A Conversation and Culture Clash


Standing in front of my son’s school waiting for the kiddo’s release, I was surprised when a woman started talking to me. No hesitation or…I don’t know how to describe it, but she spoke with honesty and true enthusiasm in her voice. I’m used to those who may make a comment because they feel it incumbent to do so, to prove what I also don’t know, but such phrases fall flatly insincere being laced with a level of repressiveness which will allow a general response in return but only that before they move away to a more polite distance to reinforce silence.

It was a breath of fresh air, of home, when this particular looking woman with pert features began a conversation with me and actually waited for my response. From the first words I knew, so asked, “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” Do you speak German?

She replied in the affirmative in that language, and secondly I then realized she was Austrian as they have a rounder sound to their Deutschsprache, a Bavarian dialect gentler than the charming gruff I’m used to.

Her oldest son was one I’d seen a number of times before, a deaf student with purple hearing aids clearly visible in both ears. He came out early, as all the special needs children do, and efflusively kissed and kissed her, and she hugged him tenderly a moment before he wandered off a few paces.

She remarked she usually waited in the line instead of walking up, which I do every day, but that no one would let her in. They’d looked at her only to turn away to talk to a companion or on a cellphone, or pointedly ignored her entreaties.

She shook her dark blonde razored locks in disbelief. “I don’t understand these people. Always so…” she searched for the word, “self-absorbed, as if they are unaware of anyone but themselves. As if they don’t care for anyone but their own. That’s so different from home. How I miss Europe sometimes!”

Unless someone was under the influence of drugs, prescribed or illegal, or alcohol, I’ve never known anyone in this area to speak in such an open way to someone they don’t know. Certainly not in tones of natural respect either. My heart fluttered with an intense longing for home as I commiserated with her feelings. I’d told her briefly of my background and connection to Germany and Europe.

We live in a rather small town there but even in Berlin, although there are always exceptions, if someone needs help, you help them. You do not feel a hesitation about asking either. You don’t ask, judge or discuss it with the person on the other end of your cellphone connection and laugh in surprise yet ignore them. I said my son especially has some adjustment issues in understanding the difference in the way people will treat him here. She nodded and agreed it is not easy for anyone.

You can start conversations easily enough if someone or some thing interests you. Her comment put away my doubts “it was just me” feeling that way. The self-centredness of the majority of a population who think you are the crazy one if you ask them to move (when they should have noticed they were standing in the middle of the friggin’ aisle of the store and blocking everyone up), they get angry if you ask them to move a millimetre. “I was here first!” “Go around!” or they ignore. In the car, in the market, at the theatre. It’s simply astounding to me, and as I know even more so now, some Europeans who live in the US.

If we step forward to ask for something we are being too forward. But how ever would we have service or some item, if we do not? It seems only natural to ask for something instead of suggesting it in loud tones of irritation. Ironically enough I had stepped inside the school to get a form from the office. To get into the office, I had to say three times, raising my voice a bit, “Excuse me!” because there was a man standing in the door talking on his cell.

To get out of the school there was a group of women standing before the doors in a chattery conversation. I walked up to within an “acceptable” distance to indicate I needed egress, car keys in my hand. I paused waiting for them to move, to acknowlege me in some way. A couple of minutes passed. They didn’t. They kept right on going until I said, “Excuse me, I am obviously trying to get out of the door could you move, please?” Three sets of eyes blinked at me with affront at my audacity I suppose. “Well!” one of them pronounced, and grudgingly them moved to the side. Common sense should have first told them there was someplace in the endless amount of hall space they should be talking instead of in front of the doors. I shouldn’t have had to tell them that.

If we begin a conversation or are friendly to someone we’ve never met, we might be thought to have mental issues. To be cool and dismissive seems the norm, when at home that would be the person to worry about or at least reach out to. You’d get rejected here, or you might have a psychopath on the other end of your query. Someone who misunderstands or misinterprets your concern. I’ve had that happen to.

The Austrian mother and I had a light conversation in general, our children came out, she touched my arm and told me she hoped to speak again and I fervently wished it so as well. I don’t know her name or need it. When next I see her I would have no doubt about my welcome wherever it might be, at the school or locally in the neighborhood. None of that, “will talk to you now because there’s no one else, but ignore you when others are around” sort of thing.

Culture clash. Cluelessness. Rude behavior from our perspective. Rude behavior from their perspective also but acceptable if you don’t know someone or they are not worthy of your attention. And they trust to call us arrogant or wrongly read into our open statements some type of offense or insult when there was nothing in them. We speak or ask what we will with no ulterior motives. Maybe that is assumed because they have ulterior motives instead of being forthright?

That’s a bit funny because I can then understand why more shootings, stabbings and violent acts occur in US vs. most other European countries. The pervasive attitudes of self-absorption and dismissal can piss anyone off to the point of losing their temper if they allow themselves to be provoked.

Once I shook my head having to pointedly going around this neatly dressed and obviously upper middle class woman, 40-ish, who was standing in the middle of a doorway with her young son making a nuisance of himself in an innocent way. She paused in her cellphone conversation to caustically spit at me, “What are you shaking your head for?” I had nearly passed her then but stopped and turned around. “I am shaking my head because I see someone behaving in an ill-mannered way and setting a poor example for their child.”

She blinked in surprise and calmed. I didn’t say it in a rude or accusatory way. She asked me a question. I gave her the truth. No malice, anger or anything else in my words just honest honesty. That’s how we do things.

I dream of home.