Friday, 28 March 2014

Gracious me, we're more British than we thought.

While the English arrived in South Africa years and years and years ago, and while our accent sometimes leads people to believe we're from England, and even though both my previous and current surname are very English, I never really considered myself British. Nor do I consider myself as such now. That said, since arriving in Germany, I realise how some British stereotypes have weaseled their way into my life and behaviour. Golly.

I suppose I first realised this when I came across “Very British Problems” on twitter, and related to SO many of them. What’s more, I realised how very odd some of these problems are, especially when compared to the way Germans seem to handle them so directly.

I’ve realised that we’re more British than we thought in the following areas:

Greetings and farewells
Apparently, the following are some common problems faced by the British.
Spending about 80% of any telephone conversation saying the word 'bye'.
"Right then, I suppose I really should start thinking about possibly making a move" - Translation: "Bye".
Staring at your desk, patting your pockets and saying "right", to fully prepare your colleagues for your impending goodbye.
Guilty. I find goodbyes awkward, like I need to give a reason why I’m leaving, or apologise for doing so. It’s very necessary that the person I’m bidding farewell to knows just how I feel about them, that I intend to see or speak to them soon, that I wish them the best, and so forth.
Germans, in general, seem to have simplified this process by streamlining it to something along the lines of “I’m going now, goodbye.” The friendlier interactions will include a ‘thank you’, or a ‘see you soon’ or even a hug. Then Malcolm and I awkwardly shuffle out. After putting my coat on after a tutoring lesson, I unlock the student's front door, say goodbye, and walk out, closing it behind me. It feels so rude.

Speaking one’s mind
We don’t want to be offensive, or make somebody feel bad. This leads to problems like the following:
Saying you don't mind when offered a choice, then praying you're left with the option you want.
Dealing with a queue-jumper by staring ferociously at the back of their head.
Dealing with a pavement cyclist by giving the back of their head a damn good glare.
Indicating that you want the last roast potato by trying to force everyone else to take it.
Now, to be clear, mum would definitely object to a queue jumper. But she’s German, remember? As for the last potato scenario, it’s not so much that one wants it, but one really does need to offer it to everybody over and over until somebody will actually take it. This reminds me of Malcolm’s sweet Grandmother in Durban, and how stuffed I would feel after visiting, because refusing more cake was taken as a sign of politeness, and I’d inevitably give in eventually and eat some more. Here? If you’re offered something and you want it, you’d better speak up because it’s assumed that your ‘nein’ means ‘nein’! (Thank you, Nicole, for teaching us this lesson!)

Generally awkward social interaction
Talking to people should not be as awkward and weird as we make it. But it is! According to SVBP, these are some common problems that I can relate to:
Never feeling more uncomfortable than when asked to 'tell us a bit about yourself'.
Looking cross after sneezing more than once, so everyone knows you're just as annoyed with the situation as they are.
Running (at a pace no faster than walking) for the bus, missing it and carrying on the run for a short while.
Accidentally catching a stranger's eye, so pretending to look for someone in every single direction.
Hoping someone doesn't ever realise you allow them to get your name a little bit wrong.
Overtaking someone on foot and having to keep up the uncomfortably fast pace until safely over the horizon.
Saying hello to a friend in the supermarket, then creeping around like a burglar to avoid seeing them again.
There is somebody here who still calls me Esther, even though I corrected him a couple times. Now I let it slide, don’t want to make him feel bad! 
The discomfort when asked to talk about myself seems to be a stark contrast to the German introductions as they would confidently launch into “Ja hallo, Ich bin die Erica.” I have no idea how or why an article is placed in front of one’s name, but it makes it sound super-confident. This makes me think of church, where in our church in SA they ask visitors to please slip up their hand really quickly, so that they can receive an info pack. Our church here? Please stand up and introduce yourself, where you’re from and what you’re doing here in Marburg. I can just imagine how that would go down back at home!
Moving along. I refuse to run for a bus. Unless I’m certain that I’ll catch it in time. That awkward moment when one just misses it? Yeah, I’m not setting myself up for that.

Excessive politeness
The English seem to be well known for their politeness, which causes some problems every now and then. For example:
Running out of ways to say thanks when a succession of doors are held for you, having already deployed 'cheers', 'ta' and 'nice one'.
Deeming it necessary to do a little jog over zebra crossings, while throwing in an apologetic mini wave.
Finding it impossible to place items on a shop counter without saying "just these please".
Oh man, the first one kills me. As one enters our building, there’s a door, then there’s one that needs to be unlocked, and then there are elevators. When entering the building with others, and I open the first door, they say ‘Danke’ and go through. Then they get to the next door first and I stand awkwardly waiting for them to unlock it before saying ‘danke’ and going through. Thank goodness the last door, the elevator door is avoided since we live on the ground floor so I just say ‘nein danke’ if they hold it for me. Of course, all this can be avoided by checking our postbox and killing some time peering into it or looking thoroughly interested in our junk-mail.
As for zebra crossings, the rule is that if a pedestrian is at the crossing, they should be allowed to cross. It’s a rule, right? But we, Malcolm in particular, seem to be unable to cross one without smiling and giving the patient driver a wave. Do we get any kind of response? No. They usually look at us like we’re wierdos.
The last problem, that of placing items on a counter and saying ‘just these please’ has been eradicated since I’m not sure of the exact German for it and "Das ist alles, danke" seems dumb to say, because it's so obvious. Malcolm replaces it with an awkward nod.

That said, the one "Very British Problem" which we seem to have in common with the Germans here, is  

"Being in a perpetual state of thinking you have a cold coming on"
I swear, with my nose constantly running when I walk or have my first bite of a warm meal, it really does just feel like I'm constantly on the brink of getting sick. 


  1. Try the subreddit dealing with this:

    Probably language/spoiler/trigger warnings &c.

  2. very funny especially the story of the doors ..for me it is even worse with the kinderwagen I could not help with any door and I keep saying thank you :))))

  3. I can just imagine! I mean, how many ways can you say thank you? I guess in English, German and Arabic ;) :)

  4. Hah! I'm guilty of a lot of these too. I think it's from growing up in the South. It took me years to be able to say "Yes" the first time someone asked me if I wanted some thing to drink/a gummy bear/whatever. I'd answer No, being polite, and wait for them to ask me again (as Southerners do). Imagine my surprise when Germans said, "Ok!" and went right on munching.

  5. oh gosh, i think these are universal problems- or at least i can relate to lots of them :) most sticky, perhaps, is the bit about people asking you to say more about yourself. what do i say? where to start? do they actually want to know? eeeeek. i blush and turn pink and usually mumble something about my dog...

  6. hehe love this. i've subtly noticed the goodbye situation from my british friends but now i know for sure! i've been trying to incorporate the "right then" because i love it soo, but i sound like a total phony ;)

  7. hahaha yep, totally not british!! Though occasionally people have asked if I was from there because they can't place my accent (That's a hybrid midwest/SE Asia English accent for ya). My parents had some coworkers who were British and they told stories about how troublesome saying goodbye seemed to be...

  8. Hi Erica, this is a very interesting read. As a Filipino, I'm fascinated to learn that we share a "farewell" issue with the Britsh. In a gathering, farewells can extend to about an hour. I guess we enjoy each other's company a lot that its hard to break it.:)

  9. That happened to me and I was so disappointed!! That said, I like that if somebody offers me something it's because they're genuinely willing (mostly) to share, and not just asking hoping I'll say no out of politeness.

  10. Whew, I'm truly not alone!
    It really is so tricky... though fortunately being from South Africa that is usually my interesting tid-bit, and then I tell them why I'm here, and about Malcolm... but actually if I were back home I'd have nothing to say!

  11. The goodbye is such a tricky situation... it's like the 'you hang up, no you hang up' with every single person. The German way definitely saves time. It drives me crazy though how in American movies and series they never say goodbye on the phone at all?!?
    I'm sure your "right then" sounds perfectly natural to others! :)

  12. Your accent is a tricky one!
    Saying goodbye can be really troublesome... the problem comes in when you accidentally start a new conversation mid-farewell, and then later one has to start all over again.

  13. Wow, you beat the British farewells then! But agree, it's just nice spending time together that to suddenly just say goodbye doesn't seem right.