Today a student asked me if I encountered any cultural conflicts as an American living and working in Germany. “Ha,” I said, “cultural conflict is my entire life.” All day, every day, I’m making tiny decisions about how much to fit in, and how much noise to make about it.
I had a sense that I had several distinct adaptation modes that posed different “foreigner threat levels” to the people around me, and I wanted to understand them better. After some sketching on the train home, here’s what I discovered:
I quietly change my behavior. This isn’t threatening at all, because nobody even knows I’ve changed anything.
Meetings in Germany take much longer than meetings in California. A half-hour meeting is nearly unheard-of in Germany, and a two-hour meeting is totally normal. So I’m gradually increasing my attention span. I compose my face, sit still, and focus. My mind doesn’t wander the way it used to, because I’m learning to really pay attention. I sense small movements in others’ faces, tiny signals in their breathing, little threads of want and need and pride and fear linking them all together. It’s like spending all afternoon watching a single square meter of forest floor: I see things I never knew to notice.
I acknowledge the difference in our behaviors, and I try to change my behavior. This isn’t that threatening, because I’m clearly attempting to fit in.
Sometimes I screw up “du” and “Sie.” Sometimes I forget to address people by their last names. Worst, I’m always forgetting a “Dr.” or a “Prof.” or both. When I get any of these things wrong, I apologize and fix it, but I’ll sometimes mention something about how forms of address work differently in the US (though, if we’re talking, this isn’t necessary because my accent gives me away). Yes, I am getting better at addressing people correctly. And I like it: I really appreciate the clarity and boundaries that come with a last-name culture.
I acknowledge the difference in our behaviors, but I don’t change what I do. This is potentially threatening because it leaves the conflict in place, but I defuse the tension by offering an explanation.
I get excited about things, and I show it. “Yes, cool!” I’ll interrupt. “Oh my god I love it, let’s do it.” The person I’m interrupting looks both pleased and confused. Then I backtrack: “I’m sorry, I’m just American, I can’t help my enthusiasm. Let’s think this through a bit more carefully.” Even though outbursts like this are not normal in Germany, I’ve decided not to blunt my emotional response. Most Germans will evaluate ideas before disclosing how they feel about these ideas. But I see that first gut response as a beacon; it helps us avoid decision paralysis and make choices we’re actually happy with.
I quietly decide not to change my behavior. This sounds like the easiest, but actually it’s the hardest to maintain, and definitely the most threatening to people around me.
I am really a firehose of compliments. “I love your shoes.” “Your hair looks great.” “That is a really interesting idea.” “I’m so glad you’re here.” I rarely give compliments I don’t mean, but even so, Germans probably think I am insincere. (Or rather, I know they think I’m insincere, because they’ve told me.) I don’t care. Make fun of me all you want: people all over the world crave and respond to the appreciation of others, and compliments are a healthy, harmless way for them to get that need met. Plus, appreciating others always puts me in a good mood myself. So, good luck getting me to stop complimenting.