Tag Archives: Culture

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.

“Feeling with” and “Sharing joy”

One of the syllabus subtopics in grade 12 psychology is social responsibility, which includes a study of prosocial behaviour: Why, how, and in what circumstances do people do good things for others? As part of this topic, we look at theories of altruism and empathy. My students are very often familiar with the words themselves, but the definitions can be tricky, especially because the colloquial use of these words does not always match their actual meaning, or the way that they are defined for purposes of psychology research. When defining altruism and empathy in class, we also consider the word compassion. According to Merriam-Webster, these three words can be defined as follows:

altruism – unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others

empathy – the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner

compassion – sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it

It follows from here that empathy is feeling for and with others without the reliance on personal experience, compassion is awareness of others’ negative feelings and the desire to lessen pain, and altruism is doing something good for others without the hope for personal gain.

This is one of the circumstances in which I wish English had better words, and in which I am inclined to lean on other languages for their definitions. Learning other languages allows us to learn a great deal about how we see the world due to the language that we use, and I am indebted to my own studies of different languages, as well as exposure to several languages from childhood, in forming this critical understanding.

More recently, I learned the German word Mitgefühl from one of those pithy sayings that sometimes accompanies teabags. I looked up the word and thought, “Aha.” Literally translated, this means “feeling with” and is the German word for compassion. To have compassion is to feel with someone, which therefore clearly implies wanting to lessen the pain of negative emotions. It’s normal, totally okay, and even healthy to sit with negative emotions. We cannot, and should not, be happy and positive all the time, because being so would mean blocking out much of the real world. But it is not enough to wish away the bad; to be compassionate requires doing something to get rid of the bad. I can feel with you and hold your hand, and perhaps this is the action. Perhaps this is the tiny step from just feeling. After all, can I claim to feel with if you don’t know I’m there?

Mitgefühl explains what is required by compassion in a way that the English word does not. When I expressed my delight with this finding to a German friend, he taught me another word that doesn’t exist in English, though the idea certainly does. Mitfreude is not classified as a word in the first German-English dictionary that I checked, but it appears on discussion forums, blogs, and also in other dictionaries. Mit means with and Freude is joy, so Mitfreude can be defined as shared joy. I like that this is a word in German because it sets a tone for the way people relate to one another. Once upon a time, as I was slowly and poetically picking up the pieces of my broken heart, I kept a note on my phone that said, “When those we love are happy, be happy for them.” Mitfreude describes what I felt amidst all the other turmoil, and I remember feeling lighter as I wrote myself that note. Maybe having a word would have given me a place to situate myself without needing to come up with my own inspirational saying.

One thing I am learning about Germany, and this is demonstrated by words like the two described here, is that there is an emphasis on the collective. There is a focus on others, on being part of a group, and on togetherness. This is reinforced by the German school system, reflected to some degree also at my school, in which classes move as a group for the entirety of their time together, making them a bit like a family in which they are attuned to one another and responsible for each other. Upon learning the word Mitgefühl from a tea bag, I had a better appreciation of why this is the way that it is.

Language and culture are inextricably linked and it is through learning one that we can access the other. It is then through learning that we come to better understand ourselves, where we come from, and how we fit into the different worlds in which we wander.

“Learning another language is like becoming another person.” – Haruki Murakami

Different Eyes

“I don’t understand how you live in different places,” a close friend once said to me. “I just feel so much better knowing how things work.”

I can absolutely understand this. Sometimes, it really is tiring to attempt something utterly banal and find yourself needing to learn a new way of doing it. For example, ATM cards in Singapore only work in bank-specific ATMs and those of their partner banks. And I don’t mean being charged a fee – I mean the card actually being accepted by the machine. Just a few months ago, a quick trip to the grocery store for flour turned into a research project about which German flour is closest to North American all-purpose flour. So I completely understand my friend’s comment. Figuring out the intricacies of living in different societies, all the small things that we take for granted until forced to think about them, can certainly be inconvenient.

However, it can also be a phenomenal opportunity to learn that there are multiple ways of doing things; that there is not necessarily right or wrong, but often just different; that people of the world have so much to share with one another.

Life in Malaysia got easier when I let go of expectations for processes and procedures. The thing would happen, just on a different timeline and with more paperwork than I was used to. There would probably be setbacks and changes. No one else was agitated or anxious, so there was no reason I should be. Just because I wanted something and had a picture it my head of what that might look like did not mean it should, would, or needed to turn out that way. Things happened and society functioned. (Full disclosure: Steep learning curve and many tears, but I am far more relaxed about procedures and waiting times than I used to be.)

It’s not only a matter of bureaucracy, though. Being in a new place requires letting go of certain deeply ingrained values, or at least a willingness to look at them carefully. The issue of media censorship in Singapore was particularly interesting to me, as someone raised in American schools in which freedom of speech is touted as the value above all values. Just because I had always understood this issue one way did not mean I should only understand it one way. Just because one society functioned based on a certain set of norms did not mean the other should, or needed to, adhere to the same norms. My understanding of the word “free” has become far more nuanced, and I have a different appreciation for the types of roles that governments take.

More recently, a comment to a friend that came as naturally to me as breathing has given me pause. I listened for a few moments and responded, “Sounds like a productive day,” something I’ve said without thinking in response to many descriptions of many days. And then came the reply: “It was a nice day. A good day. It didn’t have to be productive.” Oh. Right. (I knew I moved to Europe for a reason.) We went on to talk about productivity as an American preoccupation, one used to judge how worthwhile our lives are. A few years ago, I wrote about the problems that lie in looking to be, and claiming to be, constantly busy. I argued then that we can choose differently. In my own life I often do, but there’s clearly a deeply rooted cultural understanding or expectation of which I was unaware.

It is interesting to have this pointed out, and confronting in that it requires me to look into myself and at how I am made. We are all shaped by our experiences, and I find these compelling to dissect. This does not mean discarding all of the “old” in favour of the “new”, but rather understanding the influences I want to maintain in my current worldview and those that might benefit from revision.

As I see it, cultivating open-minded curiosity about the world around us is how we grow. This is what I have learned in my journey through the world, and this is what I hope to continually learn as the journey moves forward.

“The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust