Column: Bangers and Mash The truth behind the little white lie
In this column, the author looks at life in Germany, as a Brit who is living in Bonn for years. In this edition, he politely looks at the Germans who are famous for having principles but have they mastered the art of real politeness? And actually, what is the truth behind the little white lie - do you really want to find out?
It was perhaps fortunate that very few Germans were on the Titanic or Kate Winslet would perhaps never have survived — all the lifeboats would have been full before any other nationality had a look in.
Let’s face it, Germans in general have not acquired the gentle art of queuing and unlike the British, who even in the most challenging situations tend to wait their turn, my Deutsch friends tend to abandon all civility and bump their way to the front of the queue.
Germans are not unique here but when you have hammered into your psyche from an early age that this is a nation where politeness is highly prized, and formality is king, it can be quite a shock.
I had two German bosses in my various jobs and was clearly told no first names and full titles — Dr, Professor — but Klaus or Uwe will be super-frowned upon: A kind of Victorian hierarchy similar to what prevailed in the day of my parents.
So naturally you assume that all other social behaviour and morals in Germany will be just an even more formal or higher-level version of what operates in the British Isles — and of course, you’d be wrong.
Standing (queuing like a good Brit) for the first time at Bonn station, readying to board an ICE to Cologne, I was left bruised and battered as fellow travelers barged, jostled and elbowed their way to be first on board and grab a seat.
Indeed, as the doors closed and the train set off I was left leaning on my bicycle scrambling mentally to re-write my perceptions of life and rules in my new home.
It’s not just at train stations, it’s everywhere — the bread shop; the supermarket; the bar. I kind of watch now, like a social psychologist waiting to see who is going to make the first move.
Doubt you not, if there is just a hint of indecision over whether to go for the crusty brown or the baguette or your eyes are seen darting uncertainly between the chocolate cake of the strawberry slice, bang… you’ve lost your slot.
Sometimes I dare to speak out at this outrage — (polite cough)… ‚Excuse me, I think you will find that I am next’ and then it is either sheepish smiles and embarrassment all round or a kind of blank, grudging acquiescence to the fact the foreigner may have some civil rights in the shopping area.
I have no idea what happens in the skies over Dusseldorf airport — but I am surprised there are not more crashes: Indeed, it must be a nightmare for the air traffic control team trying to stop Lufthansa and German Wings barging in in front of the British Airways jet.
In the UK it is still quite normal to overdo it the other way — Brits of a certain generation still often go in for the ‘after you’, ‘no after you’ ritual full of open hand signals, gestures and smiles.
If you did that in a Bonn or Berlin bakery, they would have run out of bread before you got anywhere near the counter.
The question is, is it impoliteness or simply efficiency, or could it be that Germans are brought up to look after number one first? It may be a bit of both.
I had a former German friend who believed without hesitation that if she did what she wanted — thought what was best for her first — then she would be content and thus had the chance of making others happy.
The Brits, I believe, operate the opposite way round: Make others happy first, and maybe you will feel happy. In other words, do all kinds of things you don’t want to do, so long as the other person gets what they want.
The ‘little white lie’ is the pinnacle of this philosophical viewpoint. Brits are skilled, professional liars, if it makes others feel good or defuses a potentially confrontational situation. Indeed, the more indirect you can be the better, if it oils the wheels of calmness and harmony.
If someone, playing their rendition of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’, sounded like frog on steroids, you are unlikely to tell them.
Instead, it will be: ‚Marvellous, you’re a natural, I see you’ve really been working on that, sounded just like Jimmy Page.‘
If you want to be more honest, you might reply — ‚Not bad, perhaps maybe you need tighten up on the third chord’ or ‚Great, perhaps it was more Stairway to the Attic, but Heaven awaits if you keep at it’.
Sometimes the white lie is practical. If you are popping out for dinner, and your friend asks if her dress looks okay, Brits will say ‘stunning’ or, ‘fits like a glove’ even if the person looks like shit.
You know that honesty means you will be late and friends are waiting. I once explained the ‘little white lie’ to a German friend, and she nearly blew a fuse claiming dishonesty. ‘You must tell the truth!’
‘Of course, next time I will,’ I replied, knowing full well it was, well, another British-style fib. ‚Now, let’s get our coats and go!’