Last week, while dropping off my daughter at school in the morning, I overheard two fathers speaking. The conversation was in German, but the men spoke with strong accents. One of the dads, we’ll call him Dad #1, appeared very upset and was telling the other father, Dad #2 about how his lawyer had asked him not to be so emotional in court. Dad #1 explained how his lawyer thought they had a solid case and that they were likely to win, but the attorney also advised his client to please tone down his emotions, to speak less loudly and less fast, to gesticulate less, and to appear altogether calmer and more unemotional. Dad #1 seemed very frustrated by this request from his lawyer. He said he was greatly angered by the injustice that had been committed and that he felt it would be appropriate to express his anger in court, instead of trying to suppress it and be fake. In fact, he continued, he thought his emotions would show how genuine and honest he was. Dad #2 tried to convince him that he should follow his lawyer’s advice. The two men walked away before I could hear more without actually following them and eavesdropping.
I was deeply troubled by what I overheard, because I could relate to this need to be emotional and expressive. I have no idea what the conversation was actually about, or what the case at hand pertains to. Nor do I personally know either one of the gentlemen in question. But I can understand the frustration that comes with being considered overly emotional. I have often been told here, in Germany, not to take it personally – “Nehmen Sie es nicht persönlich!” – when the situation, comment, or conflict, was most certainly personal, at least from my point of view. I have often been advised to go into certain delicate situations with less emotion, even though my instincts would have been the opposite. I have slowly learned not to show hurt or disappointment. I have learned not to express disagreement or doubt directly and bluntly. In one particular situation I was told, just like Dad #1, that the only thing that stood in my way, the only thing that could be held against me was my emotionality.
Through my line of work and by having lived and worked around the world, I have developed quite a strong sensitivity for communicating effectively despite cultural differences. I feel I can empathize with many different cultures and understand where people are coming from most of the time. I also speak several languages fluently, which allows me to actually communicate with several groups of people in their native tongue. Yet, when it comes to feeling understood, to feeling at ease and being able to be myself on an emotional level, I have a little more trouble.
In Germany, in public life, I am always on my toes, always second guessing myself, never allowing myself to fully relax. I always question my instincts first, count to ten, and then react in order to make sure my reaction is culturally appropriate. And I don’t think this is necessarily wrong. I chose to live in this country. I admire the way of life, the convictions, the ethics and beliefs held by the people here. And again, I’d like to point out that, although I have traveled extensively throughout the county, I have only lived in northern Germany, in Hamburg, so my views are based mostly on experiences in the Hansestadt Hamburg. I speak German fluently. I have a job here. We have lots of dear friends and neighbors. I even have a German family through my husband’s relatives. Our children are fully integrated. Yet, emotionally, I do have to keep myself in check.
Otherwise, I tend to speak too loudly, I tend to crack inappropriate jokes and make too many funny comments, I tend to greet people too openly and laugh too much and too loudly, and the list goes on and on.
But where does my emotional identity come from?
I have been molded and influenced by several cultures, so what made me pick and choose to feel comfortable with the set of behaviors and feelings that I call my own?
Recently, while shopping for a new T-shirt, I came across one that started a whole line of discussions with my family and friends. The T-shirt said something to the effect of: “I am not yelling. I’m just Hungarian. We speak this way!”
Certainly, Hungarians tend to be loud and very emotionally expressive, if compared to Germans or the Japanese, for example. But to everyone who has been in a restaurant in Barcelona at lunchtime, on the other hand, Hungarians must seem a very quiet people. In fact, it always depends on the register, doesn’t it?
Allow me to generalize for just a second: Hungarians are loud when speaking with friends and family, and they tend to gesticulate a lot and to speak with feeling and spice. But Hungarians are rather shy and reserved while using public transportation or while eating out at a restaurant or during cultural activities. To continue with some of the other cultures I know, the French, and I am including French children in the bunch, will not speak loudly in restaurants. But have you ever been to a puppet show in the Jardins de Luxembourg? Not even American children scream louder at puppet shows than the French kids do. The event is reminiscent of Shakespearean times when the audience threw onions at the actors to express dissatisfaction, or hooted and hollered if the performance was good. Similarly, French children yell at the characters on stage, try to get involved in the action, express all of their thoughts and emotions during the show, and they are encouraged to do so by both parents and the organizers. In other situations, however, French children have always struck me as “bien élevés,” as very well raised, polite, considerate little beings.
In comparison, Americans, adults and children, tend to add volume to any conversation or event. There’s a confidence and assertiveness that comes across in most situations, even during church ceremonies. Actually, every time I’m in an American church, it strikes me how light, merry, communal, and loud it is. I guess this is because I was socialized in the Carpathian Basin, where going to church is more of a somber and contemplative affair.
But what about Germans? I have experienced Germans to be almost paranoid about disturbing someone. I find this to be true when it comes to how loudly they speak, or how closely they stand to one another, or the noise they make both in their homes and gardens, and in public spaces. But there are situations that call for volume in German society as well, for example, in Bavaria during Oktoberfest (where everyone dresses in traditional garb and drinks lots of beer), or in Köln during Fasching (celebrated in February by dressing in funny costumes and taking to the streets to sing and dance and be merry), or in Hamburg during Schlagerfest (the festival of Schlager music, which is a popular form of pop music in Germany), or during Hafengeburtstag (the yearly anniversary celebrations in May, commemorating the port of Hamburg, Germany’s largest).
When living in a culture other than the one you grew up with, it is difficult to know when to contain your emotions and when to let them loose. It is even difficult to know what occasions and celebrations call for just what amount of joy or cheer. Growing up in the Carpathian Basin, one of the biggest celebrations at our house was my mother’s name day, névnap in Hungarian. Unlike her birthday, which was celebrated only with members of our family, her name day brought neighbors, colleagues, acquaintances and friends of all kind to our house. My mother used to take the day off from work to be able to welcome all her guests on her special day.
My mother’s favorite flowers are freesias and carnations. On her name day, the house would be filled with these flowers in every color imaginable. According to tradition, people simply came by to pay their respects, brought some flowers and stayed for a quick coffee or refreshment and some pastries or a small bite.
In Hungary and Romania, name days are generally known and often announced on morning TV and radio programs. It is a common courtesy to acknowledge the name days of the people you know.
This week, on March 16th , is my name day, but it will be an ordinary day for me. My mother will send me flowers, and I will thank her for them. She will express a degree of sadness that no one else remembered, and I will try to console her. My name day doesn’t mean that much to me. Even stranger, my birthday is quite an annoyance as well.
As a child, my actual birthday was only celebrated very serenely with my parents. Set for a later date, there was, of course, a larger party, that, organized in a fashion suitable for an only child, included many guests, at least two or three cakes, games, presents, music, the works.
In Germany, birthdays are a big deal as well, but somehow differently. The German way to commemorate a birthday resembles, for me, more the name day celebrations in the Carpathian Basin than the birthdays I have known. In Germany, everybody calls and congratulates you on the day of your birth. People keep meticulous records of all their family members’, their friends’, their friends’ children’s, their colleagues’, and their neighbors’ birthdays. It is baffling. The birthday child is then expected to take muffins to school, or cake to work, or to invite friends and colleagues out for a drink.
I have not yet been able to bring myself to adopt the German way of relating to birthdays. I’m a bit of a birthday Grinch, I’m afraid. I do follow the traditions as far as my children are concerned, but when it comes to my birthday, a bombardment of phone calls does not appeal to me, so everyone who cares about me knows that I prefer a brief text or video message instead. My colleagues know not to expect any cake at the office from me on my birthday and that I truly do not wish to have my birthday acknowledged.
But allow me to get back to this day last week, when I overheard the two gentlemen at my daughter’s school, talking about some legal trouble and how being emotional would not help their case. That same day, when I arrived at the school for pick up, several parents were already standing outside, some talking, others busy on their phone, or just staring into space. I went to stand with one of the fathers I know. We’ll call him Dad #3. We engaged in some social chit chat and then just stood there, awkwardly waiting. Another father, Dad #4 arrived, came up to us, smacked Dad #3 on the back, and said, “Na, du Sack!” To explain, both Dad #3 and Dad #4 are German. They know each other, but are not close friends. They are both educated and respected members of our community. And yet, Dad #4 greeted Dad #3 by saying, “Hey, you testicles!” And that was perfectly acceptable.
Straight off, they found the right tone, laughed, and chatted away effortlessly. And that is the big mystery of integration, that no one can teach you. The social morés and celebrations, the actual emotionality behind daily life, the tone of voice, the nuance of interactions is the hardest thing to understand and adapt. Dad #1 and Dad #2 in this story found common ground by both being “foreign,” but they felt great frustration in their interactions with the “natives.” Dad #3 and Dad #4 engaged in what would seem, at first sight, as socially inacceptable, controversial, vulgar, even. Yet, Dad #3 and Dad #4 were seen as perfectly appropriate, funny, and cool. You bet Dad #3 and Dad #4 won’t be celebrating any strange name days, but I’m pretty certain they will bring cake to work on their birthday and will remember to place a birthday call for all their friends and acquaintances!
I guess my point today is that true integration is very difficult. It is not enough to have linguistic and educational integration programs. For a society to truly become one and grow together, there has to be a platform of sharing. Feelings and personalities have to be respected. Perhaps Dad #1 should not have been advised to try and hide his emotions. Perhaps emotionality should not always be regarded as negative. Perhaps there could be room created for this man to be able to say, “Look, I come from a different culture, and I apologize if this might seem inappropriate in your culture, but I am angry. I feel frustrated. I accept the rules, but feel certain aspects make no sense, or are unnecessary, or unfair.” Perhaps Dad #4 should dare slap the two “foreign” dads on the back as well, and call them “testicles.” Perhaps that would break down more walls than any specific, organized integration program. And perhaps I should actually let people know that, although I try to suppress the feeling,
I am always sad on my name day, because it makes me feel detached from my
parents’ culture and confused about where the heck I actually belong.
Be well everyone, and never stop trying to connect!
Henriette J. Runte