sending the wrong message

One of the things that living in Germany has taught me is that we in the United States, especially the men, can be kind of strange sometimes with the things we do and gestures we make. For example, when I was in college in upstate New York, I would notice that a lot of the guys in my dorm would unabashedly put their hands on their crotches, all Al Bundy style, when they were hanging out in the dorm’s hallways or rec rooms, or they would adjust, touch or scratch their crotches at will. I was guilty of such behavior, too.

And in all honesty, I’m not exactly sure why we guys did this. Perhaps it just felt good or comfortable. Perhaps it was something that we were really never told we were fully forbidden from doing. I had lived in co-ed dorms and, time to time, the girls would say, “Why do you guys always touch your crotches?” And we would usually reply, very matter-of-factly, “Cause we’re guys…sometimes you just have to adjust.” Or, “Cause it feels comfortable, that’s why.” After getting these answers, the girls would just roll their eyes and that would, more or less, be the end of it.

I really didn’t realize how strange and, some might argue, inappropriate, this habit of briefly touching one’s own crotch might be until I started spending a lot of time in Germany.

During the first significant chunk of time I spent here — an entire summer, in 2008 — my girlfriend, Maya, was still living with her mother. Maya’s mother is super sweet and let me crash at the apartment for the entire summer. Naturally, as time wore on, I started to get very comfortable around the home; I almost felt like it was my own. But I guess I got so comfortable that sometimes I would, as I had done in college and many times before that, put my hand on my crotch or tuck my hand into the waistband of my basketball shorts, Al Bundy style. And I would sometimes do this when I would be talking to Maya’s mother in the kitchen or living room.

Well, yeah, let’s just say that this little unconscious “habit” did not go over very well. I learned the hard way about just how differently this habit is perceived in Germany one day during the middle of that summer when Maya pulled me aside and said, “What the hell are you doing when my mom is around…?”

Maya then went on to tell me, in a flabbergasted way, that her mother had been noticing that sometimes when I would be talking to her, I would have my hand on or near my crotch. “OK, but why is this such a big deal?” I asked. But before letting her answer, I went on: “I mean, yeah, you’re right. I probably did do what you’re saying I did. I guess I shouldn’t have.”

“You ‘guess’ you shouldn’t have?” Maya charged. “Yeah, you definitely shouldn’t have.” She then explained to me that the only time a man in Germany would touch his crotch while talking to a woman would be if he wanted to have sex with her. In fact, this is what the gesture sort of signaled. And by my nonchalantly touching my crotch during normal conversation, I was not only being offensive, I was also raising some major questions about what exactly my intentions were.

“…Holy crap,” I said, when the effects that my actions were having finally registered. “Yeah,” Maya said, “pretty bad, huh? You need to never do that again.”

And I never did. But, man, what a cultural difference. What a far cry from the simple eye-rolling that we guys would get in the dorm.

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