On Scales of Directness

Often here, misunderstandings occur not so much as a result of linguistic fumbling, but because of a certain scale of directness, at the opposing ends of which sit my own heritage and my adopted home. How I react, disagree, say yes, make conversation, how I oil the cogs of social interaction, how I try to translate little phrases from English to German, the ones that mark certain points in a conversation … it all comes from my own socio-cultural norms, ones that tend to sit if not in direct opposition to the German ones, then at least somewhere on the other side of the fence.

I have written before about the directness of Germans and how, for my first year or so of living here, it left me simultaneously red-faced and floundering. It still, if I am day-dreaming or momentarily forget with whom I am conversing, catches me unawares and there have been times I have walked away from a social interlude, resolute in my conviction that person didn’t like me only to have SG say in surprise, ‘they loved you!’

Communication is a treacherous enough river to navigate in your own tongue with your own people. When it’s cross cultural and cross-lingual, all sorts of things happen, namely hilarious/embarrassing exchanges wherein one completely misses the other person on numerous occasions and the conversation gets sucked into the ether to the soundtrack of polite laughter or ‘yeeeaahhhh’ sang out in high pitched tones of uncertainty.

For the most part, I’ve got it figured out. I don’t read into things coming from the mouth of a German, as much as I would things coming from the mouth of an English speaker. I know the majority of the time, what I’m hearing is all there is to hear, no need to forage for sub text. I have stopped reeling (for days) after being on the receiving end of a blunt sentiment, uncushioned, unhedged, by sweet little phrases that make ‘no’ or ‘that’s shit’ a little easier to take. I take interaction with the Germans on the same face value they take interactions with me.

But, that still didn’t stop my delight at discovering @SoVeryBritish and feeling utterly validated by each and every tweet. I’m not even British (ancestors hopping off a boat 250 years ago, notwithstanding) but a lot of their idiosyncrasies are found in the way Australians interact with each other (stereotype of Crocodile Dundee notwithstanding). Sure us Aussies don’t whinge as much as the Poms and we prefer our beer colder and there are many socio-cultural points at which we diverge – but as an indirect person in a land of directness, when we’re looking at a scale of social interaction, for all intents and purposes I am more British than I am German. Hence the delight. Hence the validation. Check it out.

 

14 Replies to “On Scales of Directness”

  1. It’s hard to try and overwrite our conditioning, isn’t it?

    The Vietnamese are also very direct. After 2 years I got a little used to it, such that I’m having such a hard time remembering to be constantly polite and verbose now I’m back in Britain. That twitter feed is pretty funny though!

    1. That’s interesting! I lived with Vietnamese people for a year. All five spoke fluent, near native-level English. I didn’t find them overly direct – perhaps they were socially conditioned and adept – even though they tended to mix with other Vietnamese in UK. I guess, in Vietnam, that’s a given. I’d be interested to know if you spoke Vietnamese when interacting, or English.

    2. Interesting! I haven’t had much interaction with Vietnamese people on a grand scale, so this is new to me. But I think NO ONE does the indirectness like the Brits, my God, no wonder you’re having a hard time of it. I love the Twitter feed, it’s spot on.

  2. I definitely agree with this. Only that I do often wait for a response following my question of “could you do me a favour?” but the response should always be positively yes/sure/certainly, like you said. My boyfriend (german) however waits for the next line without responding, as he is now accustomed to filtering out conversational fillers and awaits the main point. I like, however, repeating the question so that he would answer yes first. 😀

    And to date, I can’t tell whether my boyfriend’s friends(german) like me or not, though he says they do! Though they’re super direct, I find it hard to read their underlying sentiments. But then if it’s like you say, then there isn’t an underlying sentiment, so I should stop over-reading. It’s tough to stop at face value, I’m not sure how you do it, but I hope I get there!

    1. Haha, the classic ‘can you do me a favour’ … My boyfriend loves the phrase, ‘to be honest’ because it’s just not something the Germans say, because it just isn’t something they need to say. So now, whenever I say, ‘to be honest’, he says ‘I love it when you’re honest.’ Little shit.

  3. Mmmm, a need for validation is intriguing, I guess it’s only ‘human’ – a desire to relate etc, etc which is hard in a foreign setting. Having lived in Germany myself, I chose to give up on the ‘validation-quest’ and entered into a new realm of ‘not giving a shit’, which is possibly not advisable for all. Living abroad, there’s always a tendency to question where ‘one’ comes from more and how origin affects us, not only because ‘one’ is constantly being asked ‘where are you from’, or told ‘you’re such a typical Landsmann’ perhaps, but because one’s perception is somewhat heightened. Being different becomes normality.

    Please excuse the rabble, rabble.

    1. So true, this tendency to look at where one comes from is absolutely heightened by living in a country one is so clearly NOT from. Also not being from that country makes one an object of interest to others and so the conversation is had on a daily basis.

  4. Just thought I’d say hi as this is a great post! I’ve been following your observations on life in Deutschland for a bit now and this post totally resonates with me. I’m an NZer recently(ish) ‘arrived’ in Thuringia following 3 years in northern England, and I must say trying to remember that people are not intentionally being offensive is a difficult thing to get over! As is having my colleagues stare blankly back after saying ‘mind if I bother you for a minute’ as I settle into asking my actual questions.

    1. Thank you so much. Glad to hear you have been reading along and thank you for leaving a comment. The ‘do you mind’ thing is so confusing – especially when you have to explain that the positive response is ‘no, not at all.’ Whenever I have to explain that to my students they look absolutely bamboozled.

  5. Oh I am so with you on this directness/indirectness spectrum. The Dutch fall with the Germans, to the point where, even with 4 years’ experience, it can still surprise you as bracingly abrupt. Even to the point of, dare I say it, rudeness. I’ve learned to live with it, and have to say it is likely MUCH worse on the other end – when someone from a direct culture moves to an indirect culture – whoa Nelly!

    1. I think you may be right! My Auntie, who is Swiss, still struggles with the Australian way of beating around the bush, and she’s been living in Sydney for 30 years. And I have heard about the Dutch – I remember a student once saying to me, ‘you think the Germans are bad, the Dutch are far, far more direct’ and I thought to myself, ‘wow, for a German to say that, it must be true!’

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