arcana imperii :: the book of j


Germans are ruder

Are Germans ruder than the British and Americans? Are Britons and Americans more dishonest than Germans? Fortunately, we don't have to rely on blind prejudice for answers. BBC News reports that serious academic research has been performed.

There are Britons in Berlin who get taken aback by the directness of Germans. And there are Germans who get really annoyed when Britons and Americans, in an effort to be friendly, say things they might not really mean. Unsurprisingly, some Germans call this "lying".

So, what do the experts say on the matter?

Professor Juliane House, of the University of Hamburg, has studied groups of people interacting in controlled situations, watching with academic rigour how they behave as human guinea-pigs. She verified that Germans really don't do small talk, those little phrases so familiar to the British about the weather or a person's general well-being. To Germans this is "empty verbiage". In academic language, this is called "phatic" conversation - it's not meant to convey hard information but to perform a social function, such as making people feel good.

The German language doesn't even have an expression for "small talk". It is so alien that in the German translation of A Bear called Paddington - Paddington unser kleiner Baer - it was omitted. So this exchange of small talk occurs in the English original: "'Hallo Mrs Bird,' said Judy. 'It's nice to see you again. How's the rheumatism?' 'Worse than it's ever been' began Mrs. Bird." In the German edition, this passage is simply cut!

Might a German talk about the weather, then? "In a lift or a doctor's waiting room, talk about the weather in German? I don't think so," says Professor House.

So does that mean the British (and Americans) are more polite? Yes. It also means that they're different. So much so that Professor House, a German, describes this politeness as the "etiquette of simulation", asserting that the British feign an interest in someone. They pretend to want to meet again when they don't really. They simulate concern.Saying things like "It's nice to meet you" to her are statements rarely meant the way they are said. "It's just words. It's simulating interest in the other person." Can you believe it? so from a German perspective, this is uncomfortably close to deceit.Professor House adds that
"Some people say that the British and Americans lie when they say things like that.

We all know it's not a lie. It's lubricating social life. It's always nice to say things like that even if you don't mean them.

For Britons it's German directness that most often gives rise to bafflement or even fury. House, who married a Scouser - a native of Liverpool - gives an example from her own experience. She would tell her husband to bring something from another part of the house - without the British lardings of "would you mind...?" or "could you do me a favour...?" He would hear this as an abrupt - and rude - command. Wouldn't we all?

This gap between German directness and British indirectness is the source of much miscommunication, says Professor Derek Bousfield, the head of linguistics at the University of Central Lancashire, and one of the editors of the Journal of Politeness Research.

There are many documented cases where the British understate a very serious problem with phrases like "there seem to be one or two problems here" or "there seems to be a little bit of an issue with this", he says.

A British listener knows there is a gap between what is said and what is meant - and this can be a source of humour, as when the Grim Reaper's arrival at a dinner party in Monty Python's Meaning of Life "casts rather a gloom" over the evening.

Sometimes it's endearing, as when this announcement was made by British Airways pilot Eric Moody in 1982, after flying through a cloud of volcanic ash over Indonesia:
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress."
To the Germans this is all too confusing. When BMW bought the British car manufacturer, Rover, it took a while for the seriousness of some of the problems at Rover to sink in. All too often, British managers spoke in euphemisms that their German counterparts took at face value.

Both professors reject the idea that one nation's manners are better than the other's. I disagree. They say that each has its own rules of communication, or patterns of behaviour, and neither can be blamed when clashes occur. Absolute nonsense! I blame the Germans. I know, I lived and studied in Germany.

Lastly, What about those sun-loungers - the seats by the pool, which German holidaymakers always attempt to grab at the crack of dawn? Bousfield says that what we got here is a clash of prototypical German efficiency with the prototypical British sense of fair play". House reckons the British do get the sun-loungers in the end, by one means or another.

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