Communicating with the Germans: Part 2
Denglisch and the intentional misuse of English are not the only ways to create confusion when communicating in Germany. Language culture is difficult to get the hang of and frequently language learners will simply try to use the rules of their native languages when speaking in a non-native tongue. I continually attempt to inject German sentences will a particular Britishness that has no place being there. Take British politeness for example; although the concept is often overestimated, British people have developed polite coping mechanisms for dealing with the modern world, that only make sense when you live in the UK.
Kate Fox’s Watching the English covers much of these quirks, such as the very English desire to apologise, even when it is someone else's fault. One of my favourite chapters in Fox’s book covers the word “sorry” Fox takes a few hours of her day and simply walks into people in order to study the English reaction. Almost every time she intentionally walked into someone, she found that people would quickly say “sorry” even when it was abundantly clear that Fox was at fault. Given this English communication quirk, it is no surprise that one of the first phrases I learned in German was “Entschuldigen Sie” (excuse me).
Learning this simple phrase was fine, however, my application of the phrase has caused me some problems. The reason for this is that my use of “Entschuldigen Sie” often just causes bemusement. Germans, as a general rule, do not use this phrase while walking through crowds as the British are inclined to do. Germans will just push past each other, not roughly, but more directly than any British person would feel comfortable with. When I walk through a crowd, I politely utter “Entschuldigen Sie” and people move, but at the same time expect that I will ask the time or for directions, or even tell them they have dropped something. Sure I get through crowds quickly, but I leave in my wake groups of Germans, furiously searching for dropped items or wondering what in the hell I was going to ask until I walked passed them like I was in the Matrix.
Directness in Germany does not just stop with crowds, it also seeps into communication. Here are two examples where directness has caused some odd conversations.
They’re not your children
They say that you are either a dog person or a cat person. My first pet was a hamster. I have no idea what being a hamster person is, but if it helps I still like to pack my cheeks with food for use later. Anyway, the arrival of new pets, like having children, turns people into proud, but photo happy parents. This is certainly the case with friends of mine who for years had talked about buying two cats and naming them after condiments. Low and behold, a few short weeks ago they introduced their two new kittens to our group of friends.
Although I am a hamster person, I soon got over my natural prejudice of cats. I have yet to see a single cat GIF from my friends, but I have welcomed the regular updates and pictures of their increasingly larger kittens playing, sleeping and scampering about. When I met my friend over the weekend, we discussed his new additions to the household and he happily shared some pictures he had taken that morning. He also shared the many scratches he had accumulated on his arms, which although they looked painful, my friend declared were a small price to pay.
After a few hours, we were joined by my wife. The discussion quickly returned to my friends cats and he again showed some pictures of cats he had taken earlier. He pointed out one picture in particular, an incredibly cute image of the two cats asleep under a blanket:
“And this one is when I tucked them in before I left” he said, enlarging the image with his thumb and index finger so we could better enjoy the image.
“Ha, very cute” I said, taking the camera from him in order to look at the image in a bit more detail.
My wife, who at that point has been complimentary of our friends new pets, had asked if she could also have a look at the picture a bit more. I handed her the phone.
“Why did you tuck them in?” she enquired, peering at the image.
“Well, obviously so they would be more comfortable...” our friend began.
“But why?” my wife continued “They already have fur, they’re not your children!” my wife declared dismissively. My friend, slightly crestfallen attempted to explain further, but quickly took his phone and put it back in his pocket. Being supportive friends, myself and another friends began to laugh loudly.
“Damn!” I declared “he was only trying to show you his cats, no need to destroy him” I said through the laughter
“I was just being honest” my wife shrugged.
As we waited for the Ubahn later that night, my wife recalled the short interaction. “Do you think I was too direct?”
“Yes” I said, directly.
Blow my whistle
Politeness can take many forms, from opening doors for people to the basics of please and thank you. However, politeness can also be a stumbling block to learning a new language. New language learners will frequently make mistakes and never realise, simply because people are too polite to correct them. Although nice, this is clearly unhelpful as people will begin to learn the mistake and use it as everyday language until years later, someone decides to correct them, usually in an awkward moment, for instance during an important presentation or in the middle of a meeting.
This is why I operate a “No Stupid Questions” policy when I am teaching people English. Of course, there are many, many stupid questions, but people should not feel stupid for asking for clarification on a phrase or why some grammar point is the way it is, no matter how obvious the answer may be. Classes should be relatively free of humiliation, although in some cases, no matter how hard we try, humiliation can appear from nowhere to pull students pants down and laugh at their unmentionables. I experienced just such a moment a few years ago, while teaching a discussion group.
The participants were mostly in their mid to late twenties, except the department boss who was closer to his mid forties. One morning, as the class was assembling, the manager entered the room, shook my hand and said “Nic, I have a question. Do you know the song with the words ‘Blow my Whistle Baby’?”. I said I did and he quickly asked “What does ‘Blow my Whistle’ mean exactly?”. I looked at him. Often, when dealing with my German counterparts, it is not uncommon for them to attempt sarcasm, but without the obvious tone change that denotes a person is being sarcastic.
I thought quickly. There was no way I wanted to tell this manager, in front of his team, that the meaning of ‘Blow my Whistle’ was a euphemism for oral sex for fear of embarrassing him and in turn, me. I am British after all and discussing sex acts in a public setting is the verbal equivalent of punching the Queen in the face.
“Erm, well” I thought quickly “It’s a euphemism”. I had found an escape route. I spent the next twenty minutes teaching the word euphemism and giving some examples, safe in the knowledge that he would see what I was saying and let me get on with the class.
“Great, thanks Nic” he said after I finished my explanation “but what does the euphemism ‘Blow my Whistle’ mean exactly?”. He looked at me innocently, waiting for me to bestow some education upon him.
I had very few options at this point and looking around the room, I could see the younger members of the team sporadically breaking out in silent laughter, smiles growing on their faces. No support there.
“It’s a euphemism for a sex act” I said as cryptically as possible, quietly praying he might get the hint.
“Which sex act?” he said, with the typical directness that comes as standard to German speakers. I looked at him intensely in the hopes that I might somehow telepathically communicate the answer. “Which sex ac...” he stopped. His face began to flush with a blinding red that I sometimes still see when I close my eyes. I nodded to confirm the realisation he had just arrived at. The other colleagues now carried smiles that were wider than the long meeting room table they were sitting at.
I cleared my throat. “I guess we can move on now” I said, awkwardly shuffling some papers.