Friday, January 9, 2009


We're all familiar with the line from Sly & the Family Stone's recording of Dance to the Music, in which, Cynthia Robinson shouts out, "All the squares, go home!" If the Family had been performing auf Deutsch, then it's likely she would have said, "Alle Spießer, geh na' Hause!" Luckily for German partygoers, Spießers are almost always eager to do just that. I mentioned The Spießer, in a previous blog posting and promised to reveal more about this very German concept. The Spießer archetype may be the key to understanding the German mind at it's deepest level. It's a practical skill if you're in the checkout line at Kaiser and want to pass through unscathed.

It's a gross over-simplification to say a Spießer is a square, but it gives us a starting point. If you grew up watching Dobbie Gillis on television, or James Dean on the big screen, you need no definition of "square," but a recent survey revealed Forschungsjahr readers under 35 are dissatisfied with references to the pop culture of the 60's. So think of it this way: to be a square is to be uncool. The opposite of square is hip, and its apex is reached in the person of Miles Davis. On the other end of the spectrum would be Captain Kangaroo. That's another 60's TV reference, but I think we have to live with it.

But a Spießer is more than just square. He or she is one who has narrow and limited scope to their thinking and behavior. They are controlled by society's expectations for them and its definition of what is right and proper. Nonspießers are comfortable defining their own rules. The Spießer is always looking over her shoulder to see what someone else thinks. So, while a square is defined mostly by style: clothing, music, dance moves or a lack thereof, Spießers are defined more by substance: what they do, how they act in a given situation. Clothing can be spießig, but clever Spießers are potentially everywhere, disguised by a Bundeswehr backpack or an Ärzte tattoo. It's best not to rely too much on personal style to detect them.

And there's another essential difference between the American square and the German Spießer. Between the square and the hip there is a wall that is seldom crossed. If you're hip, you remain hip, because you're, well... hip. But in the German cultural universe the phrase most often used is "Spießer werden." Type this phrase into a reliable search engine and you'll see what I mean. My hits included a story about a hard core, leather clad Berlin rapper, pierced within an inch of his life, who told an alternative magazine writer, he hoped someday to live in a house on the water. "Ganz schön spießig... " was the writer's comment. I also found book titles: Spießer werden, leicht gemacht, Wie spießig sollen wir noch werden? and Die neue Spießer. After many years I have come to the conclusion that many Germans see the qualities of Spießertum as essentially German characteristics. If that is true, then to be a German is to become, inexorably, a Spießer.

I don't believe that the Spießer archetype is the inevitable Endstation for all German character development. I know many Germans who are thoroughly non-spießig in their thinking and behavior. The fact that in the process of growing older they buy a car, shave more than once a week or tolerate the odd Gartenzwerg doesn't make them Spießers in my mind. But the quality that defines the culture isn't the actual Spießerwerden, it's the deeply rooted fear, an Urangst, of that destiny. Unfortunately, when Sly calls upon us all to get up and dance to the funky music, many Germans worry they'll be too busy ironing their bow tie collection to hear his organ, playing Ride, Sally, Ride. I don't pity the real Spießers. But for those Germans who's only problem is the fear of Spießerwerden, it's a real tragedy.


Charlie H said...

The juxtaposition of Miles with the Captain gave me my first good laugh in days. Thank you.

I wonder if there is a similarity between Speisers and something in American culture that we haven't named yet: the person who tries to maintain the life that the GOP tries to promote. "Soccer mom," sort of, but more inclusive. Suburban? Gated? Walmartisch?

Christopher T. Terry said...

Oh boy, a comment!

I think there's a connection, but aren't all GOP types mavericks now? That wouldn't appeal to a Spießer at all.


Rebecca H said...

Spießerwerden how would one pronounce that?

Christopher T. Terry said...

Dear Rebecca,

first Spießer. "Shp ee sser" the double ee is pronounced just as a long e, as in "sheet."

then werden, The w is of course pronounced like a v, so " ver den." the den is just like English.

Altogether, shp-ee-sser-ver-den.


Rebecca H said...

I like to hear the words in my mind as I read them, and my brain isn't always quite sure what to do with the fancy German.

Anonymous said...

... from a German spießer's point of view: brilliantly discribed and pics well chosen. The Gartenzwerg may be the safest bet to detect a real Spießer once you spot one on the meticulously mowed lawn in front of someone's house. Another safe bet, to be seen every saturday: cleaning (and polishing!) the family car or having a beer together with neighbors in the "Kleingartenkolonie" the same day (which as such is as spießig as it can get).

Funny to see German habits mirrored in such a way, mostly well to the point! K.-H.

Anonymous said...

Mhmm... there is a bit of a Spießer in all of us.... (no offence meant)

I think there is a point to what you say about people getting older tend to adapt more to a Spießer way of life.
Then again. Spießer are being called just that by those who think themselves as free or outside of (german) society's conventions.

The twist in that is that the qualities the German people like (on/with/by) themselves f.ex. being on time, precise (or over-precise) and so on would be labelled as typically Spießer qualities making all Germans Spießer?

From a inter-social viewpoint it is good to be a little Spießer at a time - this just meaning to have a certain point of view and relying on that. Then again... being a "real" Spießer would be to think that your point of view is good because it is the p.o.v. of the "majority" of people (you don't even have to really have to believe in those values or whatever making you the worst kind of Spießer)...

Well... I elaborate too much being a stickler myself and hopefully still open enough to other opinions in order to just scrape and escape Spießerhood

Interesting though to read about Spießertum - never really liked to think about it before