If you want to confirm the fact that the internet is not improving people’s IQs, just type “rude Germans” into your favorite search engine. Boom! You’ll get over 1.9 million results, most of which were written by morons. (But “rude French” pulls an amazing 39.1 million results!) Few of these online commentaries run counter to the usual “rude Germans” rant and the negative stereotype that so many Americans, Brits and others have of Germans. Even fewer of these web articles, forum posts and blogs offer any useful, helpful information on the topic of “rude” Germans, French, or other Europeans.
The Rudest Countries
I recently saw a CNN online article that listed the “10 Rudest Countries” in the world. As usual, France took first place in the rudeness race. Germany only came in fourth, right behind the UK. The USA placed seventh. But a survey like this, by the Skycanner cheap flights travel site, is subject to all sorts of distortion, including cultural biases, language difficulties, personality differences, and ignorance, to name just a few.
What a person perceives as rudeness may only be a cultural misunderstanding. What is considered rude in one country or culture may not be regarded as rude in another. But every culture has people who are rude, no matter which culture it may be. Certain impolite behaviors are unacceptable in almost any culture. Sometimes an expat or traveler is actually right to consider someone rude!
But how do you correctly judge behavior as rude or not rude? That can be problematic even in your home culture, so it’s going to be even trickier in a foreign culture. We’ll talk about that below, but first let’s discuss some things that will help foreigners see you in a more favorable light, and help you see them in a more accurate light.
Show Some Respect!
One rule of life is that we usually get treated the way we treat others. English-speakers are often guilty of assuming that everyone speaks English (or should), even in Germany, France or any foreign location. I have already written about the hazards of English as the universal language. Most expats know they should learn the local language, but even when you’re just a tourist, it is common courtesy (not rude!) to learn at least some key phrases in the language of the country you’re visiting. Germans or French people understandably get irritated when they encounter a loutish Brit or American who makes no attempt whatsoever to learn to say please, thank you, or anything else in the native tongue.
No one expects you to expound at great length in the national language, but you can at least show some respect by learning some key phrases that allow you to be more polite – and less irritating. You may not realize it when you have become the “ugly American” or “ugly Briton” – but you increase your “ugly” chances by not making any effort to learn the local lingo. If you are experiencing rude behavior in a foreign culture, ask yourself if it might be the other way around. Does your behavior seem rude to the natives?
The (Not) Rude French
I first went to France in the late sixties, when I was still young and stupid. I had a restaurant experience that led me to believe the tales of rude French waiters were indeed true. But in the intervening years I have returned to France and Paris many times. Even with my minimal French, I am often amazed at how nice the French can be. Without any prompting from me, I once had a Paris cab driver act as a guide, explaining to me (in English) the sights we were passing. (No, he did not take the long way.) I have since had very pleasant French waiter experiences. Another cab driver drove back to my Paris hotel to return the iPhone I had left in his taxi. A tip: Often a simple “Bonjour Monsieur/Madame” will make all the difference.
Europeans, especially northern Europeans (not just Germans), only smile when they want to. Smiling at some stranger you have never met before is considered foolish. Americans who smile at everyone on the street can seem, well, a bit weak in the head. (Recall the scene in Crocodile Dundee where the title figure is walking down the streets of Manhattan, tipping his hat and saying “G’day” to everyone he passes.) The problem for Americans is that they often mistake a European non-smile for rudeness, when it’s just a neutral facial expression, indicating neither joy nor sorrow, neither anger nor approval. Just normal.
If you really want to hear the truth, ask a German. If you ask an American, “Does this shirt/dress look good on me?” you’ll usually get a polite reply, even if the person thinks it’s the ugliest thing he/she has ever seen. Ask a German the same question and you’ll get an honest, blunt opinion – positive or negative. Germans tend to be direct and to the point. They consider small talk and over-politeness a waste of time. Americans often mistake German frankness for rudeness.
Some people use the-coconut-versus-the-peach metaphor to describe this difference (and not just for Germans and Americans). A coconut is tough on the outside, but soft with sweet milk inside. A peach is just the opposite: soft on the outside, with a tough pit in the center. Germans are coconuts, with a hard exterior that’s tough to crack. Americans are peaches, easy to get to know, but with a hard interior. As one consultant puts it: “When peaches and coconuts meet, misunderstanding is common. Peaches can see coconuts as cold and difficult to get to know, because they don’t engage much in social conversation. On the other hand, coconuts can see peaches as too friendly, superficial and even impolite because they ask too many personal questions.”
Rude or Not Rude?
So how can we determine if a German is exhibiting boorish, rude behavior or is just being German? We can’t just automatically assume that native-speaking locals are always right. Sometimes they’re just being jerks, no matter which culture they’re in. Even German bluntness can be dialed up to German rudeness.
But finding the balance between overreacting to a perceived slight, and letting people walk all over you is not always easy. In your own culture it is usually easy to recognize rude behavior in daily life, but when you’re in a foreign culture, especially before you have time to learn the ropes, it may be difficult to determine what constitutes rude behavior in that culture, and what doesn’t. Is there a better training method than trial and error?
Language is Culture
Well, for one thing, foreign-language teachers should also teach the daily cultural aspects of the language they’re teaching. Language is culture, and culture is language. But it may be too much to expect full coverage of such things in the limited time of most language courses, and a lack of appropriate training for the teachers.
On the other hand, people headed for an expat assignment, or even normal tourists, really should do some of their own research on the target culture. We should assume some responsibility of our own for gaining a certain degree of cultural awareness. Good travelers do this all the time. Even just reading a good guide book can be helpful. (Also see our tips below.) But even the best preparation will leave some gaps in your cultural awareness. Some things will have to be learned in situ.
Techniques for Raising Your Cultural IQ
Here are some methods and resources you can use to increase your cultural awareness:
- Be observant! Pay attention to native behavior. Learn how the locals respond to certain behaviors versus what would be the case back home. How do Germans react to other Germans?
- Cultivate cultural informants. These can include a German spouse, German acquaintances, fellow workers, other locals, experienced fellow expats, good books and websites, and consulate/embassy info.
- Avoid spending too much time with compatriots. Fellow English-speakers can isolate you from getting to know the local culture. Sure, it may be more comfortable, but it won’t help you adapt to the new culture.
- Learn German. If you only communicate with the natives in English, you’re missing a significant part of the culture, and thus many aspects of behavior. The less German you know, the more likely you are to misunderstand German daily culture. Stop making excuses (“German is so hard”) and get on with it! You may need a basic attitude adjustment.
- Never assume that behavior that is acceptable back home will also be okay in the foreign culture. Don’t take anything cultural for granted! But that also applies in reverse. You can’t just automatically assume that German behavior is rude – or not.
Finally, it is worth noting that in various surveys concerning rude Brits, French, Germans and other nationalities, each nationality tends to vote itself as “rudest” compared to others. In an earlier Skyscanner survey, the British voted themselves “world’s worst tourists.” Americans think Americans are rude and obnoxious. A study by the research group Public Agenda found that 79 percent of Americans say their compatriots lack basic manners. Nearly 90 percent claim they’ve encountered rude behavior. And 61 percent say that the problem has become worse in recent years. No wonder they would think foreigners are rude!
- Cultural Comparison Charts – Germany vs the USA: comparisons of customs and everyday culture in the United States and Germany
- Blog: American small talk vs German no talk
- Blog: The Expat Trap by Geoff
- Blog: You know you’re a real expat in Germany when…
1. Susanne M. Zaninelli in Communicating Across Cultures by Bob Dignen (online PDF, Cambridge University Press)
2. Time (2002)