There’s an old idea that Germans have no sense of humor, but it’s a myth. Germans have a great sense of humor. It’s just quite barbed. Take, for instance, Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, with its murdering protagonist and organized panhandling racket: Dark, violent and depressing, yes, but also meant to be hilarious. “My business is too hard,” laments beggar ringleader Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, “for my business is arousing human sympathy.”
The way you tell a joke in Germany, I say to my students, is to recite a tragic or infuriating fact about the world, and then grimace slightly. That’s an exaggeration, of course (something Germans do not find funny in the least, especially when the exaggeration is about them), but the kernel of truth in it is this: German humor often draws attention to real problems by making very dark jokes that bring those problems to life. In Threepenny Opera’s case, that problem was the unregulated capitalism of 19th-century London (“Food is the first thing/ Morals follow on”). In the case of the cheeky fruit seller from Baden named Susanne, pictured above, the problem is … our largely unregulated online retail economy, personified by the behemoth Amazon, which enjoys a very strong German presence.
This week, Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung posted the picture on its Facebook page, and it quickly began to go viral in the Fatherland. It shows Susanne smirking ever so slightly (the German version of flashing a full-toothed grin and a double thumbs-up), over handmade signs that proclaim: “Customers who bought this product …” (her pineapple) “… also bought” (her strawberries).
Again, the best German jokes are pointed barbs, jabbing directly up at a source of power, and Susanne’s is no exception—but it also reflects an interesting tension in the consumer mindset of an increasingly globalizing Germany. On the one hand, Germans’ appreciation of hyper-efficient technology is a foregone conclusion (put a single load of laundry through the centrifuge cycle, or Schleuder, of a German washing machine, and watch it come out all but dry). But on the other, a reverence for the old way of doing certain cherished activities—such as daily food shopping, done in-neighborhood and on foot—remains, for now, stubbornly present.
German customers, Susanne is telling us, don’t need a billion-dollar algorithm to tell them what kind of fruit to buy. However, she wouldn’t be making that joke, poking that barb up, as it were, if the threat didn’t loom. But for now, it appears (pace Brecht) that her customers can have their morals and eat them too.