After a two-year hiatus Demetrius has kindly offered to let me swoop in with another missive from across the Atlantic, from a girl who mostly dates foreigners. Or rather, I’m the foreigner (being American) dating natives (of Britain). And sometimes I’m a foreigner who dates other foreigners. Last time, I shared some tips on intercultural dating. This time, I’d like to talk a bit about navigating cultural differences when you’re dating.
Sometimes claiming cultural difference in a romantic setting is charming à la 90’s rom-coms like Four Weddings and Funeral or French Kiss or Green Card. The romance is only deepened as a result of the cultural friction, the contrasts. Pronunciation of words, taste in food, style of dress. For example, my housemate—who is Italian—is dating an Englishman. She’s traded espresso for tea and he’s started drinking chianti with dinner. She affectionately calls him ‘mate’ and he sometimes peppers his English with bits of Italian.
And sometimes, well…it isn’t. For example, I recently went out with a German for a couple of months. It started off well. We bonded over shared misunderstandings of British culture. He told me about German things. I told him about American things. Sometimes he would ask me to define an English word and then he would tell me how it translates into German. He showed me YouTube clips of a German children’s show he watched when he was a kid (the one filmed in West Germany and the socialist counterpart made in the GDR). I introduced him to Mr. Rogers. He was cute, smart, interesting. We did fun things together. It was summer. The sun was shining. Like a 90s rom-com.
But here’s the thing. He didn’t ask me any questions. Like, at all. He would talk about something related to his life and I would wait for him to ask me some reciprocal question, so I could offer up some tidbit from mine. I always thought asking questions was a basic mechanism of social interaction. Especially with someone you’ve just started dating, because if you don’t ask questions, you can’t get to know the person. Right? So I asked the German why he didn’t ask me questions. He claimed it was a cultural difference. ‘We don’t ask questions in Germany.’ ‘But what do you do instead?’ I asked, confused. ‘We don’t feel the need to ask questions. Americans are always asking questions. I think it’s a cultural thing.’
I thought about this. Are Americans obsessed with asking questions? Are we just tactless and nosy? Are Germans somehow more discrete or do they just know the answers to everything already? I thought about all the Germans I’d met and they all asked questions. I asked an Austrian friend (not the same, but close enough) and she was like, what??
After a little while the communication continued to break down, little by little. I told the German this and he chalked it up to the language barrier. Which I found odd because his English was actually very good. He said I’d be able to understand him better if I spoke German. He said that I should, in fact, learn German, just so I could speak to him in German. That I should start now, so I could get a jump on it and we could have conversations in German asap. Rather than sticking to English, a language in which we both were fluent already.
I have a (British) friend who once dated a Chinese guy. Her Chinese and his English were so basic that their entire relationship relied on a Chinese/English dictionary and dramatic hand gestures. They literally understood almost nothing of what the other person was saying, but enjoyed each other’s company so much that it carried on for several months. Veritable proof, I thought, that it wasn’t a language or cultural barrier that was making things difficult for the German and me. He continued to not ask questions, claim I didn’t truly understand what he was saying and then he started talking about himself. A lot. ‘In Germany, we just talk. One person talks for a while. Another person talks for a while Americans are too sensitive.’
Shockingly, we broke up.
Obviously that is not to say I myself am perfect. I’ve fallen victim to using my cultural identity as a lame excuse for iffy behaviour. I have been known, on occasion, to write off bring strident and/or confrontational by claiming that it’s because I’m American. None of this namby-pamby, roundabout, polite English sorry-excuse-me-excuse-me-sorry malarkey. Americans are straightforward. We say what we mean and we mean what we say. We don’t suffer fools gladly. (Which, as anyone who’s been watching the Republican debates would say, is nonsense.) You know…American woman of the frontier. Or something.
Hiding behind culture as an excuse isn’t very helpful. And sometimes makes things worse. ‘He hasn’t made a move because he’s shy and English.’ ‘She gets defensive because she’s temperamental and French.’ ‘We aren’t communicating because of a cultural barrier.’
At the end of the day, sometimes it just isn’t working.
Sarah Sigal is a Chicago born, London-based freelance writer, director, dramaturg, researcher, lecturer, and theatremaker (and an absolutely lovely human being to boot). She has just finished Writing in Collaborative Theatre-Making, which will be published later this year by Palgrave McMillan. She enjoys good European wine but misses Chicago-style pizza and New York bagels.