What is it we need from other people? It is our expectations of others that cause us to feel satisfied or not with the actions of those around us. It is our expectations, often based on what we are accustomed to, which lead us to notice things and make comment. Most of my cultural observations arise from what is alien to me, what is unexpected, what I find surprising. I am amused, aghast and sometimes angered by things merely because they are different to anything I have experienced before, or, perhaps more accurately, they are different to how I would like things to be on particular occasions.
When considering people, we often lump groups together and ascribe ‘national personality traits’; the British are punctual, reserved, stuffy, awkward, whereas Americans are loud, confident, unselfconscious. One thing I hear time and time again is that Austrians, and especially the Viennese, are cold, unkind, impolite. Perhaps those people saying this might have experienced such traits from Austrians, maybe even often enough to feel justified in ascribing this label to all of them. However, I must describe the situations in which I hear these complaints about the locals. It is in my classes. I have been asked if I like Vienna, by non-natives, and when I say I love the place they say something along the lines of, ‘Yes, it’s a beautiful city, but it’s a shame about the people, isn’t it?’ If I defend the locals, or say I haven’t really experienced anything that negative, or start to say that people in most capital cities around the world appear cold because they are always in such a rush to get anywhere and the same is often said of Londoners, they shake their head knowingly and say, ‘Just wait. You’ll see.’ Such conversations take place in front of many Austrians, who can fully hear every negative thing being said. I once overheard an Austrian and a Czech talking and the Czech said to the Austrian, ‘Austrians are not nice people. They are very cold and not friendly.’ Understandably, the Austrian was a little lost for words. But I have to wonder why anyone would think it was ok to say that so blatantly to that Austrian person. What is nice, warm or even friendly about that? Nothing. And that’s my point: in being so rude and tactless, people become exactly what they complain about. If you’re from a culture that is superior in warmth, hospitality and openness, then why not display those qualities and not only to those who behave the same as you?
It’s easy to be around people who are the same as us; the key to surviving and even living happily in a mix of different cultures is how we manage being around people who are different. My point about the Czech student being rude to the Austrian also needs consideration because I looked at that behaviour through the eyes of someone who likes good manners at all times, whereas the Czech might value honesty in all interaction, and what I consider ‘tactful’ could also be considered ‘dishonest’. Like everything, it depends on how you choose to look at it.