English Girl in Vienna

Cultural Commentator

It isn’t All Smiles


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.

One famous Austrian not prone to smiling

One famous Austrian not prone to smiling

Don't smile for too long. You never know who you might upset.

Don’t smile for too long. You never know who you might upset.

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4 thoughts on “It isn’t All Smiles

  1. Katie Pennington on said:

    Love it you are a brilliant writer love the tales of life in another country – so can you speak german fluently yet? Regards Mrs K Pennington (Nee Bell) of Leeds

    • Thank you Mrs Pennington for the kind words. I am not a fluent German speaker yet, but my language skills do seem to improve after a nice Austrian beer or two. Perhaps you should start a blog about life in Leeds! 🙂

  2. Hi! I loved reading this cause its something I talked a lot about with my friends. Was very interesting to read about it from a British perspective. I must tell you that not only Austrians think that a lot of smiling and excessful friendliness from strangers is a kind of pretending and lying tho. 🙂

    Im Ukrainian but I lived and studied in England for 4 years. And it was a shock for me how much people smiled and how friendly they were when i just came to UK. We (Ukrainians, Russians and probably other Eastern Europeans) are really not used to it and often find it suspicious and yeah… fake. I guess if you are born into that culture its really strange to you that people from other countries can perceive it in that way but it really is kind of true.

    I got into quite unpleasant situation when I just moved. I went to a boarding school in Surrey before I moved to London and when I just started the school I thought “OMG everyone here are so lovely and friendly and smiling what a change from my Ukrainian school”. I was so not used to it that I sincerely thought that everyone are my friend and like me only to later find out that really its all just “politeness” and half of those people smiling to me either don’t care or bitch behind my back. Its very different from whats going on in Ukrainian schools/offices etc. There if people don’t like you or just don’t care they are not going to smile and pretend they do or ask you about your day or how are you etc. And if a stranger smiles to us on a street or in a public transport we actually find it very suspicious and strange. 🙂

    Another thing which is also very confused me at first is that people call pretty much everyone they meet a friend. In our culture…and i think its the same for Germans and Austrians you only call friends a very small circle of people who are very close to you. Everyone else is acquaintance. Like you would never call a person you study or work with and sometimes have a drink with your friend.
    So many Ukrainian and Russians I know also hate this. Its probably just the language thing but many people perceive it as if British and Americans are lying about being friends with them when really they are not.

    I got used to this after a while tho. To the British smiling and being very friendly I mean. And actually started to like it. It does add a sot of friendly vibe if you don’t think too deeply about it and understand what its done just for the sake of being polite. I got so used to it that when I moved to Austria I was shocked at first at how everyone here is so unfriendly. hahah 😉

    Sorry for the long comment I just thought that maybe it’ll be interesting to you to read that its not only an Austrian “thing”

    Hope you are liking Austria as Im absolutely hating it.

    P.S. I still think Americans really overdo it 😀

    • Hi,

      Thanks for reading and for your comment. It’s fascinating to hear your experience of the cultural differences between here, the UK and the Ukraine. It helps to see the other side of the story and stops me seeing people in terms of friendly or unfriendly – they just are. It’s a new one for me, but I think I’m slowly getting used to it. Here’s a big smile back at you :-), oh go on then, here’s another 🙂

      I hope things get better here for you soon. All the best.

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