It’s in the German tone…

If you live abroad, in another culture and another language, everything you do is filtered through the lens of culture: “Is it me, or is it the foreign culture” that is making me react like this? For me, this means at the present time, interacting with Germany and its cultures.

For example, I was invited to a new book club gathering and found myself uncomfortably listening to seemingly very smart women who emitted half-hearted laughs and competitive jibes all evening. In my home culture I would say ‘well, I don’t want to go back. I don’t fit into their group’.  In this foreign culture, I figure the “bad fit” has language or cultural explanations. And if I want any friends at all, I’ll have to try to fit in, and chances are I’ll go back, even if I don’t really like it.

The cultural tone.

Those who adapt best to a foreign culture seem to be those whose personality type melds naturally with dominant cultural sentiments. For example, if you are a methodical and punctual and careful, you will adapt wonderfully to Germany. This sounds disparaging in English. But it isn’t. These are wonderful traits, that lead to stability and high chances for a safe and secure life – something we see thousands of refugees risking their lives for right at this moment.

Or, those who ignore the new culture entirely also adapt well abroad. They just live their lives, never wondering and never reflecting. They aren’t troubled by their own childhoods, their parents, their schools and their friends’ culture. They don’t compare whatever they do in their daily lives to what they would be doing in their home language and culture. They don’t wonder what it would be like there, whether they’d have more friends or more fun. They don’t wonder how their children’s schools support talents and difficulties differently. They don’t wonder about the type of food they eat and whether all that bread (substitute whatever is a main food staple where you are) is good for their digestive system. I envy them their independence.

But that isn’t my life.

A substitute teacher in my yoga course this morning, for example, spoke the message that it was ok for one of the students to adjust an asana hold down and she even gave her some tips. But her tone conveyed more of a ‘well ok if you must, but maybe you shouldn’t be in this class.” It was kind of like perfunctorily petting a neighbor’s dog because everyone is watching. Annie, my yoga teacher in California, spent minutes every class emphasizing that each student is responsible for his/her own body and to listen to our bodies at all times; that it doesn’t matter in the least whether that day we wobble during balance asanas or aren’t feeling strong enough to support a particular pose.

Both women were saying aloud the right things, and both are competent teachers who would never hurt their students intentionally, but their tones were different. Is it just their personalities? Or are their tones cultural – German versus Californian.

Nietzsche wrote back in 1882 (Vom Klange der deutschen Sprache, section 104, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, Werke in drei Bänden, Munich 1954):

Something mocking, cold, indifferent and careless in the voice: that is what at present sounds “noble” to the Germans and I hear the approval of this nobleness in the voices of young officials, teachers, women, and trades people; indeed, even the little girls already imitate this German of the officers.

Nietzsche traced the development of that particular German tone, attaching it to an increasing reverence for the Hof (court).  “To write in the chancery style, that was to write in court and government style, that was regarded as something select, compared with the language of the city in which a person lived.”

People gradually began to speak as they wrote, were taught in the more formal language. “They affected a court tone when they spoke, and the affectation at last became natural.”

German as a language has a harder tone. The speakers also have a harder tone — confident, brash, brusque.

 

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