Germany and the Love of Privacy
Depending on what you do over the weekend, Monday’s can be an excruciating ordeal. For instance, the moment the clock strikes 5pm on Friday I fly into a Bacchanalian fury, tempered only by my drinking capacity and my wife’s disapproval at not going to Ikea. This means that most of my Mondays are spent trying to eradicate the distinct feeling that I am wasting my life in the pub, ridding myself of the smell of shame and stale beer, while also attempting to convince my wife that this Saturday we will definitely go and look at some Swedish home furnishings. I am therefore wary of anyone asking about my weekend, for fear of having to relive the moment I bet my friends I could drink a bottle of malt vinegar or that, contrary to logic and ability, I attempted to rap like Chuck D. Thankfully, my desire to ignore my weekend transgressions fits perfectly with the sensibilities of my German colleagues. Asking about German co-workers weekends is essentially pointless, especially if you do not really know them. The usual conversational cul de sac goes:
“How was your weekend?”
“It was good”.
This unwillingness to discuss private time with colleagues reveals both the German distaste for small talk, but also the German desire for privacy. Germans have a clear and robust sense of what should be in the public domain and what should not, and although there are exceptions for good friends, finding out what your colleagues get up to outside of work requires military grade interrogation techniques. With waterboarding out of the question, I am left with little recourse other than to linguistically trap colleagues into giving away small details of their lives. The excruciating process of trial and error can last for years, until one day a colleague feels comfortable enough to actually tell you directly what they get up to when not at work.
Protection of privacy goes even further than simple office conversations, and extends to many facets of German life. I travel quite a bit for work and I often have to visit cities and locations that require some research. If I lived outside of Germany, the first thing I would do would be to check Google maps and look at the street view feature in order to properly orientate myself. Unluckily for me, excluding major German cities, much of Google street view is restricted. When it is available, it is very common to find whole streets that have been blurred from view. So seriously do Germans take privacy, they take the time to contact Goolge and request their homes be censored from public view to protect their anonymity. This has become so common that streets begin to resemble some kind of surrealist landscape, making it impossible for people to recognize where the hell anything is. It has got to the point that using street view is more akin to a simulation of what life would be like to have cataracts.
One reason for the preference for privacy could be the German experience of state surveillance during the National Socialist era and later under Communist rule. It is defiantly one of the arguments used by critics of city, state and nationwide CCTV infrastructure. Many German cities have little to no CCTV coverage, barring shops or public transport. Even when cameras have been installed, such as on the Berlin Ubahn, groups have taken it upon themselves to deface and destroy them. Camover was a movement that posted videos and wrote a FAQ on how to go about dismantling CCTV cameras, going as far as to tear down cameras installed for private use as well as those set up by local government. They encouraged others to do the same by creating a game, in which groups gained points for uploading videos to Youtube showing their trail of destruction.
Although the actions of Camover are aggressive, the ideal that Germany should not become a surveillance state is one that many agree with. New laws concerning the retention of data by internet providers or the right of the government to hack into phones have faced stiff opposition, with legal challenges to these new laws expected from privacy advocates. Despite arguments that the new laws will prevent terrorist attacks, fears that the laws will be misused are supported by those that can clearly remember the communist surveillance state that only ended in 1989. This is in stark contrast to the UK that has some of the most oppressive laws concerning personal privacy and how far the state can get involved in the private affairs of its population.
Of course, Germany’s penchant for privacy does have its loop holes. Take as an example, the German pastime of staring out the window; on an average day, I might not find myself being watched by CCTV, but I am most defiantly being surveilled by various OAPs from the comfort of their windows. In the UK, it is not uncommon to see people “twitching the curtains” or watching people from a concealed position just out of eyesight of the street. German geriatrics have no such fears and instead of hiding behind curtains to see what is going on in their streets, they will simply throw open the windows, lean out and stair at any and all people who happen to walk by. Nothing of any interest really needs to have occurred to instigate this process and more than once I will look up as I walk down the street and meet the eyes of an octogenarian staring back, stony faced. I suppose it would be fair to say Germany does not require CCTV when they have so many free pairs of eyes making sure nothing untoward happens on their watch.
German privacy is something that takes some time to get used to and it certainly makes office gossip difficult to instigate, but overall the desire to keep your life separate from the work place is an admirable concept. I advocate it, given that it is bad enough that my friends and family know the stupid things I do/ am doing/ have done without including all my work colleagues too. That being said, they do not know all my great achievements either, although I cannot imagine many of them being impressed or showering me with respect for my ability to drink a bottle of Sarson’s Malt Vinegar in under twenty seconds. Shame, I think I have a real talent for it.