Originally Published August 4th, 2021
If you’ve interacted with any Europeans you may have found them a bit on the rude side. When this topic comes up among friends here, the Europeans usually feel Americans come across as fake. So who is right and who is wrong? I’ll hedge and say, everyone and no-one. If you’re an American in Europe, you might come across as fake but what you’re doing is being polite. If you’re a European in the US, you might come across as rude but what you’re doing is being direct.
These two expectations in society, politeness and directness, are at odds with each other. Growing up in the Midwest, it is most certainly politeness that wins out. Suddenly living in a place where directness takes a front seat is disorienting.
When I first moved to Germany, I was living with an exchange student who I had met stateside. While out with his friends, all Germans, someone asked if we should stop by a gas station and grab snacks. I didn’t understand a thing. He finally translated for me and said “Do you want to get something over there?” My response was something like “If we’re gonna stop, something to drink wouldn’t kill me.”
These types of exchanges went on without comment for a few days before he finally said “Hey, if it’s a yes, it’s a yes. If it’s no, it’s no. No problem. I asked what you want so just tell me.” This is basically what it boils down to in Europe. Tell me what you think, don’t make me decipher it.
A few months down the road at a backyard barbecue, the host asks me if I’d like him to make another bratwurst. I simply answer “yes, please” and that’s that. German logic and order. Questions and answers. It kind of does make sense.
People in Basque Country are also quite direct. Within your own family, it’s fair game to comment negatively on the meal being served. The first time I witnessed this, my father- in-law had asked us what we thought of a particular dish. Someone piped up immediately and said, “it’s too salty.”
While I wasn’t concerned that this could start an incident or anything, I was taken aback. However, I was more surprised by his reaction which was one of curiosity. He talked about the last time he had prepared the meal and if some changes were made. Someone else chimed in that seemed almost the same to them. The idea was floated that maybe it’s because of the different drinks we were having with the meal.
He wanted to know how the food tasted. Some honest feedback was given. He considered it useful and thought about what it meant. The same thing can’t happen if he takes the feedback too personally or if everyone just says “oh this is delicious!”
After being here for so many years, I’ve certainly been influenced by this approach. Whereas before I might have declined an invite by inventing an excuse, now I’m more likely to simply say “that band isn’t really my thing.”
One area where politeness and directness impacted me professionally is meetings. In the Midwest, showing up to a meeting a bit early is on time. That’s polite. In Europe, showing up early is rude.
My favorite anecdote about politeness and directness and meetings in Germany has to be from a German friend. He was working at a German company that had some US investors visiting. His boss had learned that some “small talk” was customary at the beginning of meetings in the US. Wanting to be polite, he made sure to not jump right into business. As the printed meeting agenda was handed to everyone shuffling in, sure enough, right at the top, was the first item: “9:00 to 9:05 - small talk.”