Some things are just not translatable
By Klara Plenk, Reporter
Before I came to the U.S., I expected there to be a drastic division between American and German culture. However, living in this country during the school year has shown me that comparing two cultures is more complex than just making a list of pros and cons.
My hometown and Vashon seemed to be similar at first glance — small, liberal, not too hot or cold, and close to a big city. My expectations regarding differences were based on a very basic idea of culture — language, food, traditions, and the American spirit.
After eight months in America, I have learned a lot about each country’s unique characteristics. Still, I can feel the impact of globalization increasing the understanding between cultures until the sense of difference gradually begins to fade.
There are hardly any products from home that I have missed while in America because grocery stores everywhere offer a variety of German brands. Even if there is something that I can’t find here, I can always ask my family to send me a package, which makes Germany feel physically closer than it actually is.
In addition, there are merely slight differences in the daily life and habits. In both America and Germany, students play sports after school, hang out with friends, watch Netflix, and communicate through popular social media apps.
Seeing the similarities does not imply that I do not recognize the differences between the two cultures. Even though I found the concrete differences to be smaller than expected, the most present differences are abstract: the values of society and its individuals.
While the culture of European countries is much older and straightforward, the values of U.S. society are more diverse and dependent on individuals’ families and backgrounds. The great number of different world views in America, which people feel very strongly about, made it difficult for me to adapt during the first months of my exchange. When being open about your point of view, it is hard to predict someone’s reaction. This makes it easy to unintentionally hurt people or get into conflicts you never intended to be a part of.
I think the ideal of American freedom, something that is so treasured here, facilitates a lot of the acceptance and openness I have observed. I’m tempted to say that’s why society feels less restricted here,although before I never felt constrained in Germany.
In contrast to the open Americans, Germans seem to be rather cold. They choose to keep their distance from people if they are not well acquainted, and a “How are you?“ from the cashier in a supermarket would seem uncalled for.
I believe the reason for this is the clear separation between acquaintances and friends in Germany. It takes months to develop a deep relationship with somebody and then to call them a friend. This idea is so ingrained in German culture that the language expresses, with different words for strangers compared to family.
Additionally, Germans can often be very direct and straightforward, as honesty is an important value in their society. Americans, on the other hand, seem to find the directness rude, and value being kind over being truthful.
Although I admire the kindness and warmth in this country, it has made it hard for me to differentiate people who are simply trying to be nice from people who are actually interested in knowing me.
I have heard the sentence “We should hang out sometime soon” countless times when meeting new people this year, but it was more often an attempt to be polite than an honest effort to make plans.
When comparing the two cultures, there is no better or worse — just different. So, maybe the next time somebody asks me, “How do you like America?”, I can answer them honestly: “Just as much as I like Germany.”