Tuesday, October 9, 2012

My personal space is my cultural space

After over five years of living in Germany, I am aware that there are some areas in which the English mind set and the German mind set do not agree. I’m not talking  here about things like a sense of humour – I have friends with a very good sense of humour. But lately I’ve been wondering why I’ve been getting stressed in certain situations, asking myself whether it is them or me at fault. Then, following an encounter with someone I only know slightly, I suddenly realised what the problem is. And it’s not so much a case of them or me as them (the Germans) and us (the English). Unless I am an exaggerated example of Englishness in the aspects that I have observed.

There is a wonderful book called Watching the English. Written by a social anthropologist by the name of Kate Fox, it examines many of the traits that make us, the English race.  One of the conclusions she draws is that the English are repressed and inhibited. Now you may or may not agree with this, and your opinion may depend on whether you are English or not, but in certain respects I feel, now I have lived here for a while, that she has a good point.

Our repressions and inhibitions are only a part of the picture, but certainly I hadn’t been in Germany long before I came across situations where the lack of inhibitions here are clear. Having been brought up in a very inhibited family, where the bathroom door stayed locked when the room was occupied, and as far back as I can remember I only ever saw family members when we were all fully dressed, my first visit to a swimming pool over here was an eye opener, to say the least. The changing room was mixed. Now, I’ve been in amateur dramatics and shared a dressing room with the entire cast, but a certain amount of modesty and decorum was exercised at all times. Apart from one stage manager (who filled that role once and once only) who would peer through the door and leer at the woman as they changed, everyone turned away discretely as a member of the opposite sex disrobed. Or, if it was not possible to do this, they made a point of not staring. In this swimming pool changing room, everyone let it all hang out, wandering around as if it was quite normal. And indeed it seemed that here it was. Luckily for my own inhibited self, and that of my God daughter who was with me, there was a very small number of cubicles available for the faint of heart. We immediately occupied two of these and emerged clad in our costumes having hidden our nakedness from the view of the general public.  

I have also been involved in a number of medieval markets, which are extremely popular here. The majority of the participants stay overnight on and around the market site and either camp or live in vans for the period of the market – generally a weekend at least. One of the features of these markets is often a giant bath, generally wooden, filled with warm water (with a bit of chlorine or similar for hygiene purposes) and with enough space to accommodate a number of people – eight to ten is normal – sitting on a wooden ledge around the tub. And most people strip off and leap in. Starkers. On my first occasion at a market with one of these, I did not participate. Later on I took a swimming costume. But nobody is in the least concerned about the size and shape of their fellow occupants. I just can’t get past that barrier. The only times I have been persuaded to strip off a little – and on those two occasions it was only the trousers that came off – were when I rode in first the sea and then a lake, bareback on the horse. Then it made sense to take off not only the saddle but also the clothes I didn’t want to get soaked. I showed off no more then than I would have done wearing a swimming costume.

It is not only that Germans aren’t bothered about displaying their bodies. It is what they are prepared to talk about quite openly that goes against the grain. I’m not talking about anything smutty here, unless you count financial matters to be smutty. But they have no hesitation in asking you straight out what you paid for something, what you earn, how much money you have. I remember a work colleague back home showing us the details of the house she and her very high-earning husband were buying. She had carefully blanked out the price. (Someone went straight on the internet afterwards and had a look at the estate agent’s website, telling all and sundry what he had found, but that’s beside the point. She didn’t want us to know and nobody discussed it with her when we did know the price.) And in England I never knew anyone who would push for details if you were obviously reluctant to give them away, unless they were a very close friend or family member. One of the first German visitors to the first flat I lived in over here looked around, asked how much the rent was, commented that some expensive work had been done, and quizzed me a little more on finances. This was the second time I had met her and she hadn’t been in the flat fifteen minutes. I have worked with people for years and not known what they earned, how much their mortgage or rent was and how much they had paid for their important possessions. Unless they chose to tell me.

The thing that has been getting me stressed, however, was talking not just about finances but about one’s personal affairs in general. Now not everything in my life is going smoothly at the moment. But that is the extent of what I am prepared to reveal. My friends know about some of the issues and aren’t afraid to quiz me about them. In public, in a group, in the pub even. I know they mean well, but I don’t feel comfortable about discussing these things with everyone. And the thing that brought this home to me was the aforementioned someone I know only slightly quizzing me about some things that I would prefer were not aired in public. Obviously my mutual friends had told her, but she then made it plain that she knew a lot of detail and didn’t hesitate to ask me for more. My epiphany came then. In England it just wouldn’t be done. The odd tactless person might let on that they knew things, that you were obviously being talked about in your absence – and that does happen of course - but most would keep their mouths shut until you volunteered the information. I talk to people over the internet sometimes. I belong to a group on Facebook and I have befriended one person with whom I chat regularly. She asked me something fairly personal one day then hastily apologised and told me I didn’t have to answer if I didn’t want to. As it happens I didn’t mind in the circumstances. But nobody over here would dream of asking whether I mind. If I prevaricate they merely press further. Which leaves me with a dilemma. Do I carry on getting more and more English and repressed and saying nothing, or do I confront the whole group and tell them that it just isn’t English, it isn’t done? When in Rome and all that, but if it intrudes on your own personal comfort zone is it acceptable? I haven’t yet come up with an acceptable answer to that question.

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