The Question is Free

Before moving to Germany, I thought I knew a few things about cultural differences. I’d lived in Malaysia for a year and Singapore for five, travelled widely across Southeast Asia and elsewhere, taught students from dozens and dozens of countries, and considered myself reasonably culturally competent. In many ways this was, and is, the case. However, moving to a small town in Germany, meeting German friends, and teaching mostly German students have taught me more about culture than I expected.

To begin with, I really hadn’t thought there would be as many cultural differences between Germans and people from my part of North America. There are plenty of cultural differences between Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans, and Germans just seemed so much closer to people I knew. Unsurprisingly, I was mistaken and, as any moment of pause would suggest, I really should have known better. There are cultural differences between people who live in cities mere hours apart; obviously I would find cultural differences between people continents apart.

Additionally, I didn’t know any Germans prior to moving to Germany. I knew a little bit about Germans, or thought I did based on blogs that I read and language courses that I followed, but most of that was just a willingness to peel back stereotypes until something close to truth emerged. But as with anything, there’s only so much one can learn out of a book. And when it comes to people, that amounts to very little.

Something I knew before coming here is that Germans are extremely direct when speaking, but I didn’t know how that actually played out in social situations. I have found relatively little beating around the bush (at which I am an expert), but rather honest questions simply asked that demand honest answers. Social niceties do not play the same role as in my part of North America and as a result, so I gather, social bonds in Germany are quite different than what I have known before. Germans have many Bekannte (acquaintances) and it is special to be accepted as a friend. Friends are not made overnight.

To take a different example, last night I was asked a serious question that required a serious answer. I had thought for weeks about asking the question myself and had decided against it without really coming to a conclusion. I just didn’t want to put anyone in a potentially awkward position, so I hadn’t asked. When I heard the question and gave my answer I added my reasoning for not having asked myself. I was told, “In German we say, ‘the question is free’.” Of course it is. In Germany, the question is just a question and the expectation is it comes from an honest place. No awkward situation required.

For as direct as I am in my professional life with students and colleagues, I tend to be quite the opposite in private. I find forthrightness difficult and this has been a problem in a range of relationships. I have a similar problem with making decisions that involve other people, though I am quite decisive when something only affects me. I’ve been getting better at decision-making, trying to think about choices in terms of simple questions and answers. “Where do you want to go on a bike ride?” merely requires me to state where I want to go; I don’t need to first wonder what the asker would like me to say and then try to say it.

The same logic then ought to apply in other situations, such as asking hard questions and engaging in hard conversations. This requires honesty rather than conforming to whatever expectations I think might be there. Conversations are a different dance under new conventions and I suppose better to learn this late than never. Better to actively learn how to behave in a new culture with new people than to assume that what I have always done is just the way things are to be done.

If the question is free, ask the question. And if the question is not free, as challenging as I find it, I still have to think it is worth asking. As many of us know, if you don’t ask the question, it never really fades away. We might not like the answer, but at least we don’t end up wondering what would have been had we asked. If we ask the question, we know.

The implications are then clear: The way to build a relationship is to approach it with openness, clarity, and the courage it takes to say what needs to be said, ask what needs to be asked, and listen to the response. If I learn nothing else from my time here, I am glad to have learned this.

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