On a mildly more serious note, I remember well my first ever serious business meeting in the US, where we pitched a potential joint venture to another company. 30 minutes of mutual praise about the awesome potential of the idea and positive affirmations of how we're totally going to do this ensued... and immediately after we left, my (American) business partner dropped the smile, said "welp, that went badly" and stated that there was no way in hell they'd proceed. Which proved to be the case.
A good example to illustrate this phenomenon: in most American cities, it is considered fairly normal, even expected, to talk to strangers on the bus, in the street, in line at the grocery store. There is no mental "barrier" to overcome in the public sphere. However, one is typically expected to be polite and not overly direct while interacting with strangers.
The same activity, contrarily, is borderline verboten in German culture. The typical German will rarely engage in spontaneous conversation with a stranger, even if he/she would be extremely direct (in American terms) if such a conversation were to occur.
I wondered how much this was that my ancestry is half Italian so I looked the part. My wife seemed in contrast much more likely to be figured as a foreigner and given distance.
Santa Cruz is a whole 'nother creature too.
This is true, but there is one great exception: if you are with small children. Many Germans get very warm and smily, and are happy to start talking with you, at least about your kids.
The most disparaging remark to keeping the distance in Germany will include something along the lines of "Kenne ich Sie?" (Do I know you?). This essentially means "Don't you ever dare to talk to me you piece of HOOOPS!".
I found this especially true in certain social circles. People with some sort of so-called elitist pedigree, traces of former nobility for example, used to react like that. They know each other and strangers are shot down this way.
I spent a year in Germany as an exchange student. I still return every few years to visit friends and just because I'm in love with the place. I have so many random conversations with strangers there about all topics. These take place in trains, pubs, parks, etc.
IME, contrasted to America, German "leisure" is more about experiencing and valuing downtime. IME American leisure involves tentatively exchanging anxieties, butt-sniffing to see who's on what side. This may be skewed bc I'm an American who can speak German somewhat well, so I'm a bit of a curiosity over there.
I miss that German mode of relaxation. Of course, there are plenty of people on both sides of the pond whose relaxation involves equipment, gear and challenges. But in Germany, I find people much more comfortable enjoying downtime, doing little to nothing at all, staying open to experiences, wandering and talking to strangers about random topics. IME, they tend to be more confident and less blustering than Americans when asserting themselves. It's as if they aware of the depth of subjective experience and feel safe presenting themselves.
Whereas in the U.S., I feel people entering that mode preface their presentation with implied threats. It gives me the feeling that I can't authentically respond, not with a threat. I'm thinking of biker/right-wing types as well as skittish soccer parents here. They're not open; they're spreading their tribe. It seems to reflect a humble image of one's self and country as part of a bigger whole, whereas in the U.S., the bigger whole is simply one's tribe and its competition with others. This may all be skewed by my own insecurities around strong persona...
Are you German? perhaps you're more aware of internalized social anxieties and pressures than I experience as a visitor there? I've got a more or less Zen mind, but also great curiosity and impulse to communicate, so I probably draw out the social ones. Of course, I do encounter many "grumpy" Germans who don't want to talk, but the same is true in the U.S.
Maybe your experience was different, but your whole comment seems to implicitly have a problem with Americans, so I'm dubious as to exactly how neutral your sentiments are.
> This may all be skewed by my own insecurities...
I think you answered your own question there.
Perhaps subtle cues or assumptions create such imagery of directness for those on the outside? Not that I take issue with your characterization, I just wonder how it came to be.
Of course, there was a very common character trope with some kid who was told "Honesty is always the best policy," and who then proceeded to go around telling people (e.g.) that yes, their butts did in fact look too big. inevitably annoying all the adults they were honest with.
To any foreigners wondering, no, none of us enjoy the fake corporate double-speak either. Things like asking, "How are you?" and never wanting an actual answer are of course too engrained in our culture for most of us to even notice. But the extreme levels this gets taken to in the corporate setting is almost offensive. In the worst offenders, any exchange even close to approaching confrontational is liable to get you labeled as "difficult to work with." But this has almost less to do with our general culture, and more to do with corporations' need for bland, compliant, agreeable clone-employees.
Maybe, without going all sapir-whorf, the common use of an idiomatic "white lies" expression might mean something, like, say, the existence of "jeitinho" in brazilian portuguese.
"This is good" En-GB: "Not bad, I 'spose", "it'll do" En-US: "Awesome man, incredible", "I'm excited you asked, amazing"
I will retire never having used "exciting" in a work context. :)
With apologies to both sides of the Atlantic.
They wont say it for themselves, but it's something very common to hear Americans and foreigners say/write as a fact for Americans in general (ie. the culture). Some areas even compete/praise themselves on how more direct they are (New Yorkers come to mind).
Of course, compared to a culture with a lot of innuendo and second guessing required, like e.g. the Japanese, or more subtle and ironic, like the English, that would be very true, but not in general.
In the US I frequently cite that I am an east coaster to explain why I don't play the politeness game as in this phrasebook, and people seem to accept that explanation. (Or perhaps they say they accept it but don't give a shit, as some of the phrasebook might suggest.)
The Culture Map by Erin Meyer goes into this a bit; one of the key traits she uses to assess cross-cultural communication is how directly cultures give/take negative feedback.
There are two things to reply to here from that book:
1. The stereotype for a lot of the world is that Americans are direct, much like you said here -- but this isn't the case for ALL types of communication.
2. There's a scale specifically for negative feedback from "direct" to "indirect" for various cultures and the US is shown in the middle of that scale.
The UK is also listed around the middle, but more toward the "indirect" side than the US.
For more extreme examples, Russia, Germany, and France are listed as tending toward more direct negative feedback, whereas Japan and Indonesia are listed as tending toward more indirect negative feedback.
It's a fascinating book that really opened my eyes about ways to perceive cultures and communication, so if this is anything you're at all interested in, I'd really recommend it.
> On a mildly more serious note, I remember well my first ever serious business meeting in the US, where we pitched a potential joint venture to another company. 30 minutes of mutual praise about the awesome potential of the idea and positive affirmations of how we're totally going to do this ensued... and immediately after we left, my (American) business partner dropped the smile, said "welp, that went badly" and stated that there was no way in hell they'd proceed.
This kind of situation is also discussed in the book! ;)
Edit: I bring this book up relatively frequently, but I'm not associated with the publisher or author at all. The book was an absolute revelation for me in that it gave me a way to conceptualize cultural differences rather than the traditional/stereotypical "good/bad" scale, so I like to pay it forward and recommend it to people who seem like they might be interested in it.
Or how they ask a friend/relative/acquaintance "How have you been" and expect just a fake generic "fine" or similar, not the actual story of how you were, as told in several (at least European I know of) countries...
For example, the phrase for "Hello" in most European languages directly translates to "Good Day." It is not as if people are saying "Good Day" in any literal sense of the words; the meaning implied is "Hello."
We very much understand that.
Our problem/concern/issue is that you don't seem to expect/appreciate the outpour of how one has been in the first place, whereas elsewhere it's a natural part of meeting the other person...
That is, it's not like:
"'how are you?' just means hello, but we have another phrase to say if you want the other person to really tell you how they've been/feel when you meet them".
It's more like:
"Actually telling the other person how you've been/feel is discouraged, nobody cares that much for you, period".
- Hi, how are you?
- I'm fine, how are y...
- What can I get you?
They don't mean to cut me off, it's just obvious they mistimed my response. What my American friends do:
- Hi, how are you?
- Hello, how are you?
- What can I get you?
It's very odd to me how neither responds to the other's question, but it really is used as a generic greeting.
In a longer conversation, there are numerous phrases (including "How are you?") which, combined with the fact that the conversation is extended (i.e. you are both sitting at a table, or haven't seen each other in awhile) are universally assumed to mean that the person wants to know "how you are." It's a sort of game that one does subconsciously.
I can see how it appears to be nonsensical and random, but there is definitely a method to the madness, and I wouldn't say that American people care less about asking people how they are.
"I've had a rough week, my dog died and I'm having trouble focusing at work. Hello to you, too."
If you actually want to ask someone how they're going, the phrase is "Ni Hao Ma", which is literally the question: "you good?"
The question version isn't something you'd normally use. It might be appropriate on meeting a friend if you knew they'd been recently ill.
You can ask “How are you?” with genuine interest and get a genuine answer in the right context.
'Americans are straightfoward' to me has always meant that when a large group of Americans decide what to do they'll fight it out in public with big, well defined interest groups coalescing around well broadcast opinions. Very transparent. No real nuance at the strategic level; usually simple opinions like 'more money to X' or 'we want a Y' (although often quite a sophisticated execution). Generally clear why people believe what they do. Compare that to the traditional British approach where there is a lot more emphasis on silly pageantry and maintaining dignity in public, like the basic fundamental absurdity of pretending a monarch is somehow more worthy than any other. Americans literally wouldn't stand for pretending that unless they were making money off it somehow.
For all the complicated details of politeness in the small, Americans in large groups are generally crystal clear about what they do and do not like.
Is there even a correct answer to this kind of question?
The correct strategy is not to get into those situations in the first place.
Here's a couple of my favourites:
"Not here to fuck spiders" => Not here to waste time
"Mad as a cut snake" => Very angry
"Busier than a one armed brickie in Baghdad" => Very busy (a brickie is a bricklayer)
"Built like a brick shithouse" => A large, muscular man
"Crack the shits" => get annoyed
"Dog act" => something done to a friend that's uncalled for, e.g. skipping your round at the pub
"Stitch up" => A scam or a trick
"Sick cunt" => An outstanding person
"Old mate" => Someone who's not your friend
"Smoko" => Morning break at work
"Misso" => Girlfriend (short for missus)
"Ambo" => Paramedic (short for ambulance)
"Servo" => Service Station (gas station for Americans)
"Seppo" => American
"Pokies" => Poker machines
"Yeah nah" => either yes, or no, depending on context. Can also be used as filler in a sentence.
This leads to beautiful sentences, such as:
"Yeah nah, the misso cracked the shits at me 'cause I spent the whole arvo at the pokies"
Here's a decent sized list of Aussie slang: https://nomadsworld.com/aussie-slang/
Seems related to the cockney rhyming slang:
Septic tank = Yank
"Want to go out tonight?"
"Yeah nah let's stay home." ('nah' last = no)
"Should we leave now?"
"Nah yeah let's go." ('yeah' last = yes).
Sometimes "yeah nah" by itself said strongly can be synonymous with "no way". Sometimes "nah yeah" said strongly can be synonymous with "hell yeah".
Australian is the best dialect of English.
“Nah yeah but.”
“You don’t look tired.”
“I feel tired but.”
For a long time I just kept waiting for the rest of the sentence. “You feel tired but....but what?”
"Cuter than a bug's ear", "Madder than a stuck pig", "Don't piss on my shoes and tell me its raining" etc are all examples of sayings that sound very similar from the South.
“Not bad at all” - something is really good
“Munted” - trashed or unserviceable
Interestingly this has a different meaning in the US, and explains the Commodores 'Brick House'
"Busier than a one armed brickie in Baghdad"
At the risk of over analysing, I wouldn't employ a one armed brickie, unless he were cheap ofcourse.
Yeah, I dunno about that. I reckon "old mate" refers to someone you don't know particularly well, rather than someone who specifically isn't your friend. Synonym with "bloke".
At least, in the 80's it was thus.
For men, (to me) it means that they're big, strong, and muscular.
For women, (to me) it means that they're whatever kind of woman the speaker prefers.
So, as a kid, Arnold, Sly, and Hulk Hogan were all built like brick shithouses. But so was Cindy Crawford.
Also, don't forget to watch the five "How to Talk Australians" clips on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHQRZXM-4xI
"Literally", which means "figuratively".
"I could care less", which literally means "I couldn't care less".
Edit: I feel like a party pooper saying this, but I see a few comments where people may be taking this phrasebook seriously, perhaps because it's been Published on the Internet by MIT?
It's not a serious phrasebook! It's just an MIT alumnus having some fun with us all.
In fact the author is clearly not a native American English speaker. Here are a few "tells"...
"Upon arrival it is therefore often to their surprise how many seemingly simple phrases actually turn out to mean something completely different in the US American variant of the English language."
"You might want to consider to do X."
"You might want to consider to postpone your trip until after the deadline."
"It is highly recommended that you turn in your application in time to increase your odds at being considered."
These are close, but not quite what anyone would write who grew up speaking American English. And that's fine! My goodness, the author's English is 1000 times better than my... whatever their native language is. And I'm glad they shared this fun list with us. :-)
BTW if you enjoy this phrasebook, I heartily recommend English as She is Spoke:
Well, second stupidest, next to me.
Also, "officially" which means "non-officially".
I can sympathize with this! I have such a hard time saying "no", even (or especially) when that is what must be said.
In any case, keep in mind that this is a fake phrasebook made for the sake of humor. It doesn't depict how Americans actually speak with each other, it's just all in fun.
I laughed. For a Chinese person to give any other culture shit about this is hilarious. The only thing foreign businesspeople in Shanghai complain more about than people saying they’ll do something and then forgetting or ghosting them is poor quality control/fraud.
I normally ask for a probability to complete by a certain date. That works well enough.
While we are at this, I think Dutch people should work on being less "direct", and also try to improve their sentence construction when writing English.
Plenty of my (former) Dutch coworkers' emails in English just came across as rude, in both senses of that word.
In any case, these are things you learn once. After that, the better you are at navigating the differences, the more successful you'll be. After all, it's low probability that you'll reform (in your mind) another culture and high probability that you can improve your ability to win. So might as well chase the win by modifying the self every time.
This whole thread is the differences between nations who speak the same language. If they can't agree what chance has a non native got?
As a native English speaker I appreciate that I don't need to learn another language. But on the other hand, the language has also become the worlds language, so its about as fair criticising the Dutch for sentence construction, as it is for criticising Australians for making everything into a question?
It's like this in the UK too, every conversation starts with "How are you?"
"Fine, how are you?"
It's always the same, pretty much. It's daft, it's just like a ritual that everyone is happy to partake in.
No one is actually asking you how you are, it's just a noise that both parties have agreed to start each conversation with. No actual information gets exchanged. You could easily replace those phrases with nonsense and as long as both parties are aware of the nonsense and what the nonsensical response is expected the it would work just as well.
Person 1: "Hippopatumus soup triage?"
Person 2: "Triangle, Hippopatumus soup triage?"
Person 1: "Triangle."
It's so strange.
It (re-)establishes the relationship between two parties (and to observing parties). You can tell if two people are strangers, friends, or enemies by how they do this ritual.
It signals intention on part of the initiator and receptiveness on part of the responder. If "Hey, how are you?" gets a cold and abrupt "I'm fine." without a reciprocating question, then it's a pretty strong signal that the other party isn't open to further or prolonged conversation.
It's also like a shibboleth. How someone interacts in the ritual can signal how well socialized s/he is and whether s/he's an in-group or out-group member. If you ask someone you don't know very well "How are you?" and s/he immediately begin telling you about the rash on his/her belly and how s/he hate the traffic and the weather, then that might tip you off that s/he doesn't understand your society's social protocols and therefore is either a social misfit or an outsider.
I'm from Spain, and there canned answers as well, but you risk someone can answer genuinely: "Today it's being a shitty day, I slipped this morning and my leg is still aching", even in situations where you don't have a close relationship...
Someone meeting me for some boring work related thingie: "Hi! How are you doing?"
Me: "Super awesome, thanks so much for asking! Super excited to meet you and discuss this!".
They probably think I'm crazy and/or are not sure what to make of it, so it's fun to see the puzzled looks, but I'm also just being nice.
Which I took for "What the hell is wrong with you, crazy foreigner who doesn't know how to read social cues"
The American culture is so indirect and giving direct feedback is so hard. One of the biggest prides in our culture here is that employees can always burst into the CEO's office and tell them they are wrong if that's the case :]
Wasn't surprised at all to see this phrase book was authored by another Israeli :)
"Let's have lunch sometime" - Yeah, when I say that I genuinely mean it. It does NOT mean "I don't want to see you again." to me.
"Thanks for reminding me" - Again, I genuinely mean that when I say it. NOT "Stop bugging me!".
This list is not supposed to reflect how people actually talk with each other. It's just a made-up sarcastic list, put together for the sake of humor. That can be a fun thing, as long as we don't mistake for an useful phrase book that tries to describe what people actually say and mean.
As a recent inductee to silicon-valley-ese I found it odd and funny how often people were "excited" about something.
This person has clearly never been to Asia, where a whole different level of this exists.
When you're in the US you have the false sense that you actually understand what's being said, while in truth learning the actual meaning can take a while.
Then I realized how many people on here aren’t native English speakers, and might need years of socialization to understand these nuances. Bravo
And "with the greatest respect", which means "you, sir/madam, are a blithering fool."
A friend of my partner's, who works at a high level in the European commission told us that it is passed around in diplomatic circles as a (non-ironic) instruction manual.
The American/British preference for avoiding direct communication is apparently not normal in Europe at all, and causes a lot of confusion amongst people who are unfamiliar with the layered meanings.
I saw the "mit.edu" next to the link and thought it was a study or official publication first.
... unfortunately, I'm not quite so sure that there would be much agreement on which ones were the true ones. :)
Took me a while to realize this actually works, as a born and raised American.
There also needs to be a section on Americans aversion to discussing bodily functions. "restroom", "powder my nose"?
Speaking of Brits, they did point out the perils of faulty phrase books many years ago:
I understood it to be a shortened corruption of lavatory and it's worth noting that the English definition of that gives toilet, and the American definition gives the sink in the toilet, which kind of reinforces my point.
So "loo" would be from "l'eau", meaning "water"; so possibly "water closet", or WC, a.k.a. crapper.
It's just a handful of expressions that are mildly misleading.
In other cultures, you have to get together with friends over dinner to discuss the hidden meaning of a single suspect word your boss had used that day.
High context cultures take a lot of mental effort.
A related thought however is whether such lists, for any given culture, tend to grow over time, like special cases in legacy software, until the overhead of working with complexity exceeds the cost of starting a new culture afresh..?
> In high-context communication, a message cannot be understood without a great deal of background information. Asian, African, Arab, central European and Latin American cultures are generally considered to be high-context cultures.
The quoted source is an anthropological work from 1959, a time when anthropology still wanted to be a natural science. These sort of generalizations do not go over well in contemporary cultural anthropology.
A friend in South Korea was running late to the office (I think it was Samsung?). He made it in by his start time and went into the office bathroom for a quick shave.
His direct superior happened to walk in. As the boss was washing his hands next to my friend, he said something like, "make sure you do a thorough job of shaving" (though obviously not as awkwardly).
Other Koreans who heard the story confirmed this probably meant: "I see what you're doing: get yourself in order this one time, and if I ever catch you shaving at work again you're toast".
(Note this was about 15 years ago, and I hear Samsung and most of the other Chaebol have mellowed out a great deal since then)
At the same time something like "not the best programmer" is a minimizing statement which is less mean than something like "bad programmer".
While this may have been intended as a joke, it may actually be useful to people who want to do business in America.