You've been invited over to a friend's house, and his grandmother serves you a cake she has labored over for hours.
Granny: I had to go all over town to get the ingredients. It's my own grandmother's fruitcake recipe, but you can't get pickled figs and horseradish syrup at the shops anymore!
You have three responses to choose from:
a) Oh, thank you so much. It looks lovely.
b) Oh, thank you, but I'm dieting. I can't eat cake.
c) I don't like fruitcake at all and figs make me swell up and break into a hideous, oozing rash.
If you picked a, you are probably English or American. And even if you can't stand fruitcake, you'll shovel it in to make granny happy. Many well-mannered (or quick-thinking) Americans may also have chosen b.
The third answer, though, is reserved exclusively for Germans. How, after all, can honesty be rude? Why on earth would you lie, say the Germans? You don't like fruitcake, why pretend that you do? And those figs could kill you!
In England or the US, of course, answer c could very well result in a rolling pin upside the head. In Germany, however, it's merely a standard form that human interaction takes. You say what you have to say and that's that. You meet up with a German friend you haven't seen for awhile and chances are he might ask, "Have you gained weight?" It's not meant as an insult, merely a polite inquery.
The bottom line is that the rules of human interaction are different in Germany. Here are a few of them:
Personal invitations of all kinds are to be taken at face value. "We're having a party, please do come," means "We're having a party, please do come," and not "We feel rude not inviting you in front of these other people, but surely you'll have the grace not to show up." Similarly, "Come over to my house and we'll have tea," means that you should start planning a date and time for that pleasant event. It is not to be confused with the Anglo-American "We should get together sometime," which means "I hope I never see you again."
Yes means yes and no means no. If you ask whether you can share someone's table (or borrow a pen, or get a ride) and that person says yes, that's the end of it. Even if the person does not smile or tell you to go right ahead, you do not have to ask again. Germans will be perplexed when you insist: "Are you sure? I won't be bothering you, will I? I'll just take this little corner and be done in a minute." For heavens sakes, they said yes already, and it's not like you're asking them to donate a kidney. Just sit down.
Preferences are expressed directly. If someone offers you tickets to the opera "Siegfried," don't put them off vaguely: "If only it lasted just a tiny bit less than six hours, I'd love to go, but my schedule is jam-packed." If you don't like Wagner, or opera, just say so. Germans will not be offended that you have an opinion that differs from theirs. But . . .
You may have to talk about it. There are consequences for all this directness, and this is one. You may be asked why you don't want to come to someone's party or why you don't like Wagner, and then you must explain. You may even have to have a discussion about it, or possible a debate. But perhaps you can do that over tea. Would you like to come over some time?
Contributed by Maria Snyder, now living in Chicago, USA.