You say potato, I say Kartoffel…

One of the more positive side effects of events such as the Japan earthquake (or the Tunisia/Egypt/Lybia uprisings – yes, that’s still going on too…) is that suddenly the whole world discusses the same topics. Which makes it very easy to compare what people in different countries think, how the media cover certain events, or how governments react. It really teaches you something about cultural differences and similarities!

For example, I think most people here in Europe are amazed by how calm and composed (most of) the people in Japan are dealing with what is going on in their country right now. I doubt it would be the same over here! Although I leave it up to you to decide whether that’s a good or a bad thing… Either way, I enjoy the fact that – despite increasing globalisation – it’s still possible to discover distinguished cultural features in different countries. Otherwise the world would be a pretty boring place, wouldn’t it?

So travelling from one country to another on an almost monthly basis is still quite exciting for me, even though it’s only from the UK to Germany and back. But still, almost every time I discover something new, some sort of striking difference or surprising similarity. For example, if I want to meet up with someone in Germany, I can easily call them a week or two in advance, we’ll set a date, and that’s that – we don’t necessarily need to speak again in the meantime, but both of us will certainly be there, and on time. In England however, people have given me the strangest looks when I tried to get them to arrange something more than three days in advance – and agreeing on an exact time and place 24 hours before you’re supposed to meet? Talk about being a control freak! But whichever side you’re on, I guess it doesn’t really matter – some of us like precision and reliability, while other prefer to be flexible and spontaneous. No problem, I would think, as long as you’re able to come to a compromise. Maybe agree on a date four days in advance and then talk about the details later? Hm?

And speaking of Krauts and Poms, I remember reading a quote in a book years and years ago, which pops into my head whenever I compare these two countries. Obviously I can’t quote it properly now because I forgot which book it was – but hey, other people got much further than me without being able to cite properly… Anyway, it went something like this:

The Germans and the English are similar enough to speak to each other, but different enough to have something to talk about.

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5 Responses to You say potato, I say Kartoffel…

  1. Pingback: More on ze Germans | naturewide

  2. Robin says:

    Hey Sarah! Nice to see you blogging! I tried it too, for a while, but got too distracted after a couple of entries. Hope you’ll be better and keep it up! 🙂

    Funnily enough, I haven’t really realised the overboarding politeness of the British so much – or I just trampled above it, hard to tell. I guess it has a lot to do with the age of the people you interact with – I rarely had any interaction with older (say, 40+) English people, so that might be an explanation. Also, London is quite an international city, where those effects might be a bit muted. I suppose you have had much richer interaction!

    However, i did notice the politeness in my Chinese friends, and there, it extended to requests as well. You had to be very careful not to miss a request to do stuff – it was often veiled in a neutral, off-hand remark about something. Tricky for Germans used to Frei-Nach-Schnautze!

    Here in Spain, on the other hand, it’s as direct as in Germany – if not even more so. The daily language is laced with swear-words and rude comments. Which are totally socially acceptable and no-one is too fine for a solid vulgar cussing.

    Oh, and about the lack of panic, it’s funny that gets so much press (especially in Germany it seems). I’ve recently read a good commentary in the Independent, that basically said it’s just a misconception that people would start panicing and acting egoistical. Catastrophe-induced altruism seems to be a common human trait, which is a relief, I must say. Plus one for faith in humanity. Now if only this altruism would extend further than the disaster that welds us together, that would be something! We’d probably be living in communism, haha! But that’s a story for another day.

  3. naturewide says:

    Hey Robin,

    Yes, you’re right, it can be tough to keep a blog running – I had one when I was in Australia, for friends and family. I didn’t really think I wrote that much back then, but I just checked: During the first year I actually wrote 41 posts! That’s not too bad… The second year was less successful though as that was the final stage of my Master’s – three posts! Haha!

    I agree, the impression you get of people definitely depends on the surroundings, both in geographic (London v The Countryside) and sociological (age, education etc.) terms. And yes, I also noticed a lot of politeness in China. I remember, once I wanted to travel from Shanghai to Xi’an but only had a standing ticket for the train. The conductor noticed that as he checked my ticket when I came on board, and looked at me in horror: A young girl, on her own, with a massive backpack, on a 13-hour train journey – and a standing ticket? No way! So he rushed me along the platform to a second conductor who was selling the last remaining tickets for this train just before we were supposed to leave Shanghai. I don’t know what the two of them talked about, but despite the fact that this second conductor was surrounded by about 20 men desperately trying to get a ticket, he upgraded my standing ticket to a seating ticket first before serving the other guys – and nobody complained! I was amazed! No queue jumping allowed in Germany or England!

    Thanks for the link, an interesting article. Although I don’t entirely believe there’s no looting anywhere after disasters, it is probably usually exaggerated in the media. I think altruism in such situations is necessary for humans to survive – because it means you actually help other people out who might eventually return the favour, and also because it can make you forget what you are currently going through. So I can definitely see why people support each other after disasters and believe that selfish behaviour is rather rare. The thing that surprised me about the current situation though was that (at least during the first few days after the earthquake) you never even heard of people who were mad at their government or Tepco. As nice as I would try to be to fellow sufferers right now if I was in Japan, I’d probably be pretty mad at Tepco though!
    Well, overall it’s just sad that sometimes only a massive disaster can reveal the good sides in people (although like I said, my impression is that politeness is generally quite deeply entrenched in the Japanese culture). But you’re right, it’s a shame that this post-disaster politeness never lasts.

    P.S.: Is your blog still online? May I read it?

  4. Robin says:

    Yes, I’ve heard of this extreme politeness of the Chinese too. As I haven’t visited it yet, I can only speculate on the verity of this, but I heard this is mostly directed to westerners, there seems to be a positive racism towards “white” people (and especially beautiful white girls, I believe ;)). This description is troubling me a bit though, because it does take away from the idea of altruistic hospitality. Segregation is a bad thing, but also a quite strong label to put on nice behaviour, so I’m inclined to give the benefit of doubt to the Chinese.

    Sure, my blog is still online. I called it AI Panic, and it’s a topical blog, about the danger of artificial intelligence. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek (especially the big percentage of “probability of hostile AI takeover” I show in the right, haha!), and it’s also extremely geeky.
    I’m quite happy how it looks, and generally tried to garnish the articles with pictures (to help against the short attention span of the internet). But the one-topicness also got a bit of a chore after a while, and I’m considering starting again, but with a much wider focus on all things that I want to talk about (sometimes Android programming, sometimes even politics and maybe a piece on nuclear energy, too, haha!). We’ll see.

  5. naturewide says:

    I’ve definitely experienced “positive racism” in China, although the term is a bit strong because it didn’t always have advantages for me like in the train story (if that’s how you want to define positive racism, as opposed to negative racism). Most of the time, especially in rural areas, people were just really fascinated by “white people” and took a keen interest in us. I never felt lonely on the train, there was always someone there who was keen to talk to me and asked me everything about my background. That made me feel very welcome rather than “discriminated”.

    I definitely recommend a trip to China, it was one of the most interesting journeys of my life. It’s such a vast country full of contrasts – in every aspect! Nice people v over-controlling government, incredibly modern cities v very basic rural areas – even within a city like Shanghai you can simply go from one street to the next and feel like you’re in a completely different world. Well, I guess I’ll have to write a blog post about China soon!

    I just had a look at your blog – looks nice indeed! A lot of stuff for me to read over the next few weeks! I want to post a few more pictures too, but not necessary on posts about a disaster… But the pictures will come! You should definitely start blogging again, I’m sure Android alone gives you enough to talk about! 😉

    And last but not least, Spiegel Online just today published another interesting article about people’s reaction to disasters: At Heidelberg University, there’s actually a whole group working on “Cultures of Disasters”. Maybe I should’ve gone to Heidelberg after all…

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