Saying the truth with mercy is tricky in the language and town in which one is well-versed. Crossing borders – language, state or nation – elevates this to an artform. As a child in Oklahoma, I was taught that polite children answer their elders (or adults to strangers) with ‘Yes Ma’am or Yes Sir’. In England, this elicited giggles from my British friends who would retort, ‘I am NOT the Queen!’ or ‘I am NOT a knight!’ So much for my good manners.
In Germany, the issue of how one speaks is different again. I have had German friends who complained that Americans are so rude because they ‘sound nice, but don’t mean what they say.’ It is hard for foreigners to grasp which phrases are said only as a matter of politeness and well-wishing, and which are to be taken literally. Last night we were with a German friend at dinner trying to explain the American phrase ‘ulterior motive’. After several attempts to capture that meaning in German, he said, ‘You know we don’t think like that. It just doesn’t fit the German philosophical approach to life.’ And indeed, it doesn’t. That is because Germans generally don’t hide – or suppress – their opinions. In fact, they can be so forthcoming about everything that it is a little unnerving to Americans – and probably downright rude in the eyes of the British. (Please note I am talking in very general broad strokes here. There will always be individuals or communities that are outside this description.)
If something is upsetting a German, he or she will tell you straightaway. Same is true if they want something, need something, etc. They come across as bossy to Americans, yet I find it somewhat liberating. I don’t feel the need to second-guess what they actually mean. It is their strength, and while it can come across as harsh, it is actually merciful as well as powerful. Their communication is clear and unambiguous. And, unless they are drunk, it is often spoken in an even-tempered manner. The Germans have a real grasp of what it means to be assertive. I see it at all levels and ages of society. They very much encourage their children to express their needs, to ask questions (of everyone), and to be clear.
So how do you mind your cultural manners? Listening is a good start. I have learned to keep my mouth shut, and to open it with a question. Everyone loves being a teacher, being the person with the answer. By asking questions, you are placing the person above you in a virtual sense. ‘You know, I don’t, so please lead me.’ Do be careful what you ask. In Germany, they will tell you if you have a big butt, bum, backside!