Right Start Blog

How Cultural Differences Can Impact Communication

By: Annika Cummins
Pre-K teacher Annika Cummins shares her struggles--and laughs--as she and her husband have adjusted to the cultural differences between Germans and Americans.

Have you ever had an encounter with someone that left you simply speechless, not knowing if your communication was successful, and your partner understood your message and interpreted it correctly?
Being German and married to an American, I stumble across these misinterpretations quite often. As the years go by it is getting better, but here is some insight into those misunderstandings that can derive from cultural differences. The way we communicate is affected by the culture we were brought up in. Cultural diversity can make communication difficult and challenging but also entertaining at times. Especially in multilingual relationships it is not always easy that the message you send through your communication stays the same for the receiver after it traveled through the walls of translation and interpretation. But let me tell you: The best choice in situations like this is definitely to have a laugh and a whole lot of patience!
My husband, Wes, and I met on a ranch in Texas while I was still attending college in Germany. We stayed in touch, wrote letters back and forth, and traveled across the ocean whenever possible. At the beginning, I knew English but wasn’t quite capable of having a solid conversation. I had to prepare my answer step by step in my head before I could say it out loud. Making mistakes and getting over the fear of being “wrong” helped me tremendously along the way of becoming more fluent. When Wes decided to move to Germany until I finished college, all the verbal confusion started. While most Germans know English pretty well, there is still a good portion of the older generation that does not. And they were Wes’s most frequent clientele at work. 
Although Wes learned the basics of the German language, it was still almost impossible for him to communicate successfully. It was also not helpful that we lived in the southern part of Germany, an area with a thick accent and dialect that does not have much in common with the school-taught German language. At first, Wes came home from work frustrated because he never got his lunch the way he had ordered it. On top of that, he brought all these questions back that I had to look up myself, like, “How is it possible that the bark on a tree is female, when the tree itself is male?” 
The German language has feminine, masculine, and neutral articles that accompany every noun. Even things that don’t have a gender are female, male, or neutral. While the spoon is male in German, the fork is female and the knife is neutral. Don’t worry if you don’t see any logical pattern here—there isn’t one! The German language is very complex, especially if you didn’t grow up speaking it. And in multilingual relationships, those “gendered” words can easily create misconceptions and confusion. 
Often, all my husband could do was scratch his head and take a good guess. We also ran into simple misunderstandings along the way. I remember one occurrence where my husband and I attended a German street festival. In Germany you have to pay for everything, even for using a public restroom. But the doors close all the way (without this extra crack in the doors) and the bathrooms are usually very clean. At this particular festival, you had to get a key for the bathroom and return it afterward. Wes came out of the bathroom and someone else had followed him in. When he returned the key, Wes told the employee that there was still someone in there. The employee didn’t speak English and didn’t understand Wes in his basic German. My husband was told to just lock the bathroom door, which after a fruitless effort at explaining the situation, he did lock that person in the bathroom. When he told me about the incident, we went back together and resolved the issue and nobody got left in the bathroom for too long.
The more time we spent together, the more frequently we had serious discussions about language confusion that no one would ever think about. I quickly learned that I couldn’t simply translate sayings I was used to applying in certain scenarios, like, “Hey, pick your own nose,” meaning “mind your own business.” None of these sayings translate well word for word, and if I do so, you probably understand only “train station,” which is another German saying meaning “you have no idea what is being said.” Another saying I use quite often is “come on, jump over your shadow,” meaning “get out of your comfort zone.” When “a stone is falling from my heart,” I simply mean “I’m relieved.” 
Over time, I have learned to adapt, but chances are you will catch me using those sayings, even though they are clearly not a saying in English. Sometimes the confusion is not derived from an idiom being literally translated from one language into another. For example, ordering ice cream for the first time in the United States was a disaster. Unsure of how to ask for two scoops of chocolate ice cream, I said: “Can I please have two chocolate balls?” which is the way I would order my ice cream in German. My request lead to a confused look on the face of the man serving the ice cream and I realized I had made a mistake. Often, my communication partners don’t correct me out of politeness, so I keep using phrases and sayings I shouldn’t, until I run into someone who is either too confused or blunt enough to point out the correct way. Please always do! 
There have been other humorous incidences. For example, the English word “restroom” I initially thought mean “bedroom,” as this is the room where I would rest. Or once, when over at a friend’s house, she mentioned having just gotten new “throw pillows.” I said, “Oh, for pillow fights?” and we all shared a good laugh. 
Germans are direct communicators; if you ask them for their opinion, you will get it. They are also very quick to say “no” when they mean “no.” While this could come across as abrasive to an American, to a German it is simply practical and honest. Even now, my husband informs me regularly that I may have come off a little rude in certain circumstances to strangers or people in general. I often forget the “thank you” part of “no, thank you.” My fluency is a work in progress and I never intend to seem overly direct. But this is one stereotype about Germans that I think is pretty accurate. Germans can appear angry or harsh to Americans, even while trying to communicate politely. The tone of the German language, as well as nonverbal expressions, are to blame for this and can open up a door for miscommunication. These verbal and nonverbal side effects make it even harder to be understood in the way it was originally intended to be, especially when it comes to communication partners from different corners of the world. The daily number one question “how are you?” is something I often struggle with as a German. I would not really alter my response to a stranger versus people closer to me, such as colleagues or friends. I would not go into every detail of my life, but to me it doesn’t make sense to play along and simply answer, “Fine, how are you?” when maybe I am not feeling a the greatest at that moment. I would rather tell you how I really feel. 
Fostering a better understanding of why people say things the way they do can ensure a positive outcome, with both parties feeling satisfied, understood, and valued. After all, my husband and I have learned to mainly laugh with each other and about ourselves, and consider our cultural differences as a positive, enriching feature of our relationship, all struggles aside!

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