The German Malaise of Calling-in sick

What I love about teaching is the fact that I learn so much. And yesterday afternoon, I had the chance for another small lesson in German culture. My non-German students let me take a deep look at my own German culture when they state or question the quirks and annoyances of  daily life in Germany.

One of my students, a third-grader from Myanmar, asked if she could see my daughter privately. My student needed some help with a Nintendo game and wanted to get my 12-year-old’s help on this. Knowing my daughter’s horseback riding schedule, I suggested a time which happened to be inconvenient to the girl from Myanmar. Her response, shockingly as it was, opened up another dark alley into the German mindset. She actually suggested for my daughter to skip her three-hour lesson and call in sick. Kann sie nicht krank machen? was her response. My oh my, where did a nine-year-old girl from Myanmar, who has been here for a year, and has no command of the German language, learn such a thing? This is a two-part phenomenon: while assuming most educational functions in Germany are free and therefore not valuable, krank machen is portrayed as a common act.

Publicly sponsored education is taken for granted. Whether this girl attends free immigrant-student lessons in the afternoon or visits the local Kinderhaus for Christmas parties, free services are not valued. She might have assumed that my daughter’s horseback riding lesson is a free governmental program, so it can be skipped. She did not even consider that my daughter loves her class, as generally speaking, most free classes in Germany are attended by unwilling students (I have my sources) and the drop-out rate is high. I can’t speak for the quality of government-sponsored lessons, but free education is often seen as something unprofessional.

Knowing the term krank machen stands for assimilation. One thing our German government has done for the student is to quickly assimilate her into the former German work ethic.

Up until the late 80s, when job security was not in question, the health insurance companies suffered big losses in sick-calls. It was quite common, especially in the lower job ranks, to call in sick on Mondays, hence the term der blaue Montag. Employees could take advantage of calling in sick on Monday without having to show a doctor’s slip as this was all based on trust.

As a language teacher, I adapt my language usage to that of the student to reinforce confidence and listening comprehension. But when I told my student we do not call in sick when we aren’t, she only gave me a blank stare. Additionally, I told her, we paid good money for my daughter’s class. She acted as if she did not understand, but the question Kann sie nicht krank machen? had come out in a perfect syntax earlier, as if she had heard it a few times. This immigrant student has to fight with the accusative and dative case, but knows enough German to suggest for others to call in sick. What does this say about Germany and its people? I wonder if they teach krank machen in Orientation to Germany class. Her father, a hard-working immigrant, is an unlikely candidate for such a lesson in work ethics. Her mom works, too, so I have to believe this phrase was passed on by other German schoolmates.

She might be a single case, but I suspect her words reflected the old German malaise of calling-in sick when one isn’t.

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