Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"German Efficiency"

Yes, I should probably be posting on the trip to California I got back from yesterday...or the trip to Portugal I got back from two weeks ago...but instead, something I witnessed on the U-Bahn today and a convo I had with my roomie this evening has prompted a post on the myth of German efficiency.
That's right, it's a myth. Or at least that what I've come to believe.
I've ranted before about the jaywalking situation, but to recap, no one does it. Ever. And if you do, you get dirty looks and/or lectures about not doing it in front of the children.
Speaking of children and rule-following, that brings me to what happened on the U-Bahn today (I've translated for convenience, but this took place in German,of course). A little child next to me called loudly to her mother, "Mama!" and pointed at a man behind me. "He's eating!" The man said "Uh-oh" and chuckled good-naturedly. Flustered, the mother explained to her child in breathless, breakneck German (seriously, she was talking so fast she had to stop and catch her breath afterwards) that the rule was really meant for messy foods, like fries dripping ketchup, or döner kebab dropping bits of meat and lettuce (I didn't get a look at what the man was actually eating, but he continued to halfheartedly and uncomfortably chuckle). The kid wasn't having any of it though. She stood up straight and pointed at the sign on the wall. "I READ IT," she proclaimed, and proceeded to read the sign about not eating out loud for everyone's benefit. Then she glared at the man behind me. The mother didn't know what to say. It was hilarious.
So what does this have to do with efficiency being a myth? Well just because you're following rules, doesn't mean you're being efficient. In fact, sometimes the most efficient course of action is not to follow the rules, i.e. when there are no cars on the street and you want to get across it and go home. Thus I propose, with the example of the little girl on the U-Bahn, that the quintessential German quality often mistaken for efficiency is actually just a penchant for following the rules. Always. No matter how irrational it may be to do so.
The only comment in German on my jaywalking post, "Ordung muss leider sein, egal ob es auf der Strasse oder in dem Meldeamt ist." (Unfortunately there must be order, whether it's in the streets or in the registration office) only serves to prove my point (sorry Eryk...but it's true).
The fact that inefficiency is in actual fact quite rampant in Germany is proved by the fact that at the local Stadtbad (public pool), they never divide the pool into lanes so people can swim laps. There are, however, always people trying to swim laps, meaning they have to navigate around grannies and kids who seem purposely to swim in their path. It's quite unpleasant. The first time I encountered this, I figured there must be a separate lap-swimming time. Seeing "Paralellbetrieb" (parallel use) on the schedule, I figured that must be it. No, that means that half the pool is given over to a swimming course, while the remaining half is even more difficult to navigate. Wtf? Not only that, but rather than a time set aside for lap swimming in peace, there is a time set aside for "Spaßbaden"--fun swimming. Again, wtf? Isn't it friggin Spaßbaden all the time? How could anyone witness the poor souls trying in vain to get a workout in and not realize, "Hey, maybe we should have a separate time for lap swimming"? Well, that's not the way we do it. No matter how much more efficient it may be.
The one time I have encountered Germans breaking the rules is when it comes to lines, or as my British side would like to put it, queuing. Buying tickets at the movie theater is a madhouse--multiple registers and no fixed lines. Waiting to get a coat back after a concert is the same--either a big crowd vaguely pushing towards the counter, or people pretending there's more than one line, then subtly edging in in front of you. But I've had the worst luck at airports. Dear God, there is absolutely no respect for a good queue at Tegel or Schönefeld. You have to be really aggressive to prevent someone from casually sidling up and stepping right in front of you like it ain't no thang. So I guess that when it comes to forming a line, the "rules" that those of us with British blood (or half an ounce of common courtesy) tend to follow are too ambiguous and not official, thus meaning they are ignored by a large part of the German population. In this instance, at least, they appear to aim for efficiency.
So next time you make a crack about Germans being super-efficient...remember this post!
Bis bald,

PS. No offense meant, no hard feelings. Just some friendly cultural commentary to keep us all on our toes.

1 comment:

  1. I feel you on all points. It is just about "following the rules" and not about any sense of efficiency. Waiting in line for a bus (yes, just outed myself as American) is my pet peeve. Over the years I've witnessed some spectacular displays of rudeness just so that someone can be on the bus 3.2 seconds faster than anyone else.