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
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. 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….
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.