Scrooge

Theresa May has made a “generous offer” to those EU nationals living in the UK. Others disagree. She should never have chosen that particular word.

“Generous” is a lazy adjective: Not only is it subjective, it is also relative.

Trust me on this one, I am a Scot. No nation has been subject to more libelous accusations on the subject of generosity than my own.

I have visited many countries and have been lucky enough to experience the warmth and hospitality of people from many nations and this, more than anything else, has made me believe in the goodness of humanity.

And yet I am convinced that my own people are among the kindest and most generous I have ever met. Others have said so too, lest you accuse me of being big-headed. Most Scots are warm-hearted, considerate, welcoming and hospitable to strangers.

However, in the eyes of the world it matters not whether I share my last pickled egg with you or break my back bending over to pick up a penny: I am a tight-fisted Scot and I am constantly bombarded with over-rehearsed jokes designed to remind me of the fact.

Somebody always has to be the butt of the jokes and most countries have their respective targets. You always have the dumb ones (in Britain that’s the Irish), the backward ones, the cockney-style wheeler-dealers who you can trust as far as you can throw –and the stingy ones: in Britain’s case the Scots.

In Germany, the Irish are the East Frisians while anybody who hails from the former German Democratic Republic is an open target for jokes about lack of sophistication. The Poles are the kleptomaniac Scousers. As for unwillingness to spend money, well, unfortunately Germany’s equivalent of the Scots is: the Scots.

We are not alone on the scrooge list but we are number one. Swabians, the natives of the region around Stuttgart, are a close second while the Dutch come in at number three. One of the negative points about living in Germany is the number of lazy, unoriginal jokes suggesting that the Scots are mean.

Scottish jokes have even reached the heights of semi-officialdom. In the time I have been living here, at least three German companies have run advertising campaigns which played on Scottish people’s apparent unwillingness to spend money.

Rewe, a nationwide supermarket chain ran a campaign a few years ago featuring a deliriously happy male model in a kilt purchased in a costume shop pulling a trolley piled high with supposedly cheap items. I boycotted their stores for a year.

Two telephone companies — E-Plus and Versatel — ran billboard campaigns featuring “Scottish rates”: rates so low that apparently even Scottish people would sign up for them. A word of warning to you: Neither of those companies is still in business.

Because I am an ambassador for my country, most of the time I just laugh it off. Sadly this does not always work. Many is the time — mostly when under the influence of alcohol — that I have given Germans — most of whom are under the influence of alcohol — my particular take on why Scottish jokes are inappropriate.

I mention that in my country there are many small-minded people who believe that all Germans are racists. I point out that jokes about Scottish people confirm that prejudice. I mention that the small-minded people think like this because between 1933 and 1945 Germany engaged in mass genocide which nearly destroyed Europe as we know it. Why, I ask, do Germans think that Scottish people are mean?

This is childish behaviour on my part but the point is worth noting. In Germany you can make jokes about Hitler, the Second World War and National Socialism if you know your audience well, your comments are original and your comic timing is perfect.

Making jokes with Scots about being miserly requires the same conditions –and very few people are capable of fulfilling them. My tip is to learn about us, get to know us and our often strange ways: You’ll find much better ammunition for your joke arsenal in the long run and make friends along the way.

As to why the Scots are perceived as being so mean, nobody seems to be sure. The most I can offer is an answer which at least has a degree of cultural consistency. I attribute it to our historical links to Calvinism.

Calvinism preaches the virtues of frugality, simplicity, and egalitarianism more than any other mainstream Protestant doctrine and it is perhaps no coincidence that Dutch Protestantism is also predominantly Calvinist.

Many Scots counter the theory that they are mean by pointing the finger back at their accusers. Many Scottish visitors to Germany leave with an armful of examples of how stingy the Germans are.

As for our neighbours in England, many of us joke about the subtle difference in speech which occurs when visiting a Scottish or an English household.

“You’ll have something to eat of course” says your Scottish host.

“You’ll have had something to eat” is what they say down south.

Miserliness and generosity are measured in the eye of the beholder. Depending on who you are and where you come from they can also be termed thrift and unnecessary largesse.

Customer service in Germany is bad and is rewarded accordingly. The Knigge, Germany’s etiquette bible, recommends adding between five and ten per cent to the bill in a restaurant as a gratuity for the serving staff  –provided of course that the service was good. American waiters or waitresses would dial 911 under such circumstances.

Bottled and canned drinks in Germany come with a deposit on them. The amount is miniscule — 8 cents for a bottle and 25 cents for a can — and yet even the richest German will never contemplate throwing them in the garbage bin. The front seats of many German cars look like rubbish bins as a result.

On the other hand, you need never bring cash along to a German wedding or birthday party, and if a German in a pub buys you a drink — which they are usually more than happy to do — then you are under no obligation to return the favour.

While it is not acceptable to talk about how much you earn, Germans can be frank about money in other situations. If cash flow prevents you from taking part in social activities then you have only to say the word and your friends will pay for you no questions asked. In Germany as in Britain, lending money to a friend generally implies that you do not wish to get it back.

Across the sea, the British tip ten percent whatever the circumstances and donate more money to charity than any other nation in Europe. Weddings are pay-as-you go and you have more chance of breaking out of Colditz than you have of leaving a British pub when it’s your turn to get a round in.

Frugality is also open to interpretation. A British person driving a Ferrari is seen as someone who has made progress in life whereas a German doing the same would be seen as a show-off.

A Porsche would be just about acceptable, provided the owner can live with some pretty hard joking from his friends and colleagues. Better would be a standard family car that requires relatively little maintenance, does a good few miles to the gallon and doesn’t stand out from the crowd –it is seen as bad manners to appear to be rich.

The flip side of the coin is that one also cannot be seen to be poor. The joke about people taking public transport is that they have “triple A” status —arm, arbeitlos, ausländisch: poor, unemployed and foreign.

The good old British charity shop simply doesn’t exist here. Germans steadfastly refuse to buy anything second-hand; cars excepted but houses included. In the last year or so, shops have opened selling shabby chique furniture (in German Shabby chic). It is all brand new and made to look old. For all their egalitarianism, the Germans cannot rough it like the British.

Ultimately the results are the same. Come the end of the week, the end of the month or the end of the evening nobody has any money.

There is a bit of Protestant frugality in all of us I think; we just deal with it in different ways and forget about it at different times. We come from simple origins and money is a complicated subject. As such the term “generosity” will always be open to interpretation.

Theresa is welcome to drop in and discuss this with me over a cup of tea if she’s ever in Herne; on the way to Berlin to meet Angela Merkel for example. I’ll even open a packet of Jaffa Cakes.

She’ll have had something to eat first of course.

 

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