Derek Sivers

The joke that changed my life


Growing up in America, I didn’t know much about other cultures.

When I was 25, my band got some gigs in Europe — my first time there. It was 1995. The European Union was new. I heard a street performer in Copenhagen tell this joke:

“The EU will be a success if …

“The EU will be a disaster if …

The European crowd all laughed. They seemed to know the stereotypes in the joke. But I was confused. I could figure out the French chef and Italian lover, but the rest were a mystery.

That night I bothered my Danish host for hours, asking him many questions like, “Do the French have bad police? Why are the Germans supposed to be so organized?” He was patient and tried to explain. The stereotypes had no malice. It was an affectionate tolerance, like we are with family members. Mom always loses her keys. Uncle burns whatever he cooks. Maybe it only happens sometimes, but enough to earn a reputation for it, which is enough to be teased for it.

But how can a whole culture earn a reputation? Why are some cultures one way, and other cultures another way? What makes millions of people in an area have similar behaviors?

Religion? A historical event that changed everyone’s actions and beliefs for a generation? Or is it actually just false, and based on one popular movie, like thinking all Australians are Crocodile Dundee?

They say that America is more individualist and China is more collectivist. But why? Does the influence of cowboys or Confucius still shape everything? Or is that the easy-but-wrong answer?

I have hundreds of questions like this, and I’ve been pursuing the answers ever since — for 27 years now! All because of that joke.

The best explanations I’ve found so far are the books “Au Contraire! Figuring out the French” and “Watching the English”. Please let me know of any other great answers.

busker in Copenhagen
Photo of Piper Mckenzie by Dawn.