An expat survival guide to the German insurance obsession
Just today I ordered cinema tickets online. Before the booking was completed, I was taken to another page which asked me if I wanted to insure my tickets, which I found a bit absurd. Presumably some people feel the need to take out insurance on cinema tickets which cost about nine euros each, in case you fall ill and can’t fulfil your commitment.
It's no secret that Germany is the most insured country in the world, statistically, ranking even higher up than the USA. There is insurance, literally for everything, and no wonder the Germans have incorporated the topic of insurance into their introductory and small-talk categories.
Haben Sie Haftpflichtsversicherung?
There was one event in the past that I can’t get out of my head. I was playing football on an enclosed pitch next to a bike path, and the ball had gone over the fence. I went to fetch it, and then kicked it high up back towards the pitch. The ball went up, then down, bouncing multiple times. Unfortunately, there was a female cyclist on the bike path - and not the kind that was able to make snap decisions.
She saw the ball bouncing towards her and panicked, like a deer in the headlights. She tried left, right, centre, wobbling back and forth. She didn’t know where to go. As Murphy’s law would have it, the football ended up hitting her front bumper, breaking her headlight, or at least knocking it off, slightly.
It was almost as if the whole thing had happened in slow motion, akin to the golf–buggy scene from Austin Powers, or a deliberate and comically absurd fighting scene from a movie. Call it what you like - the collision was inevitable.
I ran up to see if she was ok, which obviously she was, but, having seen the light broken off, she immediately asked: “Haben Sie Haftpflichtsversicherung?”
“What the heck is that?” I retorted. What she had in fact asked was if I had any "public liability insurance". The German word, which is a compound of three words: Haft, Pflicht and Versicherung. Put them together and it’s enough to make your tongue do a double-knot. You’ll find yourself spitting at people around you, in a fable attempt to pronounce it.
The German DNA
To Germans, the word is an institution in itself. A pillar upon which they identify themselves as Germans. A proud common denominator – the German DNA, if you like.
If Frank Schmidt was on holiday in Portugal, and feeling homesick, finding someone from his own country to talk about Haftpflichtsversicherung would be the perfect remedy to make him feel closer to home again, no doubt. The fact is, although public liability insurance is not mandatory in Germany, it may as well be, given how many people have it and swear by it.
Spontaneous - the most blasphemous word in German lexicon
Since then I’ve witnessed many conversations like this. For example, if you have an accident, a break-in at home, your bike stolen, an emergency requiring you to cut your holiday short, or an earthquake preventing you from going to the movies - literally anything that has not gone according to the master plan, be prepared that to answer the all-important first question on whether or not you are insured against whatever just happened.
Paranoia, you might say? To anyone who is not from Germany, a definite – yes. But to Germans, this is a simple fact of life. They hate surprises and unforeseen circumstances – things not going according to plan, things that happen – and I’m going to use the most blasphemous word in German lexicon – spontaneously.
Every German is constantly asking themselves, “What if?” And nothing would irk them more off-balance, than a scenario where that question remains unanswered: “What happens if I fall over?” “Do I have insurance that covers me for that?”
Never say "we'll see" to a German
If you are reading this with scepticism, thinking, "Oh this guy is exaggerating", or "He’s got a tiff with the Germans", you are more than welcome to put my hypothesis (and the experience of living here for over 15 years) to the test.
Next time you talk to a German person, throw in a couple of happy-go-lucky phrases like, "We’ll see what happens" (mal sehen was passiert), or "Let’s play it by ear" (lass dich überraschen) – both relatively uncommon in German language. You will immediately notice a reaction, which might be more or less visible, depending on the amount of German-ness the person opposite you has.
But be assured you will get the reaction. It will be either in the form of immediate quick-fire questions demanding you explain what you mean, or there will be a long silence during which they display a confused expression on their face. Akin to that of a computer that has been fed a formula that contradicts itself, which it keeps trying in vain to compute. Eventually the mainframe caves in, and the CPU explodes from overheating.
Always read the small print
To summarise, everything must be logical and coherent, like a formula. A must equal B, and A + B must equal C. There are no "if" formulas allowed.
It has to be said though, in their defence, have you ever read the small print in an insurance contract? Probably not, but if you have, you would find all sorts of nasty sentences that limit the insurers' accountability for things that you, as the person insured, will deem banal and self-explanatory.
A good German person grows up with a mechanism that ensures they read the small print. This instinct is conditioned from a very young age. Imagine going to any professional service, be it a bank, a university, the tax office, literally any government office. If you forget something, or get some minute detail wrong, the first thing you’ll hear being said is an accusation – "Did you not read the information in the terms and conditions on our website?”
This amounts to the second-most grave sin imaginable in the Federal Republic – being uninformed.