Part of being a convincing actor or writer is understanding not only character motivation, but WHERE that character is coming from — both internally and externally. It may not seem like much, but these details can make your art authentic in a way that glibly using stereotypes never will. For example, my mother gave me a glass pickle as a Christmas ornament. There was a note card attached with a story about how Germans all have a pickle ornament and hide it on their Christmas tree every year. More than just a family tradition, this was a NATIONAL TRADITION. Only problem? None of my German au pairs had heard of this. None of my German friends. Not even the weird guy at my post office who occasionally speaks German to me. Myth #1 DEBUNKED. Here’s some real differences as outlined by my friend Isabel Florian.
Izzy is uniquely qualified to comment on differences because she is fluent in both languages, has attended college in both countries, and has created a life in both places, switching back and forth at will.
We first met “Aunt Izzy” when she worked as an au pair for us in 2009. Since that year she has been back twice for extended visits. Here are her every day observations:
I grew up in a small town in the far south-west of Germany. It’s only a 10min drive to France and my dad drives to Switzerland everyday for work. So I grew up knowing that things work differently in other countries. However, knowing that and actually experiencing it are “two different pairs of shoes” as we would say in German.
I hope you will all enjoy reading this, no matter if you are German or American. I might have exaggerated a little sometimes, but be assured that I don’t want to offend anyone with this. I love them both – Germany and the US!!
- 1. Birthdays: Let’s say it is Wednesday and next Tuesday is gonna be your birthday. You’re at work, the gym, the mall or where ever you like to spend time and you run into a friend. Here is what you think if you are….
….American: “Oh cool, I haven’t seen that dude in a while!! Maybe I should invite him to my birthday party this weekend? Celebrating on my actual birthday would’ve been nice for a change. But this weekend was just so much more convenient and who even cares if it’s a little early?! As if something could happen – haha!! Look at that, he remembered that it’s only a few days until my birthday and congratulated me. I’ll totally invite him to the party, it’ll be a blast!!”
….German: “Oh cool, I haven’t seen that dude in a while!! Wait, I think he knows that it’s gonna be my birthday soon. Don’t wish me a happy birthday!! DON’T!!!! It is not my birthday yet!! Something terrible will probably happen if you do!!!! Aaaaah!! Oh, good thing he remembered to make sure to ask first if it already was my birthday. I’ll invite him to my birthday party in two weeks. This weekend would’ve been so much better, but there’s no way I’ll ever celebrate before the actual day!!”
2. Chips (and BBQs): No matter if Lays or Chio, they come in all kinds of flavors and are an all time favorite in both the US and Germany. Yet they’re treated very differently….
America: “We’re gonna have a BBQ later. Ribs, Hot Dogs, Cheeseburgers – can’t wait!! Let’s check what we got here – potatoes…, lettuce….screw that. Oh yeah and chips. That’s perfect for a BBQ (and lunch)!! I gotta remember to go to the store though tomorrow to get something for movie night…. maybe popcorn? Or nachos?”
Germany: “We’re gonna have a BBQ later. Steak, all those different sausages and grilled feta cheese – can’t wait!! Let’s check what we got here – nothing but chips. Not like they’re gonna help me with a BBQ!! At least that’s perfect for movie night. But now I better go to the store and get some potatoes and lettuce so I can fix some salads for the BBQ (and lunch)!!”
3. Staying/Leaving: You’re at the movies and just saw a really good film. Or you’re at a restaurant and just had a great dinner. Different location, same reaction. If you are…
….German you will stay in your seat. The thing was great. Why get up and leave right away? Then it’ll be over. It’s been great, so you should totally keep sitting for a while and savor it. What’s the rush anyways?!
….American you will get out of your seat. Immediately. The thing was great. But it’s over now so what’s the point of staying anyways?! It’s not like anything else will happen.
4. Bumping into people: You’re at the grocery store and you’re concentrating on picking out one of the thousands of tooth paste flavors. (You’re wondering why there are so many different flavors, a total of 5 would be more than enough for you.) But anyways, you’re standing there thinking about nothing but toothpaste when a random stranger, bumps into you. As….
….an American YOU say sorry even though the other person ran into you. (They’ll probably apologize, too.)
….a German you stare at them until THEY apologize. (And if they don’t you mutter something under your breath about how rude people are nowadays – just loud enough so you can be sure the person who ran into you can hear you. A glare always helps, too.)
5. Silverware: No hot meal without the help of fork, knife and spoon. Right?! If you are….
….German you don’t really need the spoon. Well, except for soup maybe. But other than that there is no food you can’t and won’t eat without a fork and a knife.
Pizza, salad, mashed potatoes,… you can and have eaten all of them with a fork and a knife. Ever since you we’re a kid. And you will keep doing it!! Why else would silverware even have been invented?!
….American you don’t really need the knife. Well, except to cut meat maybe. But other than that you can eat every food with only a fork or a spoon. What the heck – if you’re not at a restaurant you can just put your meat on the fork and take bites of it (at least if you’re under 16). What’s the big deal?! You’ve done that ever since you we’re a kid and you’ll keep doing it. Why did God give you ten fingers anyways?!?
6. Socks: Everybody wears them, no one really thinks about them. But….
….if you are German there is absolutely no way that you would ever pull your socks any higher then to the top of your shoes. If you know nothing else about fashion – for you that is the ultimate fashion faux-pas. Socks should never be seen!! (Except maybe you’re older than 35. Then apparently something seems to change and for some weird reason you decide that it’s okay to wear socks with sandals.)
….if you are American (especially if you’re a guy) you pull up your socks as high as you possibly can. It doesn’t matter that you’re wearing shorts and that it’s summer and 100F/37C outside – you pull those socks all the way up to your knees. That’s how they were made and that’s how you wear them. (But under no circumstance you would ever wear them with sandals!!)
7. Summer heat: It is summer and it’s hot. Could there be a better place to spend time than the pool, the lake or the beach? If you are…
….American your air-conditioned house is a where you feel best in the heat. But you can’t stay inside all day long, so you pack everything up and go swimming. If you’re a girl and younger than 16 you’ll probably wear a one-piece. Maybe even a swim shirt, also if you’re a boy. That way you don’t even need sunscreen. You swim for a little while but when it’s going towards the late afternoon you can’t wait to get back to the coolness of your air-conditioned house.
….German you got up early in the morning to close all the windows so the nights coolness won’t be pushed away by the outside heat. You decide to go swimming. On the way there you stop by the store to get something but you try to get out of there as fast as you can, because you’re just too cold with the air-conditioning running. At the pool you’ll probably where a bikini, no matter how old you are. If you’re an adult and you try to get a nice tan it’s totally okay to sunbathe topless. Swim shirts? Only surfers wear those. You stay as long as you can. At home it’s hot too and here there’s at least the water where you can cool down.
Do you agree with Izzy’s observations? Comment below and let us know.