Language and communication have many levels and layers that are complexly intertwined. But don’t worry, this is not going to be a dry essay on linguistic semantics. It’s rather thoughts on how our culture influences our choice of words and how it influences the way we READ language. Not just culturally but also individually, depending on your life experience, character and interest, your mood and what you ate that day, your health and stress level and so many other aspects. It’s shockingly amazing people can actually use a code (or language in form of spoken or written word) to communicate and indeed get the meaning that was intended. Not just the content but meta information by analyzing the tone and voice, the facial expressions and the body language. How awesome is our brain to do all that work within nano-seconds.
But back to dating. That’s what this blog is about. Meeting new people, reflecting about social encounters and the life lessons we can draw from it, as tiny as they might be.
I met the man about eight months ago online. His profile on an international platform was detailed and an interesting read about his life in Oregon. His profile said he planned on moving to Germany and was organizing the move at the time. We matched (weird online-dating lingo) and right from the start we just clicked. Even though we were chatting our messages were ridiculously long and well written. I enthusiastically looked up lots of vocabulary to up my language game and avoid misspellings. I wanted to impress him and accurate wording seemed to be something he appreciates. His situation was complicated at the time, he had been divorced a couple of months before, working two jobs with crazy hours and he was a writer. The Writer had once started college but had to drop out at some point due to personal reasons. He felt underachieved and therefore the plan to move to Europe, start fresh, go to University and get that degree. He sent me some pieces of his writing and I enjoyed discussing his work with him on an academic level that usually feels like a chore to me. It was fun arguing with him. We switched to WhatsApp to chat and started leaving voice messages. And when we talked on the phone for the first time I got laughably nervous. My voice was shaky, my language level went down to a solid A2 and I felt like being in a surprise oral exam. I found the basal words to tell him about my anxious state and his reaction was just perfect. He kept on talking, telling me all kinds of stories that only required me to listen and produce sounds of acknowledgment. After a while, I calmed down a bit, started talking and guess what? I didn’t sound like 4th-grader anymore and my choice of words got more accurate with every minute. We talked for solid four hours. Two weeks later we talked again for seven (in digits: 7 ! ) remarkable hours.
Being from two different cultures (as similar as they might seem) led to some interesting talks and language analysis. We even read linguistic articles about the different linguistic aspects and semantic differences. While talking we had hardly any communicative problems in terms of understanding the content. In some moments though, something felt off. After some weeks we unlocked a new level and started flirting. I have never really flirted in English and I definitely lack feisty phrases, which is my way to go in German. So weird compliments were my path of choice and as a German, I like them to be precise and personal. I feel like Germans compliment rather considerately and deliberately, revealing affection by showing that you paid attention and took the time to make it personal. Which might be the reason Germans compliment each other rather scarcely. The American way however, is rather blunt and mostly consists of the adjectives ‚nice, good, beautiful, pretty and great‘ (Wolfson : 120) and the verbs ‚like and love‘ (Wolfson : 122). One can distinguish between pragmatic compliments (praising someone’s abilities rather than using a fixed set of words) and the adjectival compliment. Americans use compliments generously in quantity, which is irritating for non-native speakers. While the Writer thought he was being nice and ending his messages with ‚You’re pretty‘, I got slightly pissed for his superficial statement, when we had just discussed international politics a minute before. In that particular situation, it would have been so easy to just say that it was fun to debate with me. But prettiness seemed so random and redundant (he said it in almost every message). So thanks to linguistic scholars who do corpus research I learned that this is a major difference between our cultures. Thank you for that! Yay Academia!
Another story on cultural misunderstandings:
I’m still active on that dating website and some guy messaged me, saying that I looked expensive and whether I wanted to go out with him (he was an American who stayed in my hometown for a trade fair thing). I was appalled. How could he assume I was a prostitute/escort or whatever! I left him a snarky comment and closed the thread. Later I told the Writer about it and he enlightened me on American hillbilly hit on phrases (his words, not mine). The trade-fair-guy was indeed implying, that I was a woman that liked expensive things (I have no idea how he could think that from my profile) and likes to get expensive gifts and go to fancy restaurants. Basically: my sole goal in life is finding a rich guy to pay for my extravagant needs. I can’t even phrase this neutrally, I still don’t get, how that is supposed to be a complimentary message. But it occurs, that this is a legitimate way to hit on a woman in the States. So, sorry Mr. Trade-Fair-Guy, I got offended by something that is offensive. Oh, wait. No matter his intentions, his choice of words and not reflecting on what he wrote made him instantly unattractive to me.
I like to be accurate with my wording. English is my second language and I know one will always hear my accent and know I’m German simply from my long run-on sentences. And with the Writer I felt like I found someone who shares this appreciation of language.
While I think the Writer is, due to his passionate profession, reflective on a language level, he still uses phrases that make me cringe. I wonder what it feels like to use verbs as ‚to harass‘ in a flirty-sexual context and think this is ok. Nothing about harassment is sexy. And it’s nothing ‚I can or cannot handle‘. It’s something I should not have to handle in the first place. I get how it works within the language, but the connotation is politically so wrong, I don’t even know where to start. I don’t think he is a misogynic ass, I didn’t think the trade-fair-guy was. But this is just wrong.
It’s cultural difference and a certain level of ignorance, plus lack of awareness. The privileged standpoint of a white western man. Words can cut like knives, and while the Writer thought he was flirting with me, I was hurt. By his inconsiderate remark. His unreflected statement. His use of violent language in a way, that makes sexual abuse, harassment and rape something, that can be legitimately used in a flirty or even innocent context. It’s not. It’s never ok. No matter what your cultural background is.
There are heated discussions in Germany about Gender Equality in language and how words can suppress minorities. I realize that the English language works differently in these matters and the reproduction of discriminatory stereotypes occurs on other levels. Still, it is highly implemented in everyday phrases, figures of speech and idioms. Being reflective enough to realize and rephrase these statements requires an intrinsic will and education to do so.
Never forget: words are weapons and language can be violent. So, be aware, reflect and use your empathetic brain every once in a while.
Change the world, word by word.
Wolfson, Nessa – Compliments in Cross-Cultural Perspective
TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Jun., 1981), pp. 117-124
(and I realize how weird it is to quote here, but it didn’t feel right not to.)