On why Germany stole “sorry”

A typical Berlin juxtaposition: charming fish sign, screaming graffiti face.

If you don’t have a particularly advanced knowledge of cultural stereotypes, you may not realise that it’s a common assumption that German people are very, very…direct. If you have been living inside an old cereal box for your whole life you might also have missed out on the one that English people are awkward and overpolite. I would like to take this opportunity to announce that both of these prejudices are based on a foundation of truth, a solid cement foundation which I spend every day here stubbing my toe against, painfully. 

I’m not about to alienate half of my readership by beginning a huge diatribe against the German populace, partly because it would be unfair, partly because I love these people and partly because as this blog has shown the German people I have encountered are more diverse than a view of a pick ‘n’ mix stall through a kaleidoscope. It is nevertheless the case that it is a very German thing to be direct and open with people to an extent I would never have the cahones to reach.
Over here, if your good friend cooks you dinner and you don’t like it, you don’t force it down and try to contort your grimace of disgust into a smile of “that’s delicious”, you simply say “es schmeckt mir nicht” and leave the whole steaming pile on the plate; that means “it does not taste good to me“, and is apparently no more insulting that saying “I’m not such a fan of football.” It’s incredible the things you can get away with. You can tell your flatmate off like you always want to when you’re English, you can tell people their bag is smushing into your face on the tube, your boss is perfectly happy to march into the room and declare that you should have been careful with that table that got chipped because they are “scheiβ teuer” (expensive as sh….I think you get the drift). It is fantastic how honest people are. Take romantic issues; in England they take about six months to get really impressively complicated and then a further six months to progress through the other shades of the spectrum: embarrassing, awkward, shy, wrathful and the phase I like to call ‘obsessive-repulsive disorder’. Here in Germany, it would seem, you fall into such a situation, you exchange a few choice words expressing each of your thoughts on the issue and the whole thing is resolved in time for lunch with no hard feelings. Usually. 

It’s simply refreshing to be among people who, as a rule, are happier to be open about things than to suppress them and let them fester or ignore them and let them get worse. Yes, it can feel like you are being told off a lot, but it also means you avoid so much of the wasted time and energy that English awkwardness necessitates. You don’t have to go to things you don’t want to simply because you can’t think of the nicest possible way to say ‘no thanks, but I’m not busy, I just don’t wanna’, and the opposite is also true: it’s far easier to tell people what you think is great about them, or tell them how much you are looking forward to seeing them or how much you enjoyed seeing them, and when you do so they don’t immediately think, “oh gosh, they described me in more than neutral terms, they’re a bit keen aren’t they? Best keep my distance from them in future I think. Now for a cup of bone-strengthening tea.”

Yet the question remains, how does one deal with this when one is definitely a born-and-bred member of the awkward camp? When you feel the constant urge to apologise but are given funny looks when you say ‘Entschuldigung’ for letting your foot get stepped on by the large man in camouflage wear on the U-bahn? The Germans are so unused to the English way of using apologies that they often react with genuine and sweet surprise when I apologise in a manner that is considered unnecessary; in my glass bead course the tutor actually did tread on my toes and when I instinctively apologised for having my foot in her way she looked at me with soulful and earnest eyes and told me I by no means needed to apologise for her having hurt me. ‘Entschuldigung’ is the German equivalent of “Oh, I am sorry”, not just “sorry” – it is an apology which requires thought and consideration to be real. “Es tut mir leid” more so, being the “I am so sorry” of the German language. Hence why the German people have now taken to saying “sorry” with a cute almost-French accent to cover all the occasions when something just barely transgressive is committed and all that is needed is a word of acknowledgement; i.e. to convey and understand the ultra-minimal circumstances the English stereotype requires to apologise, they actually had to use a whole new word stolen from those people. 

On a side note, they also therefore don’t have words like “So…” and “Anyway…” or pretend coughs to fill awkward silences, and they don’t stand at doors for four hours arguing about who will be the first to go ‘after you’. And I have to admit, I’m starting to get into this myself; I am starting to tell people what I like and what I think and gradually starting to sense the new boundaries I’m working with. It takes a lot of work. And a lot of horrible mistakes. But by the end of my year abroad, I think I’ll be ready to come back to the UK and accidentally offend every single one of you.

P.S. From tomorrow onwards I will be skiing around the slopes of Austria and eating my weight in Kaiserschmarrn, so sadly there will be no posts during the Winterferien, no matter how strong your craving for eccentric ranting. Posts resume next Monday and I promise I’ll spend my time in Austria collecting photos and ridiculous encounters to share with you on my return. Until then, ganz liebe Grüβe!

Rose T