First the good news: Beefing and moaning is part of human nature. As babies, our first vocalization is a cry of distress, as Hamburg psychologist Michael Thiel explained to me.
Together with his colleague Annika Lohstroh, Thiel co-authored the book Deutschland, einig Jammerland (translation: “Germany: United Land of Complaining”), published in 2011. Adult complaining is the same thing: An expression of being upset, says Thiel.
Now the bad news: We Germans tend to express displeasure rather loudly and frequently.
In accordance with the principle of “seek and ye shall find,” we like to look for the fly in the ointment. But time and again we soberly realize upon returning home from a trip abroad how depressing it is to be surrounded by countrymen who are always griping. About this and that and everything.
Yammeritis despite high satisfaction
A 2009 study comparing airline passengers of various nationalities confirms that Germans were the ones to carp the most about the flight. One might argue that we weren’t quite as satisfied in 2009 as we are today.
A 2017 survey by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) indicates that overall satisfaction levels are at their highest since German reunification. But the psychologist Thiel is convinced that that hasn’t put a dent in the griping level.
“We Germans carry deep-seated dissatisfaction and a certain burden with us in everyday life,” he says. We lack the sunny nature often attributed to southern Europeans or Central and South Americans.
Many Germans also have a type of general uneasiness, says Thiel — what the Americans call “German angst.” He believes its roots are historical: In the various social orders of the past, people weren’t independent actors but rather serfs. Added to this are dozens of wars, including the Thirty Year War, and two world wars. Lamenting is culturally inherited, the psychologist expains, and disruptions such as these have an enduring effect.
Unlike the English word “yammering,” the German word “Jammer” — also the title of this painting — can denote a calamity and, of course, a lament
Not even great figures of German literature have been immune. From the 17th-century writer Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen to the Romantic era’s Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, from the early 20th-century surrealist writer Franz Kafka to mid-and late-century authors Berthold Brecht and Günther Grass: All endowed their protagonists with a portion of brooding and existential anxiety.
Yammering is actually not a bad thing
The Teutonic tendency to moan and groan is confirmed by colleagues from abroad such as Jeremy Cliffe, who recently published a piece in The Economist about Germans’ propensity for belly-aching. Germany is in splendid shape, so where’s the gripe?, asks Cliffes. The economy is booming, unemployment is low, the country’s infrastructure is one of the best anywhere: “Cheer up!” he says.
Cliffe is right about one thing: Germans’ lusty lamentations are not always on target. And being around people who have a bone to pick with just about everything is a drag on one’s own spirits.
But there’s an upside to complaining. It soothes the spirit, says Thiel, and can unite people in a kind of solidarity, such as when they gripe about the weather. Or it can even be an initial step towards change.
But too much grumbling can take a psychological toll, becoming automatic and a putting a pessimistic damper on body and soul. It can even lead to illnesses like depression and high blood pressure, explains Thiel.
So where’s the happy medium, the optimal complaint level?
For my part, I wrote this piece in an office where the thermometer reads 33 degree Celsius (91 degrees Fahrenheit). So I’ve been moaning a bit as well, sometimes to myself and sometimes letting my colleagues in on the fun — out of a sense of solidarity, to be sure.
And that’s not necessarily such a bad thing.