I pissed off a German today. Such an occurrence is not uncommon. Whether it’s my barking dog, my driving skills, or how I maintain my yard, it seems that on a regular basis I am being told that I’m doing something wrong. In a blog post from years ago (“There’s a dog in the pub!”), which detailed my first experience with the notoriously direct Germans, I told the story of being confronted by a neighbor for doing something he didn’t like, and ending up in tears. At that time, I had only been in Germany for a couple months, and being from Canada, a nation known as the nice guys that say sorry for everything, being confronted in such a way was not only shocking, but very upsetting.
Now, over five years later, I have since grown the thick skin and the understanding necessary for dealing with the authoritative German people, without the tears. But, though being scorned may not affect me as personally anymore, I must admit that learning to essentially tell people to (politely) “screw off”, has not been easy.
In an interview with a reporter from the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper, in part about this blog, I was asked to talk more about what he described as the well-known difference in degree of directness, between German people and North Americans. While the reporter found the subject matter intriguing, I found it difficult to put my opinions into diplomatic terms. My response went a little something like this:
From my experience, it seems that older Germans in particular, love to tell younger people what to do and how to be. This is common in many cultures, of course, but here in Germany, the elder generation has some particularly serious gall. Even if erring is done by accident, or without knowing it, they show no fear, feel no shame, in shaking a finger, beeping a horn, or shouting at you like you were their own child or grandchild. When they then find out that they are speaking to a foreigner, well then it’s really on. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard “In Germany we do it like this” and “In Germany this is forbidden”. Again, I first took such scolding quite personally. I often felt very criticized, chided, and sad. But then a fellow hockey-wife, who had been living in Germany for a couple of years, gave me some great advice: “Just tell them to ‘F’ off”.
The thought of dismissing people, just rudely waving them off and walking away, felt very wrong, but then, after a while, and after realizing that it’s pretty much what everyone does, it felt great, even liberating. It’s not that in Canada we‘re a bunch of doormats, saying pleasant things to each other even when we don’t mean it, it’s that if people were to be so direct with each other, I think we’d have some problems! If people in North America scrutinized each others’s hedges, directed each other on how to train their dogs, or honked their horns as often, and to the degree that they do here, you might get a lot more than a brief verbal encounter (not to over sensationalize or imply that we’re all killing each other over spilt milk, but it’s interesting to note that the homicide rate in Canada and the US is higher than in Germany).
It may sound a tad oxymoronic, but my belief is that German people are able to be so direct with each because they are just that civil. Like everyone else, German people have preferences and opinions, but they live in an environment where such opinions can be directly expressed without any fear. Similarly, those on the receiving end can just as easily express back or walk away, also without worry. Supreme civility. How great does that sound?
It’s still a brief shock to the system every time I get yelled at for walking somewhere I supposedly shouldn’t, or for leaving my car idling for more than 10 seconds, but there are certainly no more tears. There does remain however, enough Canadian in me that even when I’m telling people to mind their own business, I can’t help but often throw in a quick “I’m sorry”.