Dienstag, 1. März 2011

The Travelogue, Part III - England: Social Culture


The best thing about England are undoubtedly the English themselves. Living in a country with an average of 110 rainy days a year seems to have bred people with a good sense of humour (or maybe the ones that are born without it simply kill themselves). The social culture is also quite different from Germany, and this bit is about some of its many pitfalls and highlights.

Masters of the Chat

You will often hear that the English consider themselves to be very reserved people. I don't know what the hell they are talking about. Maybe they compare themselves to Brazilians, who knows. Compared to northern and central Europeans, the English are extremely accessible people, and making new friends is amazingly easy. Here, people start chats with you all the time; the shopping queue, the pub, any public space really.
Germans, for comparison, have a rather large social distance. Random People talking to them for a prolonged time makes most of them somewhat uneasy. Many Germans I know over here have had this awkward moment of uncomfortable paralysis when they were first spoken to by a random friendly stranger. But once you are used to it, it's great. Mainly because Britons manage to make even conversations about weather somewhat entertaining.
The very language habits seem to make for a more friendly social culture. There is no polite pronouns, like in many other languages, so everyone is “you”, which already breaks some boundaries. Throw in the obligatory “mate” (or even “sweetheart”) and you already feel like you're part of the crew. Even communication with public officials is dotted with “mate” or “son”, and people will even crack a joke or two.
I was never a big fan of small talk, but the English have turned it into a delicate art form, and I respect them highly for it.
I frequently hear that while people here are easy to talk to, they do not (unlike, allegedly, Germans) make good long term friends. I have made quite the opposite experience, and my Brits are equally “deep” and reliable as my Germans.

The Rule of the Sugar Coating

My first encounter with the subtle conversational differences was at my job, when gave feedback on a colleague's work, with the effect that he was disgruntled for several days. In England, again like in Japan, you do not criticise directly. Instead, you must adhere to what I call the Rule of the Sugar Coating:

"When confronted with an unpleasant situation or potentially causing any discomfort to a person, even if justified or minor, first talk about something unrelated and positive. Once you have established a suitable agreeable surrounding, bring the issue to the forefront by using the mildest language you can, phrased in such a way that no potential blame could fall on you to be considered rude."

Imagine you are not particularly pleased with something someone has done at work, and you want him to change that. In Germany, the conversation would go something like this:

“Hey. You know the asset you gave me is not up to specifications here, here and here. Can you please redo it?”
Job done. No offence taken.

Now in England, it goes like this:
“Hey mate, how're you doing?”
“Not too bad, not too bad.”
“So, how was your weekend?”
“Nice, did X and did Y.”
“Cool. You know I really love those models you're making. They're really awesome.”
“Thanks, dude.”
“You know, there's just one little improvement, quite a minor thing, that would make my work with them a lot easier. Would you mind having a look into that? Only if you have time of course.”

After that you leave it to faith if your message came across. Maybe the English value politeness higher than efficiency. That would at least explain a lot about the state of the railway system.

Conversation Topics

For a country that claims to boast some of the world's finest universities, people are surprisingly averse to intellectual topics. More often than not I met people where conversation stops dead in its tracks when it's not about pop culture. Albeit an extreme, I have encountered many conversations akin to this real life example:

She: So, do you like the band?
Me: Yes, they're awesome.
She: The frontman looks a bit like this guy X from East Enders, doesn't he?
Me: Erm, dunno, never watched it. But I like the way he's going mental on stage.
She: Oh my God! You never watched East Enders?
Me: No, don't have a television, actually.
She: (looks at me with a blank expression) But...what do you do all day?

Being well educated seems to hold not too much value in Britain, your reputation as a fun person is much more important. While knowledge books and shows are reasonably popular, they are usually about interesting trivia you can talk about, rather than hard facts. Play a British version of Trivial pursuit, and you will notice the difference; the German version comes with the topics History, Music, Science, Geography, Art and Sport, whereas the British one offers you only one topic that isn't football, films and famous people. I figure it helps sell new editions as you have to update all the questions with the new celebrities.
Education seems mainly a means to an end, not a generally desirable acquisition, and is much more specialist, trying to get you into a job a soon as possible with as little fuss as possible.* Schools teach at a much lower level than in Germany, and from what my studying friends say, university in England is a piece of cake compared to France, Spain or Denmark. You can even get a bachelor's degree in tailoring or surf science.

*I'm not even saying that's a bad thing, it just leaves most of the responsibility on you to acquire some general knowledge.

Keine Kommentare:

Kommentar veröffentlichen