Friday, February 25, 2011

If you can't say something nice, say something unabashedly.

In general, Americans are pretty vague. "Do you want some coffee?" "I'm okay, thanks". Or, "Are you coming tonight?" "Probably not". Our vagueness makes us feel polite, like we're not hurting anyone's feelings.
I've always prided myself on my bluntness. It probably springs from the fact that I'm a terrible liar, so I've had to get pretty confident when I want to tell someone my real feelings on their clothes, relationships, cooking etc. Perhaps one of the more strangely emotional things I've had to get used to here in Austria, however, is how directly Austrians speak. Some of my coworkers are not afraid to point out (and touch!) the small hole in my tights, or to tell me that the lesson I taught wasn't very good. Of course, their directness can also be kind. If they like something, they tell you, and they tell you multiple times in varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Honestly, I think we Americans are generally unenthusiastic conversationalists, and usually lean towards a (fake?) positive attitude when we speak. If someone asks how a play was, we respond with "good", and maybe a little about it. Only the extremes ever receive any greater praise.

Here are some examples of real conversations I've had here:

"Katie, do you need the computer?"
"I'm fine, thanks"
"...what does that mean? Yes?"

"Katie, would you like some water?"
"Uhm, okay. Tap water or mineral water?"
"Whatever's easier"
"I don't care. Just pick one."

"Katie, do you think you'll come?"
"Maybe! I think I've got plans though.
"So... you are doing something else?"
"I mean, probably."
"So... you won't be coming?"
"I don't think so."

Clearly, my indirectness is frustrating to these poor Austrians. But I think it's our small way to keep windows open, to not upset people and to in general, keep things positive. I've been trying to become a little bit more Austrian in my speaking, which feel strange but does get the message across! Sometimes the language barrier inhibits polite conversation, and I find myself saying things like "No, I do NOT want to work an extra class for you" or something that to me sounds terrible rude... but to Austrians, shows that we're comfortable enough to say what we need?

Speaking of keeping things positive, I taught a lesson on small talk this week. Now, this seems like such an easy subject, but it's really not! Small talk in another language is difficult, because the range of topics is so broad, and the conversation starts so quickly (and is so unimportant) that it can be hard to switch into the other language. I don't know how many times I've simply mumbled some Denglish at people when they try to talk to me about the weather, or a class, or their weekend. Anyway, in my mind, small talk is a light conversation which both parties walk away from feeling slightly better about mankind. My students didn't quite grasp this concept, and instead got into arguments about football vs. soccer, or talked about the terrible weather and how it made them sad, or complained about their "terrible, abusive boss" at the water cooler. Pretty funny, but not very good small talk.

I've been thinking a lot about languages recently, partly thanks to a book I read called "Mother Tongue" by Bill Bryson. If you're at all interested in understanding more about the English language, it's a great book to read! He explained the history of how English came to be a language, which helps explain why we have so many synonyms for different words, or so many words that sound similar but have slightly different meanings. Also, it was pretty funny. Fun fact: English is one of the few languages where a thesaurus is really necessary - my students have never even heard of such a thing!!

In other news, I'm currently basking in the glory of a visitor-free weekend! Jenni and I are lucky enough to have a big apartment, so we often invite people to stay for a couple nights, and really we do love it. Having out-of-towners is a good excuse to get out and do things in the city. Last weekend, Isaac (a friend from UP) came with some other Dresden Fulbrighters to visit our lovely, cold city. We went to the ballet, drank Viennese coffee and basically showed them what our normal lives are like. This weekend, however, I'm excited to do exactly what I want to be doing at all times (within reason, of course). I think that's kind of how happy people live life, always....

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