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Scot W. Steven­son: Why Amer­i­cans (Brits, Cana­dians) do not say what they mean

Writ­ten Septem­ber 18th,2006, trans­lated by Thor­sten Sieben­born with per­mis­sion of the orig­i­nal au­thor

Orig­i­nal: Warum Amerikaner (Briten, Kanadier) nicht sagen, was sie meinen

“Hey, how are you” asks an Amer­i­can – and is sur­prised when his Ger­man friend tells him that his pet fer­ret was killed by a car. “Just come on over some­time !” said the Briton and is aghast when the Ger­man some­time later re­ally stands be­fore his door. En­glish speak­ers do not al­ways mean what they say; Ger­mans, in con­trast, al­most al­ways do. If those two cul­tures come to­gether, there are some more prob­lems than just the hand­shake[1].

Cul­tures from the An­glo­sphere are speak­ing with a cul­tural code which de­mands po­lite­ness. For ex­am­ple, it is con­sid­ered crude to an­swer di­rectly with “no.” There­fore they use phrases that ev­ery other En­glish speaker un­der­stands as “no,” yet do not mean “no”. (Dear women: Some prob­lems with “no” seem more in­flu­enced by gen­der than cul­ture. I am sorry.)

When a woman asks her best girl­friend if a spe­cific dress fits her, should the friend be Ger­man she may an­swer with a gri­mace: “You ? Not re­ally” or “I don't know if that re­ally fits you.” An Amer­i­can woman would be more apt to an­swer, “Wouldn't blue be a bet­ter fit to your eyes ?” – which means you are look­ing like an anorexic scare­crow with a drug prob­lem – while a Ger­man girl ask­ing would get the inkling that they are talk­ing past each other. “Eyes ? Why is she blath­er­ing about my eyes ? I want to know if my butt juts out !”

Other ex­am­ples: Dur­ing a dis­cus­sion with Amer­i­cans, “I won­der if this is re­ally the best so­lu­tion” means “no.” Like­wise, “I'm won­dering if we need more time” or “we might want to re­view some parts of the project” are also neg­a­tive. Amer­i­cans are per­plexed (or simply an­gry) when Ger­mans, af­ter a short re­flec­tion, re­spond, “Nope, it's ok” and simply con­tinue. From the Amer­i­can's point of view, the mes­sage was clear.

The rules are valid for the daily rou­tine, too. A po­lite Cana­dian won't tell you that he does not like a present be­cause it seems to him to be in­de­cent as it could hurt your feel­ings. And that is – we are com­ing to the cen­tral point of the story – in case of doubt, more im­por­tant than the truth. For this rea­son he or she tells you – if ever – en­coded in indi­rect lan­guage, and be­cause the gift-gi­ver is ex­pected to know the code, he un­der­stands and ev­ery­thing re­mains po­lite. Not with­out good rea­son there ex­ist the terms “lit­tle white lie” and “po­lite lie,” which are sig­nif­i­cantly weaker even than “white lie”: these are cul­tur­ally ac­cepted, even cul­tur­ally man­dated lies.

This prompts the ques­tion of how Britons & co. re­act if they re­ally like the present. In short: they freak out. “Look, honey, I wanted this since I was seven, no, I mean, be­fore I was born, wait un­til the neigh­bours see that, oh my good­ness !” There will be many, many, many thanks. This day will rest in his mem­ory for­ever and he will tell his grand­chil­dren about it and it will be chis­eled on his tomb­stone, etc. If you are Ger­man and you be­gin to have the feel­ing that it's get­ting em­barass­ing and you be­gin to sus­pect that your coun­ter­part is pulling your leg, all was cor­rect.

While happy En­glish speak­ers are a bit stren­u­ous for Ger­mans, the re­verse sit­u­a­tion is more se­ri­ous. An Amer­i­can who gives a Ger­man a present is al­most al­ways crest­fallen be­cause Ger­mans never flip out. In the code­book of an En­glish speaker, a com­pletely nor­mal Ger­man “Thank you very much” is a sign that the present was not liked. The au­thor needed to com­fort sev­eral sad­dened En­glish speak­ing com­pa­tri­ots com­ing back from a date with Ger­man woman: “She didn't like my present ! What did I do wrong ? I don't un­der­stand.” Erm, no, she re­ally liked it, but she is a Ger­man. They are that way. Marry her nonethe­less.

And now the part which may be uncom­fortable for in­ter­ested read­ers: The rules are still com­pul­sory for En­glish speak­ers in for­eign coun­tries. “If you don't have any­thing nice to say, don't say any­thing” has been ham­mered into their minds as chil­dren and so they will hold their tongue about any­thing neg­a­tive dur­ing their time as a guest. Crit­i­cism as a guest is one of the most grievous of­fenses of po­lite­ness.

For that rea­son it's impos­si­ble to find out how En­glish speak­ers re­ally find Ger­many. If they are well-man­ner­ed, they will al­ways say that it is won­der­ful. Amaz­ing. Great ! Any other re­sponse would be a catas­trophic breach of man­ners on par with us­ing the table­cloth as a hand­ker­chief and chop­sticks as cot­ton swabs.

For Ger­mans this is frus­trat­ing. Af­ter the guest has been in a new coun­try for some time, the Ger­man would ex­pect that there a things which their guest don't find to be as good as in their home coun­try – nat­u­rally. It's ex­pected in Ger­many to men­tion such things “hon­estly” be­cause it shows that you have a “so­phis­ti­cated” opin­ion about the world and a cul­ti­vated and crit­i­cal mind. Peo­ple who find ev­ery­thing su­per, great and won­der­ful are con­sid­ered dumb, gullible and su­per­fi­cial – the last one is, not with­out rea­son, the lead­ing Ger­man prej­u­dice about Amer­i­cans. From a cer­tain Amer­i­can view it could be con­sid­ered a com­pli­ment.

Such cul­tural dif­fer­ences are known to most Ger­mans in re­gards to coun­tries like Japan, where “no” only ex­ists in a dic­tio­nary be­cause the com­mu­ni­ca­tion po­lice de­mand it. For un­known rea­sons they don't ex­pect it from Britons and Amer­i­cans. It's also not taught in En­glish classes, which re­mains a com­plete mys­tery for the au­thor. As an ex­er­cise I ask the reader to imag­ine nor­mal Ger­man au pair pupils in Lon­don, New York or Ot­tawa. They will all be asked “How did you like your stay ?” – and ev­ery year, thou­sands of unsus­pecting Ger­man chil­dren will run straight into the cul­tural knife.

When Ger­mans in fre­quent con­tact with En­glish speak­ers be­come aware of the code, they're prone to panic. Ev­ery sen­tence and state­ment will be dis­sected: Does he mean it or is he po­lite ? What do I do now ? I want the code­book !

You need to re­al­ize that you just won't know some things. A good host will al­ways give the im­pres­sion that life has changed a bit. If you can­not cope with that you need to fol­low their train of thoughts, put your­self in their po­si­tion and trust your em­pa­thy. If you are guest, please spare your crit­i­cism for your di­ary and con­cen­trate your hon­est praise on one point – at least, as hon­est as pos­si­ble. It was dif­fer­ent means it was ter­ri­ble, so you can­not es­cape eas­ily.

A rule of thumb is the prin­ci­ple I ex­plained above – be­hav­ior that looks like over­stat­ing is more than po­lite­ness (though be care­ful with Amer­i­cans who live in Ger­many long enough and now know what to ex­pect). There is a help­ful “three times rule”: If an En­glish speaker tells you some­thing three times (“Please come visit us again !”) or enough times that you are ir­ri­tated, you can safely as­sume it is hon­est. One time means noth­ing.

In the end you should know: No one ex­pects a for­eign guest to ex­hibit com­pletely cor­rect so­cial be­hav­ior. Most Amer­i­cans know that Ger­mans are, erm, more “di­rect”. If you don't mind ful­fill­ing stereo­types, you have a cer­tain lee­way to han­dle things.

If you know the rules or are at least aware of their ex­istence, you could break them on pur­pose. The most beau­ti­ful Ger­man[2]. some­times uses the in­tro­duc­tion “I am Ger­man, so I am sorry if this seems to be a di­rect ques­tion,” which causes im­me­di­ate blood freez­ing of ev­ery En­glish speaker in hear­ing dis­tance. Ist der Ruf erst ru­iniert…[3].

Notes of the trans­la­tor

Ger­mans shake hands and sub­con­sciously slightly bow their head, Amer­i­cans don't => Ger­mans in­ter­pret Amer­i­cans as ar­ro­gant, Amer­i­cans in­ter­pret Ger­mans as cute…

The au­thor's wife.

Ger­man id­iomatic ex­pres­sion mean­ing that once your rep­u­ta­tion is ru­ined, you can stop wor­ry­ing about what other peo­ple think.