What we say, what we mean and what you hear…

When I was younger, the one single place I ended up meeting many of my random girl friends was in the line to the toilet. We were having a shared experience, especially when we seemed to be on the same wee cycle. It’s just  what we do, we chat whenever given the chance, we’re just like that. If there is a moment to kill, why not. This is how Americans see it anyway.

Firstly, I think it is important to get a few things out of the way. The following partial list is thanks to DailyCandor, because what they say is somewhat true, generally speaking of “Americans”:

“At the outset, it’s important to understand this about Americans:

  • a lot of Americans live by the “if you can’t say anything nice about (something), then don’t say anything at all” adage. So most Americans, who generally have a vague positive feeling about Europe, will only say vaguely positive things about Europe, if anything at all. (“I hear it’s nice over there.”)
  • Most Americans are profoundly ignorant of geography and don’t give much thought beyond their immediate frame of reference. Before you think that means Americans are chauvinist, keep in mind they don’t give a shit about the next state over, or even next city, much less another country. Americans may be brilliant when it comes to technology, innovation and business, but they fail when it comes to geography. They are simply not interested. (This is why, I think, America assimilates foreigners better than Europe. They don’t know where other people come from, and soon forget; their foreignness ceases to be a liability, unlike Europeans who always remember that China had the Tiananmen Square massacre, a Serb killed Archduke Ferdinand and Serbia gave the world Slobodan Milosevic, etc.)
  • the last few years have seen politically-active Americans attuned to world affairs much more than they have traditionally been, because of the wars, antagonism towards US foreign policy, propaganda by the Bush administration, etc. Growing up, I can tell you that no one ever cared what was going on outside our borders, other than to think the Soviet Union was a miserable shithole, and everywhere else was OK (but not as great as the USA).

I like this list, for one because it is based on stereotypes of Americans by an American. This is our first step in understanding the world and, if we must generalize a whole group of people, stereotypes will inevitably arise. I think of this things mentioned above as ‘half-truths’, I have written about this before, in Speaking of Stereotypes. This is a half-truth because it cannot be applied to the lot of us (Americans).

I think having something vaguely positive to say about Europe is because they too are working from information based largely in stereotypes and generalities, yet trying not to be rude or offensive. It is highly likely that any information we have used to form a base of knowledge about [X = European country here] is from a whirl-wind tour where we spent a day or two in a city (or country) or from things we learned many years ago at school. Regarding DailyCandor’s second point, our country is a big place and we are often busy acting like every day citizens who don’t have to worry about threats from five neighboring countries. I think the first point also shows that in general, Americans are not mean or rude and I would say that is true.

I often try to think and then find out if how I think things are is they way they always have been or if it is something I have just noticed in my lifetime as something new. I try to apply this to most things, take  the Supermarket, written by Allen Ginsberg in 1955, which I will get back to (I promise, from the bottom of my heart). This poem discusses the blatant consumerism of the post-war era, which did not in fact exist before the war in the manner that Ginsberg is being critical of. Even Ginsberg’s Supermarket from 1955 might seem foreign to someone today because they have changed ever-so-subtly yet again. I have only noticed this myself because I literally grew up in a grocery store, but still had to do some research to make sure that it wasn’t just  my perception. I think it is easy to fall back on stereotypes coupled with my, your, his, her, or their perception, and just leave it at that which we shouldn’t necessarily do, in my opinion. However, as I said, I liked this list because, if we must be general I think it is a decent place to start.

So, knowing this about the United States, of course in the most general sense – how do you expect us to respond in social situations, where small talk might be in order? There are many blogs, websites, and other gems on the web that talk about understanding and navigating the perplexing waters of American small talk (and dare I say British too). Gu Huiyun, a Chinese student wrote in 2000 about their experience as an exchange student in the US and how they struggled to interpret small talk, bringing up these main points:

  • Thank you!/Thanks a lot!
  • Excuse me
  • How are you?/ How’s it going?

Huiyan discovered that often when we say these things, we are just being polite. This is often seen as fake or lacking authenticity by others not used to this ‘American’ style of communication. I argue that this is what we mean:

  • “I appreciate what you do, bye!” or just simply “bye!”  in Germany they say, “Tschuss!” (sounds like cheers)
  • “Get out of my way” or “oh, no I am terribly sorry.”
  • “Hi!” *unless they really are your friend or close colleague – then they will ask and likely mean it.

Another blogger, HF wrote this nugget of truth in December of 2009 in their post “American small talk versus German no talk“:

Besides explaining with immense pride how difficult and wonderfully complex their language is, the one thing Germans like to tell us Americans is that we are friendly but superficial. (So Germans are unfriendly but deep?) Germans often fail to understand that small talk does not necessarily mean the same thing as insincerity or shallowness. Germans will say “Auf Wiedersehen!” to perfect strangers when leaving a train compartment, but will stand around silently at a party rather than engage in small talk to break the ice […] There is some unspoken German code of behavior that requires serious talk – or no talk. Germans mean what they say. Their frankness is legendary. It is often perceived by inexperienced Anglophone expats as rudeness. German serious straight talk often seems undiplomatic, verging on insulting to Americans and other English-speakers. That may explain why small talk is not a German thing. Bluntness and small talk really don’t go well together.

I would like to admit into evidence here that Germans, in my experience, don’t always say what they mean. I have found that they either do or they don’t. Isn’t that funny, they either do or they don’t, to me that sounds like Americans too. At this point I don’t know anymore if it is just me or because I have now been here for nearly three years, but I find the frankness refreshing. When Germans are straight with me, it doesn’t seem rude to me. However, growing up I wasn’t close friends with too many girls because they weren’t always the straightest talkers. Here is a great article from the Atlantic Times Monthly about an Americans’ experience with Berliners (Dec. 2009). Mind you, everyone I know living in Germany who is not German has at least one story about an interaction between them and a German, who happened to be abruptly and matter-of-factly German.

Germans might not say what they mean because they either don’t want to be rude, sound unintelligent or be insulting – again, this sounds like many Americans I know too. Perhaps they recognize that the person they are speaking to is not a native speaker of German, they might only have  limited experience with other Americans or Brits and/or a limited experience with the English language.  My experience is usually they don’t want to be rude and they are absolutely not used to talking in large(r) groups.

Now here is a list of “what they say versus what they mean” chart just for fun. I have seen this at various sites on the internet, but am not aware of the actual source (sorry). I post it here because as I have stumbled across it a number of times, each time someone comments that this list not only applies to the Brits, but also Americans, hence the Anglo-EU translation…

Is this entirely true? Here is a blog post from 2011 where a Brit discusses the differences between them and Americans.

British small talk is so terrible for 2 reasons:

  1. We never want to impose: This means that we never go beyond the usual suspects of conversation (namely the weather). This has the benefit of ensuring we are so dull that no one ever comes back for a repeat conversation.
  2. We don’t know how to terminate a conversation:  Because we (inevitably) stick to the rules of the spoken exchange, our chit chat can only ever go on so long. After all there are a finite number of weather conditions in Britain: sunshine with rainshowers, overcast with rainshowers, rainshowers, and rain. We drag out conversations until their death –using any prop that comes to hand as the next topic of conversation – never wanting to be the terribly rude person that calls it a day.

Whereas Americans:

  1. don’t care about over-stepping the mark
  2. are happy to walk away

Stephen Wang, blogger at Bridges and Tangents posted a blog about the difference between the English and the French back in January, noting how the two seem to communicate from an outsider’s perspective, the friend making the observations was German.

…[T]he French, in the way they think and argue, are more abstract. They start with first principles and work outwards to the nitty-gritty of reality. The English are more concrete, more empirical. They start with things, stuff, examples, case-studies, and only then try to draw some more general conclusions from the specific instances […] She also put the same point in another way: that the French work by deduction, and the English by induction.”

I think this is brilliant because, as always being general can be dangerous – but the comments above lend an argument potentially to how we are taught. As well as

So, knowing then what we know of both Americans and Brits then, is this true? Or even better yet, what does this mean and how are others supposed to tell? Much of this understanding comes from interaction with many people either from America or Britain, or both. Sometimes even just being able to befriend one or two might also help too. This reminds me of something my mother used to say so often when I started traveling, which she also continued once I began teaching: “Be a good example to others”. This is something I think we easily forget, that we are always responding or reacting to others, even if no one else seems to be around – we are reacting to their absence. Better awareness of ourselves and others helps us to better react and to make sure that we won’t be seen as insensitive or generally negative, which can easily give way to negative stereotypes.

I must be honest, one of my best friends here is a Brit, and we get along famously. However, there are still on occasion, times that the two of us are like ships passing in the night  – even though we are speaking the same darn language and in most cases can read each other very well. This makes me mentally jump to the “age-old discussion of communication between men and women” who even though they are speaking the same language, may miss by a mile the point the other is trying to make – even when bluntly. My point being that sometimes it just doesn’t matter, people will inevitably misunderstand each other. Another British friend said to me the other day that, “sometimes it is exactly that, and nothing more and if you attempt to try to understand the motive or point beyond the language will simply just tire you out.”

A final note on the chart above, depending upon my mood I can read this chart a number of different ways. The first time I read this chart, it made me laugh because sometimes I believe it to be true, especially in work situations or situations where we might not know the person well and thus don’t necessarily want to either a) hurt their feelings, or b) we really couldn’t care less, yet don’t want to get caught being blatantly rude. There is an absolute veil of cynicism here, no doubt. Then the second time I read this and became rather upset because this means that we, the Anglos don’t say what we mean, ever, which makes me feel it necessary to add that Americans will more often than not tell you how it is than not, but perhaps not in every situation.

  • “You must come to dinner.” Translation: I’m just being polite.  How it’s read: “Oh great, I’ll get invited soon.” In truth, why the hell would you even say this if you didn’t mean it? This makes no sense to me.
  • “Very interesting!” Translation: That’s just crap. How it’s read: “They are impressed!”  In truth, I say this all the time, perhaps too much. What I mean when I say it is, usually, “hmm, I need to consider this a bit more.” Or, I do just simply think that is honestly whole heartedly interesting.
  • “I’m sure it’s my fault.” Translation: It’s your fault. How it’s read:  “Why do they think it’s their fault?”  If we were to use this statement, then there would be more to it and it absolutely depends on the context. So many of these statements do.

What does this mean for language in your opinion, using the chart above as a jumping off point then?

One thought on “What we say, what we mean and what you hear…

  1. Pingback: Eurovision 2012: From the outside looking in « living the american dream in europe

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