When I meet Americans and tell them that I am from Germany, the conversation sometimes turns to the person telling me that his or her heritage is German or European.
True, we share the same roots. And yes we might be similar in many cases. However, during my time in America I have found a lot of differences in how we approach things.
One of those differences is what I call the “I love your shoes” phenomenon.
I think I am already a bit Americanized. At least I try: I have studied for some time in the United States. I drink Budweiser. I met Henry Kissinger. I plan to drive a Mustang someday. And I pay all the time with a credit card.
I even tried to adopt the American dialect so that I don’t sound so German. (The reason? Americans love the British accent. I have never heard anyone say, “Wow, cute German accent!”)
Still, sometimes I don’t know how to react to situations that speak to cultural differences.
For example, how do I respond when somebody compliments my shoes, my shirt or my hair?
The situation was actually quite trivial: I was at a Starbucks cafe, getting a tall coffee. A nice-looking woman entered, looked at me and said: “I love your shoes.”
That’s totally uncommon in Germany.
Nobody would honestly tell a random person in a cafe, elevator or wherever that he or she is loving something about you. In an elevator or at a bus station we don’t start chatting about weather, sports or clothes. We stare. We stare at the street. The buttons in the elevator. At birds, trees or whatever.
The reaction to such a compliment in Germany?
Definitely a surprised face of the one who got the compliment. In some cases probably also an, “Everything OK with you?” And yet others would see such a compliment as a very cheap approach, somewhat without class.
But back at the cafe, some thoughts were going through my mind:
Does she want my shoes? I began to see her shuffling out of the cafe with my sport shoes size 12. But maybe she is just being polite.
Second thought: She sees that I am not from America and is making fun of me because I am not wearing flip-flops while the sun is burning outside. But maybe she is just being polite.
Third thought: She is polite and likes me but can only go so far as to praise my shoes. Shoes are symbols for who I am. So I should say: “Yeah, thanks and I like, like . . . you.”
What I did say: “Ah, yeah, thank you.” It was more of a rambling mumble, actually.
Later I asked my colleagues about this situation and learned that this is totally common in America — no thoughts behind it, no mean thoughts, no come-on approach, just a compliment. (How disappointing).
A week later, an older woman in an elevator told me: “I like your shirt.”
I learned my lesson. And took the compliment as it was intended.
Max Holscher is an Arthur F. Burns fellow at the International Center for Journalists and interning this summer at the Miami Herald. Holscher is a reporter and junior editor at Hessische/Niedersächsische Allgemeine Zeitung (HNA) in Germany.