Living outside of the UK for the first time in my life, I knew I should expect some cultural differences. But I probably under-estimated just how many.
Here are some interactions I / other non-native friends have had over the last three months to demonstrate…
To stress, these are just the best ones.
1.On trying to be helpful in the office
Native English speaker: “So what is the situation with [insert work-related task]? Should I do anything?”
German: “This is none of your business.”
(Translation – “It isn’t your job to worry about it, no worries!”)
Lesson: It is important to have a thick-skin. Nuances can be lost in translation.
2. On trying to do small-talk
Me: “So what are you up to this weekend?”
German boss: “Our family friends are coming over. They are artists and are doing a lesson with the kids.”
Me: “Oh great – what kind of art do they do?”
German: “Gothic – it’s quite dark actually.”
Me: “Oh blimey, well I hope the angel of death representations don’t scare your children!”
German: “No. They will not learn how to paint death. They will be taught composition and structure.”
Me: “Oh. Yes.”
Lesson: Germans can be very literal – the rumour is true. If you don’t want to be seen as a total moron like I was, you need to indicate very clearly that what you’re saying is a joke by saying: ‘that was a joke’.
3. On having a make-do attitude
In a shoe store
Native English speaker: “Yeah I think I’ll take these boots – the fit is ok.”
German attendant (looking her customer up and down and shaking her head): “These are not your boots.”
Lesson: Honesty is the German way. People will say if you look terrible. One day I was asked if I got dressed in the dark because I was wearing colours (more on this later). In this case, the attendant refused to sell the customer the boots!
4. On having an accent
Me: “So I was at work today when….”
(Interrupting) Flatmate: “Is this YOUR interpretation of English?”
Flatmate: “I mean. Do other people actually speak like you?”
Me: (inaudible indignation) “You’re suggesting I don’t speak my own language correctly?”
Lesson: I think my textbook grammar might need some work. I have been known to make up the odd word but say it with the authority of an official listing in the English Dictionary.
5. On requesting the wrong snack
Flatmate: “Do you want anything from the store?
Me: “Oh some chocolate please”
[10 minutes later]
Him: “Here you go” (throwing something in my direction)
Me: “This is dried mango?”
Him: “I think that is better for you”
Me: (inaudible indignation)
Lesson: Germans know best. This is actually an act of thoughtfulness and not loaded with a fat shaming sub-text. There is no subtext. If you were fat they would just say it. To your face. See Lesson no. 3.
6. On looking the part
Flatmate: “Do you want to come to Soho House to meet my friends.”
Me: “Sure – I’ll get changed now!”
(10 minutes later)
Flatmate: “Do you have anything less… glittery? This is not very Berlin, girl.”
Me: (inaudible indignation)
Lesson: Everyone here wears black or grey – and preferably nothing else. Only tourists and babies wear colours. For the record, it was a gold skirt…and very London / Paris at Christmas time.
7. On using Americanisms in the office
Me: “Morning! Oh it is wet and cold out there isn’t it.”
German: “I KNOW RIGHT. FUCK MY LIFE!”
[She had been taught #FML the night before, but not its contextual usage.]
Lesson: Germans don’t use acronyms and they also love swearing loudly!
8. On making cultural references
I’m not ashamed to say that I use a lot of throw-away Disney references in my day-to-day life. Of course, East Germans had no access to the classics the first time around so anyone over 27 will not understand AT ALL what you are saying. As far as I can tell, nowadays people still don’t watch TV and would rather read or play board games of an evening (yes, I did this with real Germans, it is a thing).
Lesson: Shouting “Mr. Fredrickson!” in the high-pitched voice of a lisping cartoon Chinese boy, is a sure way to ensure your colleagues think you are clinically insane.
If there are any to be drawn it is this:
One – do not be offended easily.
Two – say what you mean at all times.
Coming to the end of three months here I have a deep appreciation for their honesty, keenness to learn from others and joy for things other than the TV box. I can’t wait to come back in 2017.
But I am going to keep wearing that skirt.