Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Excuse me

The organizers of the conference here in Paris announced there would be no wireless on location. They gave in after three days...

Yesterday, Keith Dienes gave a very interesting talk about his work with Mike Lennek that I will try write more about soon. Also, March-Russell's talk about the 'friendly string landscapes' (astro-ph/0604254) was very, uhm, entertaining.

But since I am very braindead today, now to something completely different.

Here in Paris, the streets are crowded with people from different nations. The French actually seem to be the minority. But it's pretty easy to detect an USAmerican: if you come close to one, you will inevitably trigger an 'Excuse me'.

I wrote in a previous post how weird it is to come back to Germany, and to notice all the small differences to the USA. Amusingly, I just found that the Spiegel intends to write a survival guide for visitors of the soccer world cup in Germany:

Help us write the German Survival Bible

starting from the questions "Why are the shops closed on Sunday?" (Cause things don't change in Europe) to "Are Germans rude?".

This used to irritate me. I always found Germans to be overly polite and discrete. But moving to the US, I had to realize that it's actually true that Germans are considered to be rude, just because of this! I also had to realize that the cultural and sociological differences between Europe and the US are far larger than I thought.

From the article Rules of the Street:

Not that Germans are intrinsically rude. No, mostly they've just learned to come to terms with more day-to-day physical contact that many of us. Walking down the street can often feel like a rugby scrum. In a crowd, many Germans will plow grimly ahead like Arctic ice-breaking ships. Boarding a subway, some Germans like to pretend no one else is there. The guy who tromps on your foot will look surprised -- as if you should be somewhere else.

Even better: if you tromp on an American foot, the foot owner will excuse on a 99% confidence limit :-)

So, excuse me, but I also have to tell you something about the American rudeness, the constant urge to ask 'How are you?'. For most Germans this is considered a very personal question and surely nothing you want to be asked by some Jim or Marc you've never seen before, working at a 7/11, who's just supposed to sell you cigarettes.

To give you an applied example: two months ago I came back to Santa Barbara from a 10 hour trip, my stupid bag had stayed in Denver. Meanwhile they had changed Hammond's lyrics to 'It always rains in Southern California' and I found that the roof in my apartment was leaking. Worse, at 5 to midnight I had to run through the rain -- needless to say I had no umbrella and the car didn't start -- to get to the next groceries store. Standing at the register with painkillers, a pack of tampons, and a Hershey's bar, rain dripping from my hair, the cashier asked me how I am!

I seriously thought about hitting him with a better homes magazine, but that would have been rude. Instead I said: Terrific.

He was lucky not to ask whether I found 'everything alright?'.


  1. Hi Bee, it is beginning to sound like you hated your time in the U.S. which is unfortunate. I agree that in some important ways, Germans are more polite (they actually listen to you, for example) while other Europeans truly can be rude. But is a discussion of social conventions really worth the time? Your posts on physics are wonderful (my favorite is the cell in the liver), so I hope you do find the energy to write about RadCorr. Bitte. Danke, Michael (un gringo).

  2. Hi michael,

    I am genuinely sorry if I left the impression that I 'hated my time in the US'. That is certainly not the case. There are very many things I like in the US much, much better than in Europe. After all, there is a reason why I came here -and stayed for almost 3 years.

    On the other hand there are also many things I like better in Europe. I think both could learn from each other. In many regards.

    I wrote the above post to make fun about some prejudices I have been confronted with. Others were: Germans drink beer, eat lots of sausages, and are always in time.

    Since I am vegetarian, drink wine instead of beer, and have my own personal problems with time, I find all that very funny.

    E.g. one thing that I like very much about the 'average' American, is how easy they are with socializing. It happens to me frequently that I sit in a Cafe, or at the airport, and some stranger tells me the story of his life (I actually don't care whether true or not, cause I just love to hear stories). I also came to appreciate that people smile and wish me a nice day (I actually don't care whether they mean it or not).

    Not to mention the shop opening hours. Etc.

    So, excuse me, if the post was very unbalanced. I didn't mean to be rude ;-)


    PS: Did I want to write something about RadCorr?

  3. Hi Bee, I'm happy you found some nice things in the U.S., too. Stereotypes can be annoying or funny, but should never get in the way of meeting the real person.
    Anyway, I meant Planck06, not RadCorr. My mistake. Excuse me. :)

  4. I grew up in an area that was predominantly jewish, though my family wasn't jewish. The stereotype of Germans (in the neighborhood) was of people who were Nazi-like authoritarian types who like to beat up on minorities like jews, gypsies, etc ... and generally had a bad temper. (Though I could understand their sentiment. These were jewish families who survived places like Auschwitz, Dachau, etc ... and their kids or grandkids).

    I never quite understood why this Nazi-German stereotype is still quite common even today. The generations of Germans born after world war 2, is nothing like this.

  5. Anonymous said...

    I never quite understood why this Nazi-German stereotype is still quite common even today. The generations of Germans born after world war 2, is nothing like this.

    Hi Anonymous,

    sorry to hear you grew up in such a neighbourhood. Where I grew up, the Turks beat up the Greeks or vice verse. I guess somewhere else, the Black beat up the Whites or vice versa. Or the Muslims the Christs or vice versa.

    I have my own theory about sociological dynamics, but to make a long story short, I think people just try to make sense out of their life. It life sucks, and they find some reason why it might be so, they have something to fight against. May it be the Jewish, the White or the Christian guys.

    Which story you find reasonable will depend on the history you relate to, the circumstances you grew up in, your religious believes, the color of your skin etc. These stereotypes will survive as long as people are desperate for a way out, and have no better option.

    Best, B.

  6. What I noticed was that some of the most virulent anti-German people I knew over the years, were actually jews born in Germany. Several were originally from places like Koenigsberg (East Prussia), Breslau (Silesia), Leipzig, or Berlin, before 1945. I suppose having one's entire family killed in the Nazi death camps would make somebody really hate Germany, and passing down the hatred to their kids and grandkids.

    I do notice that the hatred isn't quite as virulent in the grandkids born in North America. Several of my childhood friends who came from German-jewish families who really hated Germans, actually moved to Germany for several years to work in the financial sector in Frankfurt.

  7. Hi michael,

    it's probably very hard, even for Bee ;-), to write about physics on the level of the "liver cell" post on a regular basis - you need to know the physics, and you must have a great idea how to write about it, and the energy to do that, and all that after some exhausting day full of work. I'm just telling what is preventing me from contributing more to the blog ;-)..

    On the other hand, those sociological issues do matter, I think, and are an interesting read also...

    To my German ears, for example, the How are you? as a greeting always sounds like some genuine question, with at least some interest on the side of the questioner. That's because you would say Wie geht's? as a greeting only to people who are friends or whom you know at least a little bit, and when you are really interested in a somehow sincere answer. So, when greated in the US by a How are you?, I usually start to think about some reply, instead of just mechanically answering Thank you, great, and how are you? ... Such conventions can really be strange, even if you know in principle what is going on...

    By the way, there is funny way of greating among people who know each other in the region in Germany where I come from: One person just askes Unn? (which is the local idiom and abbreviation for Und, wie geht's? - Well, how are you?, and if you don't want to give an answer, there is the ritualized replay Unn selwer?, which means Und wie geht's Dir selbst, And how are YOU?... So next time in the US, maybe I just answer Unn selwer? ;-)...

    Best, Stefan.

  8. Hi anonymous,

    that's a serious and very sad topic you are touching... But it's good to hear that things can change with following generations...

    Starting from next week, the whole world is invited to stay with friends in Germany - that, at least, is the official slogan of the soccer world cup (Die Welt zu Gast bei Freunden). It will be great if it comes out like that!

    Best, Stefan.

  9. Hi stefan & bee & anonymous,

    I take back my objection - these issues are indeed important and worth airing. And sometimes, fun!

    I see how "How are you?" might not be so innocuous. For me, "Gruss Gott!" was hard to get used to - I felt sometimes like I should raise my arms to the heavens! And then, at DESY, I learned very quickly to drop that since my friends found it hilarious when an "Ami" greeted them that way. And then at a formal dinner, I actually heard someone say "kuss die hand" though fortunately not to me!

    Anyway, these things are fun. But the popular image of Germans in the US not a joke. Why would 60-year old propaganda still be effective or even relevant? I honestly don't know. And for me, a much more serious concern is the tension just beneath surface here which could at any time erupt into virulent hatred of Muslims and/or Arabs. I fear the people who want power over our culture who will exploit that potential to achieve their ends.
    (See, for example, the recent post by Mark Trodden on Cosmic Variance entitled "The Purpose Driven HumVee".) Let's be alert and serious and make sure they don't succeed!


  10. Hi Bee,

    I think what you're decribing is the typical European's reaction to the US. I used to go over the pond regularly, and luckely enough I was able to go to Arizona a month ago. My dad (who was born in Germany btw) works there, so while a was there I had plenty of time to "take in" the local culture as it were. The things that you immidiately notice as a European :

    1) Everybody is so polite and nice to the point of appearing like an annoying hypocrite. But you get used to it when you go along.

    2) FOOD!! I gained 5kg in two weaks time. Lost the already though :-p

    3) Free beverage refills

    4) Convenient stores that are actually convenient, i.e. great opening hours

    5) All that space! Great roads, not the cramped 500yo wagon trails with asfalt we have.

    6) Very hard to find decent coffee.

    My view on the States, and I think you'll agree, is the following : I love to go there. I like the people, with their little quirks. I will complain about it, but that's because I like them! But I wouldn't want to spend the rest of life there, because there would be a lot of things in Europe I would miss.

    Ideally, one should spent every six month on the other continent. That, or just live in Boston I guess ;-)

    Greetings from Brussel

  11. Hi dimitri,

    since you were in AZ you must have noticed

    7) Air conditioning.

    Best, B.

  12. Not as such, no. I was there during the "winter" (March), when it was only 35°C...

  13. The one thing I noticed in West Germany and West Berlin in the 1980's, was that the German national flag was almost nowhere to be seen. Though in East Berlin, the East German flag was seen more often.

    In other countries like America, England, France, etc ... the national flags were everywhere.

  14. The one thing I noticed in West Germany and West Berlin in the 1980's, was that the German national flag was almost nowhere to be seen. [...]

    In other countries like America, England, France, etc ... the national flags were everywhere.

    Still true. Except if there is a soccer game and the Germans are playing :-)

    National pride and patriotism is nothing the Germans want to be identified with. An example is the word 'Vaterland', which you better use carefully. My grandmother would get very upset. I don't think she would have made it through a talk discussing the NS sector of string theory.

    I even found it weird to see that many people in the US have bumper stickers saying 'Proud to be an American'. If you would drive around in Germany with a sticker saying 'Proud to be a German' you would make yourself very suspicious of being a Nazi.

    But, yes, it gets better.



  15. Bee,

    Are you a vegetarian or vegan? Do you eat things like dairy, eggs, etc ...? Or do you avoid all animal products such like leather?

  16. anonymous said: Are you a vegetarian or vegan? Do you eat things like dairy, eggs, etc ...? Or do you avoid all animal products such like leather?

    I prefere coffee creamer over milk, but otherwise I am an uncomplicated vegetarian. Why? Want to check out my leather wardrobe ;-) ?


  17. Bee,

    I was just wondering. Many vegans I've known over the years, typically do not identify themselves as "vegan". This is especially common in places which are more conservative. (In the conservative world, vegans have the unfortunate stereotype of being a fanatical left-winger type).

    I was a vegetarian for many years, and a vegan for some periods of time.


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