Pt VI – Lost in translation

(My) Expat Guide to sticking it out (beta v 1.2)

Part six of 10 ( + 2) bits of advice on how to survive the transition without throwing in the towel.

You, the American in Germany, smile at someone on the street and get a blank stare in return. You offer small talk to your cashier and get no response. You think you’re doing a good job but your boss just tells you how he didn’t like your presentation, in extreme detail. You often tell your colleague how good she looks and she’s only asked you once if you’re ill because you look like hell.

What the hell is wrong with these people?

6. Germans are stiff and seemingly unfriendly.

Assuming for a moment that you’re with a German partner or have been to Germany on occasion, you then should know at least a bit about the cultural differences between Germany and Americans. Specifically, the fact that they are blunt as spoons.

I can say that for Americans, German directness crosses over into rudeness. They do not, as a rule, pad or soften a statement with a compliment like we usually do. This can shock the hell out of an unprepared American who comes over used to having a lot of smiles and unsolicited compliments thrown at them in the course of casual conversation.

I see it as boiling down to a whole other concept of sincerity. Germans aren’t good on subtle hints, hidden clues, softened criticism, etc. Instead, they have a no-shit attitude to communication. This means that if they are upset, they say so instead of saying that they’re “less than thrilled” and leaving you to put two and two together. I found this startling at first but then, with a little time, refreshingly easy to understand. When Americans give criticism, we will start with a positive statement and then follow-up with the negative. Germans will cut to the chase. This can take your breath away as an American the first few times it happens

This sincerity rule by the way also applies to smiles, small talk and over-friendly attitudes towards strangers. A German friend summed it up once, saying that if there was no reason to smile at a stranger on the street (puppy, cute baby, funny hat), to do so anyway would be akin to dishonesty or lying, and why would he want to be so rude as to lie to someone? Small talk, being overly friendly and the like seem insincere, which is dishonest, which is rude. I found that really interesting.

In the US we have many grades of friends: casual friends, good friends, close friends, best friends, etc. We’ll call someone we met twice a “friend”. Hell, once is often enough (don’t want to seem unfriendly now, do we?).  Being a “friend” of an American doesn’t necessarily mean at lot. Unless someone throws in a qualifier (My best friend), then you’re just a person they think is nice and would consider possibly one day being really good friends with, but until then you’re in a ginormous pool with everyone else who isn’t actively objectionable.

My interpretation of it over here is: What a German would call a friend is what an American would call a great or very close friend and everyone below that is an acquaintance. On the plus side, when you actually become friends with a German, they really mean it and take it very seriously.

There are other things also lost in translation. It might be a California thing, but one thing we often do is tell people, “let’s have coffee sometime”, or “let’s meet for a drink” even though we have no real intention of actually doing so. It’s understood by both that this probably won’t happen; it’s just a way of being nice. This is very hard for Germans to understand and I’m often told stories of how they’ve felt slighted or stood up because this was said to them but the corresponding invitation never came.

When I first came to Germany I ended up having coffee with a lot of people I really wasn’t too interested in hanging out with because I went around suggesting and agreeing to coffee dates and then was astounded when everyone persistently followed through. When I tried to get out of it, I was sternly informed by Oliver that I was going to have to make good on all these offers if I didn’t want to offend everyone and as an American abroad I should know better than to write checks my butt couldn’t cash.

So I went out for coffee. A lot.

These kinds of things are why Germans often say that they find Americans insincere. We think we’re being nice; they think we’re being totally rude and offensive. We think they are being rude and even a little mean; they feel they’re being sincere and honest.

This all just takes some getting used to.

And once you figure out this body language and cultural issue, it’s time to master effective communication. Yes, there’s more to it. I’ll tell you how next.

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10 responses to “Pt VI – Lost in translation

  1. This all reminded me of a cultural misunderstanding I read about recently, from _Enju: The Life and Struggle of an Apache Chief from the Little Running Water_:

    “Apaches do not thank anyone. They think you are smart enough to know that they are grateful that you have done something for them. If they express what they feel openly they think they would be telling you that you are too stupid to know how they must feel.”

  2. (Btw, do Germans still do that sie/du drinking ceremony?)

  3. I’m having trouble hanging out with Americans lately. I can’t tell what is sincere and what is not and it just makes me dislike them. 😦 I’ve been in Germany too long!!

    On the coffee thing though – another reason I hope to never move to California. It sounds cruel to invite someone to a specific thing (coffee) and not mean it!! I never tell anyone I want to hang out with them unless I really do hope to.

  4. I’m intrigued about the language bit.

    I wonder if learning to speak German in parallel, instead of after dealing with all the cultural stuff (criticism, small talk, smiles, “friends”, “coffee”) separately is a suitable distraction such that it doesn’t offend quite so much. I mean, when you’re struggling for comprehension and self-expression, you can forget nuance for a little while, right?

  5. Hey Doc! I think you’ve uncovered more proof about the land bridge from Europe to North America. Those Apache tendencies sound mighty Germanic in nature. About the du/sie drinking ceremony, I actually don’t know of anyone who goes through formalities anymore. Lately I’ve noticed people just slipping in the ‘Du’ and waiting to see if the other objects.

    CN H – You know I’ve noticed the same thing about Americans. When you go back to the US for a visit, do you find this creeping back into your conversation style or do you stay Germanized?

    I see that drink date thing as a good example of cultural norms that don’t translate – be it outside of a micro-culture like CA or outside of a country. I think Americans make this mistake more than most: they go abroad and just act like always without wondering if the rules have changed and maybe they’re out of order.

    But isn’t there something similar in your neck of the woods… like saying “I’ll call you” at the end of a conversation with no concrete time frame?

    Cliff1976 – I agree with you. I think language is one of the most important things you can do to integrate. I started learning it right away and didn’t mean to imply that you need to first check one thing off the list before doing another. Language is also, I think, one of the best ways to really understand the mindset of the people you’re surrounded by because you’re not just learning to express yourself, you’re also learning how to understand them.

    But wouldn’t you agree that as you’re learning, before you really understand the language, the first interactions you have are things like body language and facial expressions and it would help to know a bit more about how to interpret them?

  6. Hmm, in Boston people say “how are ya?” instead of “hello” – I guess that would be their equivalent, since they only mean “hi”, they don’t actually want to know how you are. I thought that was really confusing when I moved there! I can’t think of a midwest equivalent though. People are certainly false in their own way there, but I can’t think of a way it involves asking things one doesn’t mean.

  7. Oops, to answer your other question, yes – I am more direct with Americans now. It causes no end of problems with my mother-in-law… 😉

  8. That actually reminds me of a pet peeve my husband had when he was living in the Arizona.

    That people would ask him how he was and then not wait for the answer astounded him. Even more was how uncomfortable they were if he gave an honest answer, or actually anything beyond “fine, thanks”. It got to the point where he would give outlandish answers like, “well, my butt hurts, but otherwise I’m good”. Childish but satisfying at the time.

    When I moved over here I learned quickly to not ask that question because I would be rewarded with long stories about gastrointestinal issues, headaches and infections. 🙂

    Didn’t the guys in the Midwest ever end a conversation with, “well, I’ll call you sometime”? At least in other parts of the US that was by no means a promise to actually call.

  9. MarleneMarriedtoaGerman

    No implying or inferring with Germans. 😉 And that light kick under the table is useless.

    We once met a couple traveling and talked for about ten minutes. As we were leaving, I said, “It was nice to meet you.” The male started laughing and said something snotty about Americans and how I didn’t meet him, I only talked to him. Whateveh!

    BTW, lovely to find you, Megan.

  10. Marlene! Lovely to ‘meet’ you here again. 😉 Perhaps if you are ever traveling in Bavaria we might meet in person…

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