European Times Munich: Joking lessons for Germans

IT LOOKS like any other seminar: the tables arranged at three sides of the rectangle, the instructor waving his arms in front of diagrams on a screen. The participants, 19 men and women predominantly in middle age, have each paid DM590 (pounds 209) to better themselves on this one-day intensive course at a Munich hotel. By 5pm tonight, they hope to leave the room as different persons, ready for the harshness of German life.

It is 9am, and the instructor, Matthias Pohm, begins with a challenge. "The new government has decreed that every German family must consume 20mg of hashish a week," he says. "Can you think of a suitable question to ask the government spokesman? For instance: why only 20mg?"

The pupils scratch their heads. "Will the cost be tax deductible?" asks the lady who during the week works as a tax inspector. "Can those allergic to hash take cocaine instead?" ventures a salesman.

The ice has been broken, the class is on a roll, everyone laughs. On to the next exercise. The participants are asked to write down the name of the person they hate most, catalogue two of their worst flaws, and construct a line of attack. This, after all, is a self-defence class. However, the weapons are exclusively verbal. The students are here to be kitted out with an armoury of one-liners, cheeky ripostes, biting sarcasm and devastating put-downs.

In a society where charm is for wimps, apology a sign of weakness and bullying an accepted form of behaviour, aggressive verbal skills are often deployed in everyday skirmishes. But doing it with wit - now that is ground-breaking stuff. Mr Pohm, one of five such teachers in the German- speaking world, knows he is playing with fire, and has been accused of dragging his people too fast into the humour equivalent of the nuclear age. "I am merely giving my students a weapon," he says. "How they use it is their business."

Mr Pohm, a 39-year-old former software engineer who changed to this field because he found communicating with machines somewhat limiting, is a man on a mission. "Perhaps there is not enough laughter in Germany," he says. "It is against that, that I'm fighting."

Sometimes, it is an uphill struggle. The first attempt at irony falls flat, as a student tries the unconventional in confronting her imaginary enemy: "Nora, don't you think you should be a little less arrogant?"

"Not quite there," the instructor declares.

The rest are not very funny, either. The bile pours, but true wit is in short supply.

Never mind. Mr Pohm has classified every kind of social atrocity, and devised the corresponding deterrent, or indeed counter-attack. All you need to do is learn them by heart, and practise to improve the speed of delivery.

After lunch, the teacher lets us into the secret of the "exaggerated response". Irony, he explains, is rare in Germany, self-irony practically unheard of.

Nineteen pairs of eyes widen. "What you do," Mr Pohm slowly explains, "is take on the criticism, amplify it and throw it straight back."

The lesson on self-deprecating humour proved to be The Independent's finest hour. "You never listen," came the mock charge. "What did you say?" whimpered your correspondent, to squeals of delight all round.

There were, roughly, a dozen different ways to disarm an aggressor with a quick one-liner which, this being the German language, can actually run to four lines, crowned inevitably by the verb at the end. It is worth waiting for, none the less. As the 19 participants spar with one another, one can detect in their eyes an intoxicating rush of adrenalin, a feeling of barriers being transcended by a mere curve of the lip.

It is five o'clock, time to put away the pens, retract those razor-sharp tongues, and face the bleak world outside. Mr Pohm exhorts his pupils to revise for half an hour three times a week, puts in a plugfor his book - two hundred pages of come-backs and double entendres - and the class is dismissed.

Dr Albrecht Bender, a patent lawyer who has just spent DM590 on his quantum leap to a new consciousness, is satisfied with the day's work. "It has been a very useful course," he says. "Now I must concentrate on the practical side of what I've learnt. I will revise, work slowly, and maybe, in three months' time, I will be ready to incorporate some of this into my personality."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
The Tesco Hudl2: An exceptional Android tablet that's powerful, well-built and outstanding value

Life and Style
food + drinkAuthor DBC Pierre presents his guide to the morning after
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas