put out some biscuits and then have at it!