A classic case of a cultural clash
Living in New Zealand for a year, my roommate took me aside one day and said: “If you don’t mind me saying, well, I was thinking about it for a long time and I must admit it now, but I get the feeling that, frankly, you are really rude.” Having come to regard myself by this time as perfectly cordial and polite, I could only respond with a perplexed stare, eyebrow cocked skeptically but for the first time self-conscious as to whether it was, maybe, too cocked? So, relaxing my brow slowly as not to frighten her with any sudden movements, I asked her to tell me what had made her reach that conclusion after thinking for such a very long time. She frowned, sighed, and gave me the list that I will hereby shorten for obvious reasons, but dictate as faithfully as memory allows:
“You are constantly complaining about all kinds of things: we drive on the ‘wrong’ side, we don’t have heaters in our homes, we don’t like wearing shoes in public, and our buses are never on time. And never do you use the phrase ‘may I please’ when requesting something of me. I have to admit, I find you rude.”
There were so many ahems and wells, you-knows and kindas in between that I zoned out and was almost halfway into my mental happy place when her expectant stare brought me back to planet earth. I am not super enthusiastic about tiring filler words since they slow down the process of being criticized.
I found it quite baffling though. How on earth could she consider my nice, friendly grumbling (which in my humble opinion was merely me pointing out cultural observations) as “rude” thus questioning my entire upbringing? Yes, she doesn’t wear shoes when going to the supermarket. Yes, it is odd to me, but it’s an island, nobody cares, and the land of bare-footers has its own definition of freedom. Freedom of toes.
When I arrived here in this other country of freedom, I started to notice similar clashes and cultural oddities when it comes to politeness and straightforwardness. Perhaps it is due to a saying in Southern Germany that roughly translates to “not nagging is praise enough” (“Nicht gemotzt ist genug gelobt.”). I prefer keeping it short and sweet, like a shot of espresso, because time is precious.
Care for an example?
When going out, my American friends order their food like this: “May I have the steak?” My mind always goes spinning in confusion because in comparison to my bold, sovereign, autonomous, and resolute “I’ll have the steak”, my friends’ way of asking seems almost timid and apologetic.
“My boots – Made in Germany – are not made for tip-toeing.”
It makes me wonder if my brave resoluteness does come off as rude everywhere else except in my home country. When we order steak, we say what we want. I’ll take the steak! My boots – Made in Germany – are not made for tip-toeing.
On the other hand… I might verbally come off as rude, but at least I’ve got some decent manners. Nowadays, I get asked to hang out with an American at noon. NOON! People would ask me to go hiking when the sun is at its zenith. I can hear my grandma’s voice whispering into my ears: What kind of mind-boggling lunatic wants to hang out at lunch time without the intention of stuffing his tummy with bratwurst and potato salad? Surely, there won’t be a small corner-shop in the woods so I’d have to hold on until 3 pm. I will have starved by then and suffered horrible sensation of hunger, being forced to devour hazelnuts and squirrels. What the…! Either we will meet at 11:30 or 1:30, but the number 12 cannot under any circumstances be in a proposed date, ever. The German Mittagsruhe (quiet time around noon) seems to be a holy time that is untouchable and should be erased from any planner unless you are solely meeting for tummy-stuffing. So that’s another kind of rudeness, though involuntary. People just don’t know better. But we are all trying to be nice to each other, in our own odd ways.
There’s still so much to learn, to observe and to become aware of. But first I have to let my noisy neighbor know how I feel about his rude Lärmbelästigung (noise annoyance) during my lunch time. And there will be no pleases, thankyous, and certainly no you-knows.