Theresa May is forgetting her manners. It has been a tough week for her following a difficult dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker but there is no need to be rude to the man.
I am not talking about her use of the B-word here. She has told the President of the EU Commission that she will be “bloody difficult” to him during the next few months but that does not bother me unduly. I hear worse on a Saturday afternoon and I am a persistent offender myself.
I actually think it’s funny that the daughter of a Church of England vicar, herself a practicing Anglican who preaches what she practices, should resort to industrial language. As I’m convinced that “bloody” is the one and only profane adjective in her vocabulary, I am convinced that the Lord will not allow her soul to burn in Hell for letting it pass her lips on this one occasion.
But she has been very rude to Mr Juncker in quite a different way.
I was always told that if you want something from somebody you should ask nicely for it. “Can you pass the butter please?” or “would you be a darling and pass the salt?”, that kind of thing. If you want something from somebody –a trade deal for example –then it is probably better to be polite about it.
Not so Theresa. She has taken to the streets (well Street actually), posing outside of Downing Street accusing her potential business partners of sabotage. It’s as if she’d spat in Juncker’s soup and then invited herself round to his place next weekend. She might well find that he’s not in town for the next few weeks. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.
But then again, why shouldn’t she be rude? After all, foreigners — and above all continental Europeans –are famed for their rudeness. The British set the global standard for politeness and all foreigners have the manners of untrained chimpanzees by comparison.
We all have anecdotes which confirm this prejudice. A friend of mine always tells the story about the Dutch wine merchant who refused to serve him because he asked for a bottle of something “medium drinkable”. I often tell the tale of the lady in a second-hand shop in Dortmund who put an antique globe in her window and then bashed the ears of any customer foolish enough to inquire after the price. “That globe belongs to me!” she hissed: “I just haven’t got room for it at home!”
Customer service in continental Europe is often crummy and they could learn a thing or two from the British. The Germans are the worst offenders by a mile. Sorry, kilometre. But that does not mean that they are rude. Germany is one of the most polite societies I know –it’s just a question of understanding the German interpretation of politeness.
Sadly, there’s not much to help foreigners get to grips with this and so we are reduced to looking at German manners through British eyes.
In this regard, Germans often seem barbaric. The word “please” is used sparingly in their language, as are elaborately strung subjunctive clauses. If you write to a German colleague saying “if you could just please be so kind as to…when you’ve got a moment” then you will find that no action ensues. Your colleague will fit you in when he has a moment, just as you asked him to do, some time next year.
Germans are literal thinkers and you should not expect them to read between the lines. An English friend of mine once went into a scruffy-looking bar in Düsseldorf and asked for a cocktail that would “really knock him out”. The barman thought for a moment and asked my friend if he was sure. He was. The barman filled up a glass with a shot of everything behind the bar and handed it over. Twenty minutes later my friend was lying unconscious over the table. He had asked for something to knock him out, you see, and so that was what he got.
Germans do not pretend to be telepathic. Nor do they feign false empathy. They do not ask “how are you?” unless they really want to know the answer. This does not make them unfriendly, they just do not want to stick their noses in where their noses aren’t wanted. They have an inherent fascination with doing the right thing and not “putting your foot in it” –an expression which also exists in German.
Very little is around to help you understand German etiquette. Travel books have useful tips about punctuality and discussing National Socialism but nothing that will prepare you for a dinner invitation. Even Germans are unsure how they would explain what is considered acceptable behaviour and what not. There is nothing out there that will help you understand the do’s and don’t’s. Nothing, that is, until now. What follows is my short guide to politeness, German style.
Rule One: The word “please” may not feature high on the agenda but the words “hello” and “goodbye” most certainly do.
They are not simply reserved for people you know. If you enter a room full of strangers eg. in a cafe, you say hello. It does not matter that you do not know a soul in the place. When the waiter arrives, you say hello. Eye contact is essential. If you do not establish this, you are not acknowledging the other person’s presence and you are being rude.
Rule Two: Eye contact is vital when greeting others.
A smile is optional but not discouraged, looking your partner in the eyes is indispensable. When introduced to somebody for the first time, look them in the eyes and offer a firm handshake.
Rule Three: The handshake is the German calling card.
It is the first and last impression you leave. You must grasp your opposite number’s hand firmly. The weak British clasp like a dog offering a paw is seen as a sign of disinterest. Don’t forget the eyes. If you are wearing gloves, remove them. If you are meeting somebody for the first time, say your name. There is no equivalent of “how do you do?”
Rule Four: Names are much more important in Germany than they are in Britain.
If you know the person’s name, use it when you greet them: It’s “Hello Stefan” and not “hello”. Germans do not use pronouns when the person they are referring to is within earshot. “Claudia was just telling me that…” and not “she says…”. Claudia will thank you for it.
Always say your name when calling somebody on the telephone and the other person’s name if you know it.
Rule Five: Repeat Rule One.
When you leave a place, be sure to use the word “goodbye”. In a cafe where you know nobody this is seen as good manners, as it is when you have shared an elevator with someone for a few seconds.
Not to say goodbye is to not acknowledge the other person’s presence. In a pub where you know everybody, be sure to wish everybody goodbye, if possible individually. If not, rap your fist on the table and say farewell to everyone at once. It is incredibly rude to leave a group of friends without formally taking your leave. Remember the eye contact.
There are other rules of course but these ones encapsulate the main point: respectfully acknowledge the presence of your opposite number.
As for Theresa’s B-word, there is no equivalent in German. German profanity very rarely crossses into the realm of religion, for that you need to go to Italy. The Virgin Mary is off limits.
This does not mean that the Germans do not know how to swear. Accomplished cursers pile nouns onto nouns to devastating effect and as a result their creations are original and unique. There is a slang word for “to masturbate” for example and so you can, if you wish, convey to somebody that they have the intellect of a masturbating frog with a single, eleven-letter compound noun: Wichsfrosch.
Rules of ettiquette are written down a manual, the Knigge. It is a fearsome volume and most familes have a copy somewhere. Soup spoons must be two thirds full and soup is drunk from the tip of the spoon not the side. Wine glasses must be held by the stem and not by the bulb. When using term Prosit! then glasses must touch, you must take a sip from the glass afterwards and you must, of course, look your opposite number in the eyes. Raising your glass in your partners direction and not clinking equals disinterest.
So why does everyone have their favourite story about rude Germans if they are so keen on politeness? Probably because manners matter less now in Germany than they did in the past. Even the Knigge has relaxed its rules on smartphone use. The moral order is in metamorphosis in Germany as it is everywhere else. Many people are no longer sure what to do.
This is true in Britain as well of course. Manners are changing or less value is attached to them than it was in the past; the rules are no longer as clear as once they were. A few months ago I went into a pub in North Yorkshire. The lady behind her bar was in her mid-twenties and I am almost old enough to be her father.
“What can I get you mate/love/sir?”
Any one of those terms would have been appropriate; all three just sounds strange. I was confused.
“Bloody Hell!” I said “I only came in for a beer!”
Important Note: In order to ensure that I don’t bombard you too much –and to guarantee quality levels, I will now be be blogging every Monday and Thursday. Obviously if there are important developments or twists in the tale I will add in “special editions” but I would like to offer a stable basis to all those who have been good enough as to read my stuff rather than have you waste your time looking in and finding nothing.
Alternatively you can get alerts via e-mail, Facebook or Twitter by following this link.
Brian’s Brexit Chronicle is a diary, but it’s out on the internet and not locked in a drawer. So feel free to share it with whoever you like!