In other countries, there's often a quite clear conception when it comes to what the average German is all about. A new study offers glimpses into how Germans live day to day.
Plenty of people can rattle off the stereotypes: punctual, well-organized, environmentally conscious, humorless, lovers of beer and vacationers in sandals worn with socks. But who is the average German really? How does he or she live, eat, think and consume?
A study commissioned by four of Germany's largest publishers (Axel Springer, Bauer Media Group, Gruner + Jahr and Hubert Burda Media) aims to deliver answers to those questions by offering a representative sketch of the country's inhabitants.
Readers won't find information about vacation footwear in the study. But they will discover that Germans believe clothing must be comfortable above all else, with 31.4 percent of respondents "thoroughly and completely" agreeing with that characterization. Nearly half of Germans (45.2 percent) are also unwilling to pay more than 100 euros ($135.31) for a pair of shoes.
Insights for advertisers
How much the findings of the study, titled "Wissen, wie Deutschland lebt" (Knowing How Germany Lives) help, remains an open question.
Hartmut Krause-Solberg of Axel Springer followed the study and says, "The results are very well suited to steering advertising in order to reach target groups optimally. That's the main purpose."
Indeed, marketing agencies can find some interesting information in the report. For example, there seems to be a large discrepancy between attitudes and behavior. The study shows that buyers of gas-guzzling SUVs see environmental issues as being just as important as those who would go for an electric motor for their next car purchase. Also, 44 percent of the people who eat fast food multiple times per week say it's important to them to take care of their health.
What do those contradictions say about Germany? Hartmut Krause-Solberg says it's just a matter of people changing their views about something before their actions catch up. "When you compare people's actual behavior - what they really buy and use - then you see that it almost always lags behind," he said.
The problem with 'average'
Solberg-Krause doesn't see the "average" German reflected in the study, though. "That would be half-male, half-female and mid-50s. But there are also many who are under 20, many who are over 60. One can't really do too much with the concept of 'average,'" he said, adding that the purpose of the study rests more in delivering information about attitudes and behaviors among specific social groups.
Jürgen Schupp, a social researcher at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), agrees, noting that there's much variation behind the idea of the average German that emerges from the study - making such a characterization problematic.
"Typically German now refers to a plurality. It's difficult to class the people living in Germany now as belonging to a general trend or social grouping."
Last year, Schupp headed a project called the Socio-economic Panel (SOEP), a representative survey that aimed to determine social trends in Germany.
And what do the Germans think about themselves? Another study, commissioned by one of the country's large breweries, revealed that 35 percent of respondents called themselves "typically German:" Nearly the same amount (36 percent) responded that they do not fall into that category. And the remainder were undecided.
Among those surveyed, 73 percent said that Germans are hardly as honest, punctual and conscientious as people seem to think.
There were hard facts when it came to beer consumption, which has been diminishing in Germany for years. Compared with other countries, Germany is still behind only the Czech Republic and Austria when it comes to annual per capita beer drinking.
Laughter versus horror
The recent study falls silent when it comes to the country's reputed lack of humor. Ten years ago, however, Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire investigated humor in various countries. The result of his research was that German participants found the jokes used in the study funnier than participants in any other country.
Wiseman stressed, however, that Germans found the jokes as a whole – including the good and the bad – as particularly funny. For him, that's a sign that Germans don't have an especially well-developed sense of humor but are, instead, not especially picky about what they'll laugh at.
Meanwhile, the country's politicians are trying to position themselves as funny entertainers. The outgoing German Vice Chancellor Philipp Rösler told the following joke about his boss in a Bavarian brewery at the start of his term: "Angela Merkel is now available as a Barbie doll, for 300 euros. The thing is, the doll costs just 20 euros, but the price really soars thanks to the 40 pant suits."
Perhaps it's a good thing if Germans aren't too picky when it comes to wit.