Watch those words

So today I want to talk about something that took me an incredibly long time to get used to: The way Germans interact with each other in public. It’s much, much different than how we treat one another in public in the U.S.

What I mean is this: In the U.S., we mostly mind our own business. We know that if we stick our nose into someone else’s business, we are crossing a Rubicon of sorts: we are committing ourselves fully to the situation, no matter the costs. So we often tend to shy away from getting involved.

Germans, on the other hand, are constantly — and I mean constantly — sticking their noses into each other’s business.

For example, if a stranger who is standing behind you at the checkout at the supermarket thinks you are packing your groceries into your shopping bags too slowly and are therefore holding up the line, he might tell you, “Hurry up”; if you accidentally ever-so-slightly step on the back of a stranger’s foot while walking on a busy street, he might turn and say, “Watch where you’re going! “; if you park your car in a spot where parking isn’t really allowed, someone might just knock on your window, “You can’t park there”; and if a stranger doesn’t like how you are disciplining  your dog while on a walk, he might say straight to your face, “poor dog.”

In addition, if that doesn’t do it for you, Germans also curse each other out much more readily than we do in the U.S.

Just the other day, for example, a guy on a bike came kind of close to running into my dog. My girlfriend, who is German, was with me and immediately called this guy an a–hole and told him, “You better damned watch out next time!” After she shouted this, I said to her, “Babe, jeez, why did you just curse that guy out so bad–?” But apparently, she hadn’t committed that big of an infraction because the guy just waved her off and kept riding.

Germans, believe it or not, will curse each other out on the street if they are very unhappy with a particular behavior. “Dummekuh” (dumb cow), “dummeidiot” (dumb idiot) and “blödes arschloch” (stupid a–hole) are all curses I’ve heard strangers here lob at other strangers without much hesitation.

Still, despite the fact that Germans are more comfortable with cursing, the type of frankness I’ve just been describing can sometimes lead to serious problems and major cultural misunderstandings.

About six years ago, my girlfriend, Maya, was crossing a street in Midtown Manhattan when a guy driving a minivan almost hit her. She immediately gave the guy the middle finger, which prompted him to get out of his car and threaten to hit her. This man, Maya told me, kept saying he would kill her and ultimately needed to be restrained by his wife.

Though this guy was a nut and was completely out of bounds, Maya hadn’t known that giving the middle finger to a stranger is often taken as an act of war in the U.S. No only that, she was so used to the way things are in Germany that when I told her she had just committed a major cultural no-no, she didn’t even believe me.

“Why? It’s just the middle finger — it’s just a curse,” she had said.

And, honestly, if you think about it, she had a point. Why is it that in the U.S., we are so darn touchy about curses and insults? And, more to the point actually, why aren’t Germans?

Well, I’ve had my own theories, but it wasn’t until I had a long conversation with an American woman who also lives in Germany that it all sort of clicked.

I mean, before I tell you what this woman said, it should be pointed out there is no denying that Germans are just generally more forward. It’s in their culture. They don’t waste time and they don’t feel as bad about hurting people’s feelings.

But the main reason that verbal insults don’t have as an incendiary effect here, this woman posited, is because Germany is an “unarmed society.” When you live in a society that is unarmed, where guns are not available to the public and the threat of being killed isn’t as real and immediate, people are often less polite to one another with their words.

Some real food for thought.

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