I have realised, from comments that my students have made over the past year that Austrians don’t really like it when people smile too much. They seem suspicious of it. Many have complained about the “have a nice day” American culture and the necessity for small talk, saying that it is fake and meaningless. I have been left scratching my head wondering why wishing someone a nice day, smiling and sharing a few words with a stranger is such an offence. What’s more, when I have explained that the question “how are you?” is not a real question, more a formality to which you should reply that everything is fine, or if you do say something negative then you have to gloss over it, down play it and then say everything is fine really, they have expressed frustration that it is not real communication. When I try to explain that, culturally, British people like to put a cheerful spin on our daily interactions, they react quite passionately about it, which is always a bit of a shock. They seem to feel that they are being tricked; that if you say you are fine when you are not, then you are withholding information and they do not know exactly what is going on. It is hard to know the true meaning or intention behind what people are saying if they always mask their true feelings behind smiles and pleasantries. I said that we do it so that we don’t burden the other person with our problems, and that there was a good intention behind it, but I never realised it could be seen as lying, and actually, they might have a point. Who knew that the “How are you? Fine” ritual could be so controversial?
The notion of honesty in human interaction was brought home to me the other night when a student said he was going to Thailand on holiday. I groaned in envy, but another student said that although Thailand is beautiful and the weather is nice, he could not be there for more than two weeks because it annoyed him how the Thais smile and laugh all the time. He could not accept that their smiling so often could be genuine and therefore, it was somehow fake. How could anyone have anything against the Thais? I asked myself, but he was genuinely bothered by what he perceived to be a lack of truthfulness. It is true that if you ask someone here how they are, you should probably expect a full blown report of all the bad things that are going on and it is not uncommon for people to answer “yeah, bad” when asked “how are you?” which actually really tickles me and makes me chuckle. This, by the way, is not the appropriate response. It is never nice to laugh at someone when they say their life is bad.
I have taught business English courses too where on many occasions students were at a loss to understand why their British or Australian colleagues would open an email with “I hope you are well,” or “I hope you had a good weekend,” when they had never actually met each other. How could it be real if they were not friends? In reply to their questions about this issue, I was equally at a loss.
I said, “Why wouldn’t you say something like that to someone you email regularly?”
My student said, “But I don’t know her.”
I said, “So? Does that matter?”
He said, ‘Yes because I don’t know her.”
I said, “So? Can’t you accept someone saying something nice to you?”
He said, “No because I don’t know her.”
The conversation could have continued like that for a few more minutes. We ended up laughing when I told him to stop being so Austrian about it. It was really the only advice I could give that got the message through. The people on that particular course did not need much help with their English, but they wanted some advice on business culture. The thing that business English students usually want to practice the most is making small talk, a concept that seems so natural to me seems to fill them with panic. As a result, I have had lessons with many high-flying individuals, role-playing conversations about how their flight was, how the weather is and how they like their hotel, all as simulations for future business trips abroad.
“You British!” one student said to me, shaking his head.
I understood his exasperation, but it is these little social rituals and these little conversations we automatically have which are so important in a culture because we notice instantly when they are missing, just as my students have noticed how strange it is that they are there.