The Rambling American: The Devil’s in the Dissected Fetal Pig’s Entrails

Trying to compare the German and American versions of The Office, Locke McKenzie gets introspective about cultural generalization.

Writing these articles often reminds me of the pig fetus I dissected in the tenth grade. I cut it open, tried to differentiate one thing from another, and then pulled each piece out, one at a time, for closer inspection.

“Now find the bladder. Can you see what the bladder is connected to? How does the bladder fit within the rest of the system?”

The problem was, in cutting things out, that sometimes I wasn’t too careful (Also, I was once diagnosed with a fine-intentional tremor, which means my hands shake when I try to keep them still), and the bladder came out a bit disfigured on one side.

I was reminded of this recently when I tried to analyze the German television show, Stromberg, an adaptation of The Office (British or American, take your pick). In theory, this was going to be perfect for cultural analysis. The same premise, interpreted by three different cultures. My mouth was practically dripping with the cultural fodder dangling in front of me. I hardly knew where to begin.

Owing that I had only seen Ricky Gervias’s original British version, I figured that downloading a few episodes from the American and German versions would probably be a good start. From there I expected as many cultural juxtapositions as organs in that pig’s belly.

With each cultural switch, I shrewdly tried to pinpoint the differences between their interactions, taboos, and senses of humors, but after a number of hours, I had little to show for my efforts.

I discovered that German employees dress much less formally at work than the other two countries, and the British are the quickest to develop a love story. But the Germans are the most prone to have sexually explicit material in the show, and the length of the awkward pauses moves from the British with the longest down to the Germans with the shortest (almost none).

All good remarks, but what became my most prevalent and frustrating observation was that, in reality, the series are not that different. While the U.S. version deals with racism against Black Americans and Latinos instead of Turks, the overarching ideas of discrimination in the workplace were more or less the same. When I placed most issues side by side, it was always just a matter of filling in the blank.

In many cases, the distinctions were so small that they were almost intangible. Unlike the pig, where I could reach in and grab a big handful of bladder, here I was dealing with something more like Milton Bradley’s Operation. With each topic I tried to tweeze out, the red blinking nose just kept lighting up.

This, of course, is not the first time I have had this realization. After maneuvering through cross-cultural interactions for the past few years and writing these articles for the past six months, I’ve encountered more than a handful of critics offering me differing opinions.

At one point I had a very long discussion with my German housemate about the way I represent the students in my classroom.

“You make Germans seem so dumb in some of your articles.”

In another instance, someone questioned my generalizations when discussing communism and capitalism.

“How can you say that there is no community in capitalism?”

I also once brought one of my articles into the classroom with me (anonymously). My students too took issue with the way certain issues of the German culture were depicted.

“This is such a typical outsider’s analysis of Germany. They are always trying to make sense of things they don’t understand.”

So what is going on here? Am I actually being unfair? There are times when I myself have to question the amount I generalize in order to write an article. The discussion of the education systems in Germany and the U.S. is a perfect example. One simply cannot throw an entire culture of high school students into one bucket.

If I’m constantly towing the line between stereotype and representation, then how do I know if I have crossed it?

I think that my analysis of The Office has given me a bit more perspective on this myself, for — as similar as each of these series is — each is distinctly British or American or German. The problem is that, as is true of most cultural intricacies, the German Stromberg is German as a macrocosm rather than a microcosm.

Just as the pig’s bladder is not the pig, so too is the timing of the German humor not the German culture.

I perceive The Rambling American in a similar way. Each article is simply one organ of an infinitesimally complicated being. In order to better understand each organ, I pull it out and look at it generally. How does it function? How is it different than the same organ in another type of animal? In the end, I put it down and, two weeks later, move on to the next organ.

If each article is taken as a single entity, sometimes that view can seem too narrow. My hope and expectation is that the reader take in the entire body of work. If one were to look at everything together, then one sees a more complete portrait, one where there are not only dumb Germans, but also very perceptive ones, and where one not only sees greedy Westerners, but nice ones.

Perhaps someday I will have a whole oinking, mooing farm in my portfolio, if I don’t mangle too many bladders along the way.

Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.