If You Can’t Say Something Nice…
Editor’s Note: Welcome to a special series from the Sutterlin Family. This month, the family continues the account of their experience hosting a German high school exchange student. Enjoy!
The main difference in socializing in both cultures is the way small talk is handled. In Germany, people seldom start a conversation with strangers without a purpose, and most of the time you don’t get more than a “good morning.” In America, however, small talk is a form of courtesy and you are always approached with a question about your well-being. Americans appear a lot nicer, and if a cashier has a bad day, he won’t transfer that to you, but will smile and ask if you’re all right. I’ve found that the need to talk even if there is no real purpose other than politeness can be stressful too. Some people I talk to in America are so uncomfortable with silence that they try really hard to talk when there is nothing to talk about. This makes me feel very uncomfortable because I’d rather be silent and in thought than have to think of something to keep the conversation going; that can be very exhausting. I also found that it is a lot easier to start a conversation in America through small talk that can lead into deep thinking if you are talking to the right people. I think Germans are just more private and don’t like to stress others by pretending they are fine and happy. I guess we are more open in showing our true feelings but a lot less casual with talking to random people about them. Perhaps many of us don’t have the ability to pretend we are having a good time, which can be essential for small talk.
Another thing is that Americans are much more nonchalant with giving compliments. I hear nice words from Americans every day. My mom always said it’s so hard to make me feel how proud she is because I need someone to tell me I’m great every day so I believe it. I guess I always had American ways. I love this part of the American culture because it makes it so easy to be nice to everybody when everybody wants to make you feel beautiful and perfect. In Germany, you do receive compliments, but not every day for just existing. But I think that makes it mean more when someone says something nice too. Even though I enjoy nice words, I also know that many of them are just said to make me feel better and are not sincere. Sometimes I’d rather have an honest opinion about something, or nothing at all. I can’t say what I like better, but I think both have their perks.
From The Sutterlins
If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Sophie has helped us see how engrained this adage is into the fabric of our society, and how it represents her German culture, perhaps even better. She has helped us recognize how frequently those around us, from the store clerk to the next door neighbor, show what appears to be genuine concern by offering joyous greetings or caring inquiries. We overlook these niceties as they are part of our daily lives being professional or communal, as we know it. As Americans, it seems more appropriate that when we have nothing to say, we say something nice — to anyone. We’ve wondered about this with Sophie as characteristics of professionalism, capitalism or maybe a society with a reformed Christian foundation that values reaching out to others.
As we’ve watched Sophie grow socially throughout her year with us, it’s curious if she is becoming more inclined to small talk because her circles of friends are growing in size and variety. Is this American trait working in her favor? Or maybe Americans flip the adage as we live it out. Maybe we consider that not saying anything at all is rude, so we must speak and if there’s not actual substance, we pad it with something that feels good. Our family has learned that Sophie doesn’t always expect to be greeted when we see her and Sophie has learned that we’re probably going to do it anyway.
Tags: courtesy, culture, difference, Germany