A lot of Germans ask me, when they find out that I am an American, about what the typical view of Germans is in America. I tell them that, besides childishly calling them Nazis, most people in America think that Germans are hard-working, efficient, and good at what they do. This is usually received with a thoughtful nod of agreement; most Germans are very much aware of and comfortable with the stereotype that foreigners have of them. And it’s no small wonder – the whole description is more or less a compliment. The worst that can be said about a hard-working, efficient, talented and smart person is that they are too serious, and in Germany there’s no such thing as “too serious.” They are proud of their national character, even if they aren’t necessarily proud of all the things their efficiency has accomplished in the past.
What I’ve always failed to do, due to linguistic skills or otherwise, is to follow up and ask my interlocutor why he or she thinks Germans have that reputation. In what way are Germans and German culture different that they produce such a unique character? Last week I had a conversation that, while perhaps not a direct answer, gave me more insight into a possible cause of the German character.
Since the week of Christmas, the Steinmann household has been nothing but an endless stream of visitors. First came Christmas guests, then New Year’s Eve guests, then birthday guests for Beate, my host mother, then really late Christmas/Holiday guests from Berlin with the newest addition to the Steinmann family, the baby Clara. This last group is the one the concerns us right now. It was coffee hour, and we were eight altogether. Along with the three visitors from Berlin, an older couple had dropped in to join us without much notice (later there was much complaining about this). The older man, whose name I forget even though I had a business card of his, is a teacher at a vocational school. But not just any vocational school – this was where one went to get one’s Masters in everything from construction to hairdressing. That’s right. In Germany, you can acquire an M.A. in Hairdressing.
I was not the only one surprised by this, and fortunately there was much interest in an explanation of what the hell you do to get a Masters in Hairdressing, and why you would need one. Now bear in mind that my German has only recently allowed me to guess at what certain tones of voice mean, or to attempt to deduce something about someone’s character by their manner of speaking. But some personality traits refuse to be restrained by mere language, and I could tell fairly clearly that this particular gentleman was more than happy to explain just how necessary and important this particular Masters degree is. Here is what I gathered from the conversation.
Almost all of the so-called (in English) “vocational” crafts, like building, plumbing, and yes, hair-cutting, require each prospective builder, plumber, and hair-cutter to pass a certain test, which is half-written and half-practical. Usually one will attend a specific school, for example, a hair-cutting school, for a year or so, getting both classroom instruction and hands-on experience. At this point, I’m shaking my head up and down, admiring German culture for creating a magnificently efficient modern-day apprentice system. He continued that those who do not pass the test after one retake must wait another year to take the test again. Hmm, ok, I thought to myself, seems a bit strict, but maybe those people really do need the time to learn and hone their skills. If and when they pass the test, they are officially and legally allowed to do the following: work for an already-existing company in their trade. That is it. They may not open a store, they may not become a co-owner with someone else, and they certainly may not cut hair on the side, as a hobby or something. In other words, unless they can find a job at an already-existing company, they have now wasted an entire year of their lives.
At this point, I’m not quite hostile to this practice, as I agree that we shouldn’t let just any wacko with a pair of scissors near our heads, but the free-market, capitalist American in me, of whose residence I was previously unaware, was whining about invisible hands and liberty, etc., and perhaps with good reason. The consequences of a bad heart surgery are dire and final, and thus the rigorous level of training and education serves a purpose. But the consequence of a bad haircut? Hats. Surely the market would weed out all those bad hair-cutters quickly enough, right? And the people living out in the country in a place not unlike Enkenbach-Alsenborn… wouldn’t they not care about their haircuts, whether they were good or bad, so long as they were cheap?
And yet our rather loud, but likable teacher was continuing, since the question of how one can open one’s own haircutting business naturally arose. This, of course, was his specialty. Saying our theoretical hairdresser wished to open his own business, or even become an owner of an already-existing business, he would be required to obtain a Masters. This program would last 1-2 years, during which he would take business courses relevant to owning and operating a business, and at the end of this education he would have to take at least one more test, most likely two: a test for the business side and another practical hairdressing exam. I didn’t catch whether one could fail and retake this test, but by that point I had heard enough to realize one very important truth: Germans have a reputation for being highly-skilled because everyone, from doctors to hairdressers, is educated, trained, and tested in everything they do. Is it economically sensible? Not at all. But the Germans answer to a different value: pride. They are proud of the reputation they’ve made for themselves, and if that means that hairdressers go through a ridiculous and extraneous amount of mental stress just to cut hair, then so be it. In fact, so should it be!
Correction (1/29/12): As pointed out in the comments, I confused the German word “Meister,” which I heard in conversation, for the English word Master, in the sense of a Masters that one earns after a Bachelors. This is incorrect. The “Meister” which was spoken of during this conversation is roughly equivalent to an American Bachelors degree, but even this comparison is slightly misleading due to the highly specialized nature of secondary and post-secondary German education.