On Being Altruistic vs. Being “American”

A couple weeks ago, I met a friend for lunch who was debating what her next life steps would be. She’s American, having a rough time of it in her life, wondering if she should stay in Germany or move on. And no, there’s no “home” to “go back to.”

I’m not usually one to bash zee Germans … although things are done differently here on this side of the pond than what I am accustomed to from my childhood, I don’t like to think of something as being normal or abnormal. I’m fond of saying Typisch Deutsch and Typisch Ami as a way of getting around the problems of pigeonholing an entire culture based on the actions of some of the people who represent those cultures. Most of the time, I try to keep a sense of humor about it. After all, Germany is my Wahlheimat and it would do no one any good — especially not my daughter who had no choice about having Germany as her home — to hate the place in which I live and bash it because things don’t work as I’d like them to.

That disclaimer in mind, this conversation was not one of bashing but more one that bordered on nostalgia. Friend said, “I just feel like there’s part of me that’s missing when I’m in Germany,” and “There are some parts of my personality that I like that are dying while I’m here.” Lest this sound too melodramatic, she gave me an example that I could fully relate to: the problem of niceties.

For example: a frequent complaint I hear among Americans is that Germans, especially Germen, don’t hold doors open for other people (except train doors, when they see people running to catch the Bahn). I didn’t think much of this until I struggled to get a door open while carrying groceries and pushing a stroller and spilled the food all over the front stairs. Sometimes it’s the little gestures that help make a person’s life easier. And it’s gestures like these that my friend said were failing her, making her day-to-day life less rich. So while life in Germany is okay, it’s not as good as it could be. Not as good as it might be in other places.

I feel this. I really really feel this.

I read an article a few months ago in Brigitte where the author was raving about how wonderful and friendly Americans are and she cited the example of the pay-it-forward coffee movement in Berkeley. Someone at Starbucks paid for her coffee before she’d even bought it. What a lovely gesture, she thought. It made her day so she did the same and before you know it, the entire line had bought each other’s coffees. “Why can’t we be more like this in Germany?” she asked and I nearly lost my shit. Not only because this movement originated in India or Sri Lanka and was adopted by Calis as a form of “karma yoga” but also because have you ever been to Berkeley? Have you seen the way the homeless are treated there? Sure, they’ll buy you a $4 cup of joe but that change the dude out on the streets is begging for is not going to come into his possession anytime soon.

As the bumper stickers say, people in California are fond of these “random acts of kindness.” The problem, however, is one of altruism. What are the intentions behind these gestures? Is it to make someone’s day better? To clear their own conscience? Or to make them look good in front of their peers? Is it the pressure they were feeling because everyone else was doing it? Or was it just meaningless goodwill because really, only one person donated that cup of coffee and everyone else was already planning to be for his or her own and no one wants to be the asshole who says, “Yo, free joe here. Sweeeeeeet.”

I’ll be honest here: I do nice things for people. Sometimes. When I can. And partially this is because I’m altruistic and have good intentions. Partially because I think the kind of place I want to live in is one in which other people help each other. Partially this is because I know how hard it is to be in a place where no one cares about the problems you’re having. And partially because this is how I was raised. If it’s because I’m American, I don’t know. If it’s because of my age or my midwestern upbringing, I’m not sure.

I also do shitty things to people. I can be a real dick. Sometimes. When I want to, and sometimes when I don’t even realize it. Partially this is because my everyday life is tough. Partially this is because I live in a place where no one cares about the problems I’m having. And partially because this is how I was raised.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is intention is everything and although these niceties commonly accepted in the US are missing from our lives in Germany, it’s not necessarily because Germans are “bad” or whatever. That doesn’t make their absence any less difficult for expats to bear but remembering that there are assholes and nice people in every culture is really important to me at the moment for getting through life. And concentrating on the nice ones is the key to well-being. Not paying for somebody’s overpriced coffee. I just wish we could all be a little more altruistic. Doing nice things for the sake of the community and not because it makes us feel good.

I guess what I’m saying is I’m nostalgic for Zizek’s communism — the one in which the Starbucks system, where you can pat yourself on the back for donating 1 cent for every $4 cup of coffee to some poor starving kid in Africa — is replaced by people motivated by a greater love for others than for themselves. Whether that be in Germany or America.


2 thoughts on “On Being Altruistic vs. Being “American”

  1. Sara June 18, 2015 / 10:27 am

    Hmmm, this is interesting. I have done a lot of thinking about why some Germans (not all, I once has a guy help me load and unload groceries when I was struggling to do the grocery shopping with my infant during my husband’s five months abroad), and I think it is rooted in the welfare state, the history of non-democracy and the DDR. Under communism I think people had to be really competitive for resources and they were pitted against each other. Those people who grew up under DDR raised the generation we have now, so those values are still strong in the East. A lot of Germans moved East after the wall came down.

    In some places, like the North people are friendly and they help out when they see someone in need. I think because they are happier. But in Berlin or Brandenburg people do the opposite, they usually go out of their way to make your life more difficult. There is an attitude that people only care about themselves and they don’t care who they have to stomp on to get what they want.

    Whereas in the US things are somewhat different. I think that social niceties tend to diffuse throughout society and make it a more pleasant place to live. Middle class Americans are also wealthier and seem to care less about status than Germans. When there are more resources to go around I think it makes people more generous. And it’s not just about buying people over priced coffee. My mom always give money to homeless people and I tend to do the same.

    There are areas in the US where having empathy is an important norm and because the USA has no welfare state, there are people who really need help. Without a stronger sense of altruism many people would go without food, clothing and shelter because the government does not provide those things, a lot of it come from charities and churches. Yes, we should care about starving kids in Africa, but there are hungry kids in the USA too, and they rely on the kindness of strangers to meet their basic needs. This isn’t so in Germany, here people pay taxes and the state takes care of poor people.

    Ok, that was convoluted. I think it is actually worth some empirical investigation. Why are so many Germans acting like dicks all the time? 🙂

    And I would agree with your friend, Germany can kill a part of your soul.

    • Ralph June 22, 2015 / 12:18 pm

      If your friend has no binding family or financial commitments, I urge her to relocate to the U.S. as soon as possible. It won’t be easy–reverse culture shock and so on–but the price paid by an expatriate–loss of native language, a foreigner’s chronic insecurity, separation from family, anti-American bigotry, and much else–is too high. And recent developments in Europe do not bode well. Germany, especially, has become a nation of contradictions that, in the end, may turn out to be even more painful than our own.

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