My husband and I had just arrived in San Francisco from Frankfurt where we had to change planes on our way to San Diego. The fun of travelling is lost as a result of 9/11. You all know the procedure: you are practically expected to unclothe when entering the secure area of the airport. Yes, this is an exaggeration, but it seems like undressing when a security employee commands you to take off jackets, sweaters, belts, shoes, and to empty your pockets. I always find this part of flying to be the most stressful simply because you have so many people busily unpacking and because you need to get through quickly, and the possibility of making a mistake is the greatest.
So what did I do? I put my sweater, jacket and purse on top of my netbook! Naturally the person screening my tray saw this and it came back to me. I forgot to mention, my boots were placed on top of these items, upside down of course! When the tray was brought back so that I could remove my netbook and place in into an extra tray, a woman behind me loudly exclaimed: “I love those boots!” I was so surprised by this reaction! It was at this moment that I realized two things: 1) I’m back in America; and 2) I have been living outside the US for very long time that I would even take notice of this.
This was only the first incident concerning my shoes. My husband and I flew to the US to join my parents on a cruise to Hawaii. I was not on board a day when a woman, who watched me sit down in the galley, exclaimed: “Where did you get those shoes?! I have been looking for something like that for ages, they look so comfortable. What is the name of the brand?” (This time I was wearing white moccasins). I have to be honest: my shoes are not expensive because I prefer to spend my money on traveling. Hence, I didn’t know the name of the brand. But the point of this story is the difference between German and American style of interacting with strangers. Americans will tell you that you look good; Germans won’t talk to you at all except to say: “Is this chair free?”
In a previous contribution I discussed the cultural differences that can explain this particular interactive style. While Germans establish relationships through ideas, discussions, rational arguments; Americans, who tend to be more person oriented, prefer to focus in on individual characteristics of a person, strangers or not. And this could be the type of clothes you pick out for yourself, the way you do your hair, how well you speak, how you keep yourself fit, the kind of car you drive, your ability to make others feel comfortable, etc. Naturally some of these are gender specific, e.g., clothing, shoes, hair tend to be female topics; while cars and sports are male specific. Men will comment on women looking attractive. In fact this happened to me one night on the cruise. I was talking to a man who gave me such a compliment – and he didn’t do this as a precursor to: how about you and me baby? While it is flattering, it seemed to strange to me after 30 years of Germany where no one makes such comments to you, even if they know you.
I don’t want to suggest that these women exclaimed liking my shoes as means to show inclusiveness. In these situations there is no need to. I mean, how close will two strangers become in the short time it takes to go through security control at the airport? But because Americans are used to interacting easily with strangers, they do it frequently and unabashedly. Well, compared to Germans. In Germany, if you went around telling people they have nice shoes, blouses, hair colour, etc. they might think that something is wrong with you. First of all, you will not come across as “sympathisch” (translation: likeable or nice. By the way German readers, ”sympathetic” in English means Mitleid haben). In fact, if you want to confuse a German, give them a compliment! The reaction is usually quite amusing. It makes most Germans ask themselves: what did that person want me to do with that information? Usually it is friends who give compliments and when I say friends, I mean “good” or “best friends”. Germans don’t use the word friend as lightly as we Americans do, who will call someone they have just only met, a friend. And even friends don’t overdo compliments since they tend to make Germans uncomfortable if received too often. It could send the message that someone is making fun of you.
So, when I first moved to Germany, you can imagine how disconcerting it was for me when I never heard anyone make a comment about me, or when the reaction to my comment “that’s a nice dress” was: “Oh this old thing?”. I was expecting “thanks! I got this last month at….” The compliment is always sincere and it is used to get a conversation started. We normally move away from the compliment (because even we Americans find it overdone if we get loads of compliments within the same conversation). I had to learn to keep my views about the person I deal with to myself. The problem is: conversation with strangers is not easily begun. In fact, it is not even expected!
To end this, Germans like to refer to us Americans as superficial. The reason is because we are quick to give compliments, or begin friendly conversations with strangers. Such conversations are in fact superficial, but they aren’t expected to go deeper since that person is, after all, a stranger. Germans are considered to be cool and arrogant because they don’t engage easily in conversation with people they don’t know because prefer to show polite regard for others’ privacy.
Well, at least I know one thing: I guess I have good taste in shoes!