I Am, therefore. . . It's all about Me

Situation One:

I'm with my children at a holiday event in a large party tent and during dinner, the boys get up to get drinks. While they are gone, a woman comes over and starts clearing away the plates to make room for herself, until I say, "Excuse me, my kids are sitting there."

"Well there is still plenty of room for me," she says, without stopping. Then she squeeezes herself in and moves my kids' jackets to make room for her friend.

Situation Two:

I'm in line at the post office and realize I've written the wrong zip code on the package. I ask my children to stay in line while I go to the desk with the pens. When I return, my eldest has a disappointed look on his face and whispers in my ear, "That man just cut in front of us." I looked at the man and said, "Excuse me, you just cut in front of my kids. They were standing in line." He simply shrugged and turned around and ignored me.

Situation Three:

I am listening to a German friend talk about her love troubles and she tells me, in the memorized speech she got straight from therapy "I can not hurt someone, a person allows him/herself to be hurt" and "I am not responsible for how someone else interprets my words."

Wow, really? We're no longer responsible for what we say or how we behave? I don't mean to sound overly moral here, but since when do our actions not have an impact on others? That's not what they told us in kindergarten!

The first and second situations certainly appear less trivial than the third example but aren't they all situations in which self entitlement takes over empathy?

CBS readers know I have struggled, laughed and been shocked by German bluntness (which I would say sometimes crosses the line into rudeness) and I wonder if the directness, saying what one thinks regardless of how it is perceived, isn't simply a part of the already prevelant German preoccupation with Selbstverwirklichung or "self realization" or the all-about-me syndrome.

How long, honestly, can you realize yourself without eventually becoming insensitive? I also wonder, does this have anything to do with Germany's anemic birthrate? The German government has resorted to all kinds of benefits for new families, yet the German birthrate remains very low. Might it have something to do with not having time/interest in committing to someone/anything other than one's self? I know I'm going to get some comments about this theory. . . but it almost seems logical in a country where there is so much emphasis placed on the self that the job of parenting, which sometimes requires being selfless, is a very unpopular one here.

Photo: flickr


Maya M said...

As far as I know, there is severe shortage of day care and after-school services in Germany, and society often blames working mothers for pursuing their careers instead of devoting themselves to their children.
If true, this is likely to have an impact on birth rate, especially among active, productive and educated people.

Anonymous said...


Happy New Year! Welcome back! I thought you were not coming back until the whole middle east had democracy. The blogosphere had felt a bit empty without your posts and the regular comments by Maya, Gustav, Daniel,...


Daniel said...

Welcome back Rose-Anne :-)
An hello to you too, mi ;-)

I don't think of "Selbstverwirklichung" (it's one word, you know, we take pride in our long words ;-) as something negative. I understand it more as being true to oneself and trying to do, what your good at, than being egoistic. It's not so much about fulfilling a lot of egoistic desires, but more about giving value to your own identity, and some altruism is quite essential for that.

Your criticism follows a common scheme of criticism of modern society. It's often stated that our modern individualism results in so much egoism that it causes all kinds of social problems. But when I look around, I don't see that many individualists.

As for Germany's low birth rate: I don't think, there is a single reason, that can explain that.
One reason probably is, that society didn't appreciate families and kids that much in the last couple of decades.
The official support programs (like Elterngeld) mostly support well-off, traditional families. But they didn't change the situation for single mums at all. So while the reliability of marriage has broken down, not much has been done to make up for that loss of social security for mothers. This only started to change in the past few years.
If I'm not mistaken, most countries with higher birth rates either still have a more traditional society structure or do more for single women (daycare, financial support).

currentsbetweenshores said...

Hi everyone,

I actually don't think the daycare situation has anything to do with the low birth rate. I really do listen to people say why they don't have kids and what I hear is that it somehow doesn't fit in to their lifestyle choice, which is fine, of course. But Berlin also has a very high rate of single people, who have a hell of a lot of time to "think" about themselves. And, yes, kids are expensive and can quickly change social class. . . .

Now Daniel (thanks, nice to be back), I do think our generation is a more selfish one. I think we have more choices, for which I'm very grateful, but I do think we spend so much time thinking about improving, healing, dealing with, changing, fulfilling ourselves that certain compromises eventually become impossible b/c they come into conflict with "what I want for ME." Perhaps it's just a trend but twenty years ago we used to name this kind of behavior "mid life crisis". Today we simply call it "being true to ourselves". Clearly, I'm omitting very religious people who live by certain codes. But even the protestant church has become more "tolerant" over the years.

This NigerianAmericanLife said...

Great post Rose-Anne with eye-opening illustrative examples! As a Nigerian-American who had it drilled in to me to "think of other people," at an early age, after 16 years of living in the U.S., I can still be taken aback by how "self-centered" I perceive Americans to be. However, from a year living in France, I think Europeans take it to another level! Most Americans, would find it extremely rude to cut in line or to sit at another person's table without asking. It seems that within the concept of "individuality" for Americans, there is still some retainment of the idea of that other people have rights to.

Daniel said...

Please don't take those examples as examples of what would be perceived as normal in Europe or Germany.
Cutting the line isn't really acceptable behaviour, and sitting and someone others table without asking, and then even starting to argue about it, is just rude.
I think Rose-Anne took those examples as examples for rude behaviour, that is more common today than it used to be, and maybe it's more common here then somewhere else. But it's far from what I would consider to be normal.

Gustav said...

So would you say that Germans in general tend to be more self-centered than Americans? (for lack of a better word :) ). In case you do, I could mention universial healthcare, for example, which can be considered rather altruistic. Also I always thought that the "American Dream" has quite a strong element of self-realization and living up to your best potential.

I also don't see "Selbstverwirklichung" as a bad thing, really. Everyone can choose for themselves what that self-realization means for them. And I'm quite sure that many people still want to have a family and be a good person, and consider their lives unfulfilled without that. In Germany and elsewhere.

Cutting in line and taking away seats is of course very rude behaviour.

lifeexplorerdiscovery said...

I actually agree with the chick in Situation 3. I can only care so much about other people's feelings. I know too many people that will balk about anything so yeah, I don't really care if I hurt someone.

I think situations one and two are far more offensive. If you were like the chick in situation 3, then you could respond to 1 and 2 by giving them what they deserve for being jerks and NOT feel guilty over it.

But I will say I am surprised this is a German thing as this seems to be more of an American thing from my observation (especially in cars or grocery stores).

Maya M said...

"I really do listen to people say why they don't have kids and what I hear is that it somehow doesn't fit in to their lifestyle choice..."
Judging from people I know, I don't think what they say in this situation is always the truth. They tend to be defensive and not to admit what, at some level, will always be considered a major failure.
"I preferred to devote myself to my career and my artistic hobby" definitely sounds better than "I couldn't find Mr. Right and didn't have the guts to become a single mom" or "I thought I would still be fertile in my mid-30s, but I was wrong".
All girls play with dolls and wish to become a mothers one day. Then many succumb to a stream flowing in a wrong direction. Society, which creates this stream, apparently thinks that reproduction (similarly to production) will go on automatically, no matter what is done to discourage it.

currentsbetweenshores said...

Well, Gustav. . .I know I'm jumping into dangerous territory here, but I might say that yes, Germans are relatively self-centered. Now, keep in mind that I also have a Caribbean background, which places a lot of emphasis on the collective " the family" and in Germany, as I have observed, there is still more emphasis placed on the individual. It is cultural.

I have had this conversation with two southern European friends and we came to a similar conclusion. Not exactly a poll but a common understanding of how we perceive Germans and northern Europeans, in general.

Let the comments begin! :-)

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Rose-Anne that for us Germans the family isn´t as "important" as for Italians or Spanish people, which doesn´t mean that we dont care about our family at all.
It´s simply a cultural thing.

But I also have to say that it depends if you live in a city or on the country side.

Gustav said...

> I know I'm jumping into dangerous territory here

No worries :) Germans who are easily offended by this kind of "criticism" probably don't read your blog. Actually that's part of what makes it interesting.

[ Also I am hardly in any position to even talk with you about this; I really lack the perspective you have. But that hasn't stopped me before ;) ]

I would agree that the family is probably less important in Germany than it is for example in several southern European countries. But does that mean that Germans more self-centered? Also, where are "the Americans" on your self-centrism scale?

currentsbetweenshores.blogspot.com said...


I think what makes Americans a little different and perhaps less "self centered" is the influence of religion and "family values"/morals. Americans have a set of beliefs that would come into conflict with things that are more widely accepted here. Not that this is necessarily always a positive point because it also leads to intolerance. Just look at our presidents and the moral code they're expected to live by. While the US has produced some of the most intriguing individualists the society, as a whole, is far more concerned with societal moral codes. I would say Americans are far more family oriented (with the exceptions of areas like Bavaria--read religious) than Germans and therefore socially, in my opinion, have more of a team mentality in comparison to Germans, who appear to be thinking often of the individual first. The morality, as we know, has lots of problematic aspects but there is a daily humanity that is upheld by this. A fine line, I must say.

Gustav said...

> the influence of religion and "family values"/morals

So are you suggesting that the USA is a more religious country than Germany (which might be correct, on average) and that therefore Americans are more moral/less self-centered? In case that is what you're saying, I could not disagree more. I would argue that there are many situations in which a strong religiosity corresponds (if not with self-centrism) with very poor moral behaviour.

Also it almost reads like you would think of Germans in general/on average as less moral (which I would find outrageous). "Americans have a set of beliefs" do Germans not have a set of beliefs, is that unique to Americans? And what are these "things that are more widely accepted here"? Again, I think that cutting in line is considered rude by the vast majority of Germans, but there are definetely a-holes in this country who do it nonetheless.

And what is a societal moral code? And in how far do those of the US and Germany differ? And what does morality have to do with self-centrism in the first place? Or with family? Can you not be a very moral egoist? I think the problem of this discussion might be that it tends to generalize terms ("Americans", "Germans"), that should not/cannot be generalized that easily.

Sharon said...

Hi Rose-Anne, let me comment on the German word of "Selbstverwirklichung". I checked it in the dictionary and in English there are 3 words for it: self-actualization (which I think is really unsexy), self-fulfillment and self-realization. All three of them and the German word have the "self" in common. And to me a lot of times this "self" is mixed up with an understanding of oneself as "ego" - but "Egoverwirklichung" does not exist in the German language.
To me, a lot of people who talk about "Selbst-Verwirklichugn" barely know their "Self" nor are they connected to their "Self" (I know my grammar is not right in this sentence).
And if one would know one's "self", then one would clearly feel the connection to other "selves"...and then one would respect the taken seats, the kids standing in line and would understand that the "self" is growing within a connection of a family even more.

currentsbetweenshores.blogspot.com said...


Yes, I am saying that the US is a more religious country in the sense that there are more churches per sq foot and Americans "live" religion in a way I just don't see here. In fact, that's one cliche Germans love telling about Americans. . .but that is not the interesting part of your comment. . . this religious-ness leads to a PERCEIVED sense of morality. I would not say Americans are across the board more moral than anyone else. In fact, that is a completely different discussion and we'd have to start defining morality. . . no, I mean that Americans have a set of codes that they/we believe belong to moral daily behavior: saying "hi how are you" with a smile, saying excuse me when you walk in front of someone looking at something on a shelf, striking up a quick (read German definition "superficial") conversation in line at the grocery store, complimenting someone because you can, even if you don't know him/her. It's the day-to-day humanity that is missing for me here. While I can agree w/a non-violent, tolerant, critical way of perceiving the world I can not relate to the stoicism, the lack of warmth or the self-entitlment I encounter here. Now, has this changed? Yes. My generation and younger behaves less "German" and less "American" than what clichess dictate. We have all become a bit more worldly and are harder to distinguish by nationality than the generation before ours. But there are still historical remnants that shape our societal interactions. It varies, obviously, by region and social class. But, Gustav, really, to deny our differences would also be silly. We notice these differences when we travel, when we live in another country, these things come up. Expats talk about them, they get excited and upset by these cultural differences (German /directness rudeness is almost a formal topic of discussion amongst Anglo expats here). Of course, there are people who step in and outside of boxes and in 20 years we'll be able to distinguish less and less. But now, so far, I don't see that as reality.

Maya M said...

These days, a friend told me about our registry of children available for international adoption. It looked very sad, she said, because most children had severe cognitive and motor impairments.
I asked who would adopt them and she said, "I think, only some religious ladies from America."
She was completely unaware of the discussion here, but I think what she said sounds relevant.

sol chica said...

Rudeness is rampant in Berlin. I find people act their worst in the winter months. I find that the rude people here are generally all show and back-off after it becomes clear that they are dealing with someone that won't tolerate it, namely me. The initial aggression is like a test. It is annoying. I call it out and people act all shocked and misunderstood but they always back down. I wish I could give every Berliner a bit of New York therapy.

The selfishness dressed up as self-realization is nothing new. When one believes that they are more worthy than others and that they have no responsibility to other, it is best that they don't have children.

Gustav said...

@ Rose-Anne

> religious-ness leads to a PERCEIVED sense of morality.

I'm aware of the common perception of "religious therefore moral". I emphatically disagree with it.

> I would not say Americans are across the board more moral than anyone else.

Ok, I wasn't sure whether I was understanding you correctly. Sorry about that.

> Americans have a set of codes that they/we believe belong to moral daily behavior

I just wantet to point out that the United States is not the only country with such a "set of codes". It is just different in different places. And I would agree that there is (on average) less of an emphasis on interaction with strangers in Germany. Still, as you have already said, there are also a lot of regional differences. A former teacher of mine once told me that he didn't relly like the people in the region he lived in now, because they lacked the warmth and heartiness (is that an actual word?) he knew from his native Rhine region. Also, Berliners aren't exactly known for their friendliness (more to the contrary).

I'm not at all denying that there are cultural differences between the US and Germany as well as other countries. I have actually left the country a couple of times. I just don't think it's fair to call Germans in general more self-entitled or self-centered.

currents said...

Fair enough, it's generally unfair to generalize, which is why I tend to recall specific anecdotes on my blog, which also shock German readers who often don't comment here but send me emails. . .