In Search of SchmähOne Woman's Search for Viennese Humour
Across Austria, the term describes regional senses of humour and is often associated with a regional dialect. It is a way of communicating thought to have originated in servants’ mockery of their bourgeois masters.
Before visiting Vienna for the first time, I learn that its inhabitants are known for a particular sense of humour known as Schmäh. A German speaker tells me that the correct pronunciation of the word is something like ‘shmay’. I try to find out more. I don’t discover much, however. Online searches throw up many broad – and conflicting – definitions. They range from ‘a quick witted retort’ to ‘a melancholy outlook on life’. A friend who did a year abroad in Vienna has never heard of it. For another acquaintance with Austrian family connections, it rings only the faintest of bells. I contact a couple of Austrians living abroad. They know the word well, but are unable to elaborate. They all recommend, sensibly enough, speaking to a person from Vienna.
My search for Schmäh in Vienna does not begin well. On the journey from the airport, I ask my taxi driver whether he can explain what it is. “Schnee?” he says, “Yes, this is snow.” I try again. He looks puzzled, so I write it down for him. “Oh, shmay!” he says triumphantly. “It means a joke.” Is he able to elaborate? “It is something funny.” Others I ask that day have similarly unenlightening reactions. One lady simply giggles and shakes her head, suggesting any attempt to understand is futile. Help finally comes in the form of Jacob Moss, an Australian who has lived in the Austrian capital for nearly three years. As an editor of an English language guide to the city, he has often puzzled over particularly Viennese traits. When we meet, I note that he pronounces the word with a lazy nonchalance – ‘shmeh’ – as though it should be accompanied by a dismissive shrug of the shoulders. Schmäh is not just found in Vienna, he tells me. Across Austria, the term describes regional senses of humour and is often associated with a regional dialect. It is a way of communicating thought to have originated in servants’ mockery of their bourgeois masters. For this reason, it is frequently overheard in coffee houses, bars, and Würstelstande queues, as friendly, off the cuff witticisms between customers and staff. If making mischief in the face of authority was its original purpose, I see how it makes sense that Schmäh is sometimes associated with telling lies. It might also explain why a subtle – but unavoidably large – vagina shaped motif was integrated into the tiled floor of one of the capital’s traditional Beisl.
Wienerischer Schmäh seems to involve heavy sarcasm and irony, delivered with friendly, rather than mean, intentions. Often understated and snide, not everyone can achieve it. You can describe someone as having good Schmäh, or congratulate a person for using it well. It can be so dry that it passes undetected, or is misinterpreted as frostiness. It has been suggested that when Marie Antoinette, the Austrian born Queen of France, responded, “Let them eat cake” to the news that her people had no bread, it was, in fact, very poorly timed Schmäh. It goes beyond being able to tell a joke, however. It is a state of mind. Wienerischer Schmäh is related to the notion of Gemütlichkeit, a state of cosy contentedness . It also describes a laissez-faire, conservative approach to life. “Nicht Ernst” – it’s not serious, don’t worry – is something that is heard a lot in Vienna. This attitude, as the blackness of Schmäh humour suggests, has developed as a way of coping with the darker aspects of life, and communicating negative news. It has been described as a ‘laughing surface laid over an ugly world.’ For Jacob, who believes the Viennese are obsessed with death, a quote from the Viennese playwright Thomas Bernhard sums it up best:’Everything is ridiculous if one thinks of death.’
I slowly begin to notice Schmäh around me. I hear one waiter drily tell another to move a pillar rather than expect him to move out of the way, and a laughing grey haired couple congratulate their waiter on “sehr guter Schmäh”. I see it in a restaurant name: I Love You for Your Inner Beauty, Said the Butcher to the Cow. I even find something of its attitude in the work of one of the city’s most celebrated artists, Egon Schiele, whose pictures are often misunderstood as melancholic reflections on a tragic life. I read his friend’s explanation that, instead, “The basic trait of [Schiele’s] character was seriousness! Not the bleak, melancholy seriousness which hangs its head, but the quiet seriousness of a person dominated by a spiritual mission. Everyday matters could not affect him.”
Vienna is a city where irony is inescapable. Its huge, grandiose buildings are not only vestiges of a powerful empire, but also continual reminders of what has been lost. And although it has a serious appearance and a reputation for efficiency, the atmosphere is notably relaxed. This is a good place to understand that things could always be worse, I realise, and Schmäh has had a hand in that .