Germany: a patchwork society

There’s no such person as the 'average German', says communications expert Frank Brettschneider, exploring why we always compare ourselves against our peers.
Tourists look through a wall that is part of the former Berlin Wall fortification at the Berlin .../ Credits: Reuters
Allianz Knowledge on demography: Frank Brettschneider, professor for communication science, University of Hohenheim. Frank Brettschneider, professor for communication science, University of Hohenheim. Allianz 1890: How tall are you?
Frank Brettschneider: If I only knew! I think it varies. Around 1.85 or 1.86 meters.

Well however tall you are, it's above the average, which is 1.78 meters. Would you still describe yourself as an average German?
No, because I don't know anyone who is. There's no such thing as the average German. It's typical of modern societies that they're more and more versatile. In the 60s and 70s, you could still talk about 'the' average, today you can't.

What is it then that still makes us a society?

The closest match might be shared values.

For example?

Tolerance. Or the fact that we value living in a democratic society. Before, religion created cohesion, but that doesn't really work anymore because religious groups are getting smaller and smaller. In rural areas there are still sports clubs and shooting societies, in towns these are being replaced by lifestyles. And it's ever more difficult to tell these apart, as they tend to merge. Nowadays you can support the Green Party and still polish your gas-guzzling car on weekends.

Do social media networks like Facebook do a better job connecting everyone than television?
That is certainly the case for the under-25-year-olds, but not for the over-60 age group. Television's power to unite has decreased sharply because nowadays the industry fails to produce the one huge show event uniting half a country in front of a TV on a Saturday night.

Social networks are taking on more and more important functions, that's true. Young people barely write e-mails anymore, they arrange to meet up over Facebook. There are differences, though: some update their status a lot and upload 10 photos every day. Some just use it to see what their friends are up to. These different groups cannot be categorized as 'average'.

So we're a patchwork society?

Yes, that's one way of putting it. And we're a country in motion, life no longer moves along predefined paths which I think is great.
Yet the term 'average' is still an important classification for many people. Why?
Because people want to be able to compare themselves with others. Am I above or below the average? Very few people are just happy with what they've got, they need the competition with others. Workers that earn less than the average are looking for those that earn even less in order to feel that they still rank above others in relative terms.

Sounds exhausting.
It is. But they do it anyway. Let's assume that someone earns 3000 euros and is quite satisfied with that. But if a colleague comes along earning 500 euros more it is the end of their contentment. Even if their own situation has not actually changed objectively.

Is that something typically German?
Typically Western, I'd say. In the United States, this feeling is even more prominent. There seems to be a raging obsession with figures and statistics at the moment.

A recently published medical paper indicates that countries with high chocolate consumption tend to produce more Nobel-prize winners than countries with small consumption rates.
There are also statistics proving that the more fire engines are sent to a fire, the greater the damage will be. So maybe the fire brigade should just stay home.

And eat more chocolate, of course. Do you find silly statistics like this irritating?

A bit. It is dangerous though if the media is no longer able to distinguish between serious results that can provide interesting insights and these nonsensical surveys.
On behalf of Allianz you investigated the confidence levels among Germans on a regular basis. What surprised you the most?
The extent to which Germans rate their own confidence levels as constant and positive is rather astonishing. There are, however, massive differences in the perception of the big picture. The discrepancy between the way people judge their own situation as opposed to the general development in Germany fascinates me.

But that does also mean that Germans are not a society of pessimists.
No, not really. Our image as a society of moaners is unfair. The slogan 'German Angst' is nonsense. Compared to other countries surveyed for the report like Spain, France, and Russia for example, the Germans had above-average levels of positivity.

Why do you think this is?

Positivity also depends on the opportunities available to you. And these opportunities are related to financial income - the higher the income, the more optimistic the person. Positivity comes straight out of your bank account.

Other German stereotypes include that we are always on time, overly ambitious, successful and unable to have fun. What is your opinion?
I find those clichés absolutely fascinating because they are nearly universal. People have certain ideas about other countries, even if they've never visited them. Feisty Italians, boring Germans - what a load of rubbish!

Why do clichés about entire populations tend to stick permanently?

It takes a long time to establish stereotypes, and even longer to make them disappear. It also takes some really strong impressions: during the soccer world championship in 2006 the entire world was amazed about how the Germans really know how to party.

In fall 2013 the next elections to the Bundestag will take place in Germany. Does the country need an average chancellor?
Yes and no. Voters expect two things from an ideal chancellor. On the one hand, they want a superhero - competent, trustworthy, has integrity, is sympathetic, and proactive. On the other hand, a top politician must of course seem completely down to earth and not come across as elitist and detached. So hero and average person at the same time - just like Superman or Batman who all have their weaknesses.

So being average isn't a recipe for political success?

That's never a recipe for success for anyone.

But everyone wants to be above average.

Sadly that's not possible. When it comes down to it, 50 percent will be above the middle value, the median, and 50 percent will be below.

Prof. Frank Brettschneider teaches communication science at the University of Hohenheim. He is leading author of the Allianz confidence study – a report that establishes the level of optimism in the German population every three months.

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