German Language and Culture Revisted
This article is the direct result of a thread (of related messages) in one of our forums. The discussion centered around the supposedly simple concept of being "nice," as in smiling or wishing someone a nice day. It soon became apparent that just because you CAN say something in German does not mean you SHOULD. The phrase "Ich wünsche Ihnen einen schönen Tag!" sounds rather odd. (But see the comment below.) Trying to say "Have a nice day!" in German is a good example of language that is culturally inappropriateand a good illustration of how learning German (or any language) is more than learning just words and grammar.
It is becoming more common in Germany to hear the phrase "Schönen Tag noch!" from sales people and food servers.
In an earlier feature, "Language and Culture," I discussed some of the connections between Sprache and Kultur in the broadest sense. This time we'll look at a specific aspect of the connection, and why it is vital for language learners to be aware of more than just the vocabulary and structure of German.
For example, if you don't understand the German/European approach to strangers and casual acquaintances, you're a prime candidate for cultural misunderstanding. Take smiling (das Lächeln). Nobody's saying you should be a grouch, but smiling at a German for no particular reason (as in passing on the street) will generally get the (silent) reaction that you must be a little simple-minded or not quite "all there." (Or if they're used to seeing Americans, maybe you're just another one of those weird smiling Amis.) On the other hand, if there is some apparent, genuine reason to smile, then Germans can and do exercise their facial muscles. But what I may consider "nice" in my culture may mean something else to a European. (This smiling thing applies to most of northern Europe.) Ironically, a scowl may be better understood and accepted than a smile.
Beyond smiling, most Germans consider the phrase "have a nice day" an insincere and superficial bit of nonsense. To an American it's something normal and expected, but the more I hear this, the less I appreciate it. After all, if I'm at the supermarket to buy anti-nausea medicine for a sick child, I may have a nice day after all, but at that point the checker's "polite" have-a-nice-day comment seems even more inappropriate than usual. (Did she not notice I was buying nausea medicine, rather than, say, a six-pack of beer?) This is a true story, and a German friend who was with me that day happens to have a good sense of humor and was mildly amused by this strange American custom. We smiled about that, because there was a real reason to do so.
I personally prefer the custom of German shopkeepers who rarely let you out the door without saying "Auf Wiedersehen!"even if you didn't buy anything. To which the customer replies with the same farewell, just a simple good-bye without any dubious wishes for a nice day. It's one reason many Germans would rather patronize a smaller shop than a big department store.
Any language learner should always keep in mind the saying: "Andere Länder, andere Sitten" (roughly, "When in Rome..."). Just because something's done in one culture doesn't mean we should assume it will automatically transfer to another. Another country does indeed mean other, different customs. The ethnocentric attitude that my culture's way is "the best way"--or equally unfortunate, not even giving culture a serious thought--can lead to a language learner who knows just enough German to be dangerous in a real-life situation.
Language and Culture
A previous feature about the language-culture connection.
The German Way and More
A Web site devoted to German culture by Hyde Flippo.
A Web site by Tatyana Gordeeva.
OUR GERMAN FORUMS