The German Society of Auto-Correction
Come Monday afternoon, you will find me in the local supermarket, cursing at random groceries and trying to decipher the Denglish shopping list my wife has given me. Although I am wary of describing my better half as a sadist, I have noticed that she always writes the orders for the butcher in semi-comprehensible Schwäbisch dialect, meaning that when I come to order I sound like a lunatic. No matter, I enjoy a challenge. Thankfully, German supermarkets often provide me with many extra challenges, number one being how to fit a weeks’ worth of shopping onto a tiny conveyor belt designed, I assume, by some all-powerful efficiency saving committee. The next challenge is to pack the scanned shopping, which sounds easy on the face of it, but becomes a Herculean task when the shopping is being scanned faster than the speed of sound. Last Monday, as tins of sweetcorn came hurtling toward me an older gentleman caught my attention. He pointed to my un-scanned shopping and declared “This is poorly organised”.
He was right, of course, but on Monday afternoons in a busy shop, the last thing anyone wants is a lecture on efficient arrangement of shopping. “Look, this one is about to fall off” he warned pointing at a yoghurt pot that was about to and then did, fall off the conveyor belt. “I’ll get it” he declared, in the tone of someone saying, “I told you so”. I took a deep breath, thanked him and continued to rapidly pack the shopping. “You have too much shopping” he continued, “You should buy less”. I ignored him. I asked to pay with card and heard him inhale quickly, as if to dispense another pearl of wisdom. I checked him by not looking up at him and staring only at the card reader. I already knew what he was going to say, something along the lines of “why are you paying by card? You should use cash”. I took my card thanked the cashier and quickly made for the door, knowing that this was just one of my many encounters with the German society of auto correction.
One of the lesser known facts about Germany is that it comes with its own autocorrect function. If someone sees another person doing something incorrectly, there is a 50/50 chance that they will happily interject, point out the mistake and then offer an alternative solution. This sounds, on the face of it, very helpful. However, the correction often comes using abrasive language, that whether intentional or not, tends to make peoples blood boil. I have heard on more than one occasion that I am “Doing it wrong” or that “We don’t do it that way”, which is the beginning of a correctional reprimand. Worse still, these corrections often come from complete strangers.
When working on the problems of intercultural communication, I am always hyper aware of supposed “Clashes of Culture” where the rules of one group come into conflict with the rules of another. In the world of corrections, Britain and Germany certainly have a serious clash. Take the example of my shopping trip. If I had been in Britain, the most I could expect the older Gentleman to say would be “Watch out mate, that yogurt’s about to fall” or some variant on that theme. That would be it, no comment on conveyor belt stacking and nor would they comment on my choice of payment. If my German corrector had done what he did in the UK, there would have been an awkward silence and possibly some recommendation that people should “mind their own business”. The older gentleman would be marked as a “busy body” and once tarred as such, it is very difficult to remove the stain of being too “nosey”.
Yet, I live in Germany and so it is useful to try and understand why Germany operates and accepts random strangers auto correcting each other. After asking around, it became clear that my German compatriots believed that people genuinely just want to help each other. Although this may seem naïve from the cynical perspective of the British, there may be some truth in that idea. Sometimes German auto correct can be helpful, like in the Gym. If I’m working out, people I have never met will stop me and point out that my posture is wrong or that I am doing something incorrectly. Even my shopping corrector was only trying to stop me from going home with burst yoghurt pots.
When I asked Germans if this unsolicited advice was always useful, they stated that generally yes. The reason for this positive perspective was that it was often good for problem solving. People develop their own way of doing things, but it was still helpful to have an alternative suggestion on how to solve certain problems. That being said, I was told to be wary of the phrase “We have always done it this way”, which seemed to signify an inability to adapt to change.
Furthermore, with the advent of the term “mansplaining” a word that has not reached Germany in its entirety, many women feel that they are being unnecessarily singled out by men who wish to offer “helpful” advice. More than one of the female expats I follow on Twitter has lamented the inappropriate advice metered out by German men, often in the most condescending way. Add to this, the frequent auto correction of strangers parenting styles, wherein a parent is approached and semi-chided for not feeding, clothing or doing any number of things to the accepted parenting standards of some random nobody. Again, it is often a disproportionate number of women that are singled out for German parenting auto correct.
Where does this leave me with my German shopping corrector? Well, a little further forward. I may not like being advised by the German society of auto correction, but it is important to note that they are not always wrong and don’t really mean to be rude. Sometimes, and only sometimes, the unprompted advice is helpful. When it isn’t I can always fall back on my British training: smile, say “Danke” and then try and destroy them with a vicious, telepathic death stare.