Rude Germans and hungry students

Rude Germans, hungry students and the special Japanese way of saying “no”

Meeting people from other cultures can be an interesting experience. Having flatmates from all over the world, I was confronted with the challenge of communicating across cultures on a daily basis. Naturally, not everything goes smoothly when you try to get your thoughts and ideas across, however, if you know why misunderstandings arise, it might help you to develop a sense of cultural awareness.


Miscommunications arising from language barriers can be especially grave when dealing with health issues. Language barriers, according to an analysis conducted by Roberts, C. are one of the prime reasons for miscommunications between patients and doctors. The findings suggest that two thirds of the occurring misunderstandings in London between patients and doctors resulted from limited English language skills on the part of the patient. The analysis further revealed that “[t]he vast majority of these findings had to do directly with language issues rather than with differing cultural beliefs about health.” Having a low level of the language you communicate in will make it difficult to discern ambiguities in the language and get your message across.

Before going on my year abroad in the UK I foolishly assumed that I already had a good level of English and that I will have no trouble understanding English. How wrong I was. Not only did they love making ridiculous puns and jokes that I only understood after they dissected them for me (which totally ruined the joke), but they also had a sense of humour that I was not familiar with. This showed me that it was essential to know the subtleties of a language and that there was way more to communicating than just the language aspect.

Saying no and communication styles:

How do you say “no” in German? We just say no. That’s it. If we don’t like something, we’ll say it. It’s not that we enjoy hurting your feelings, it’s just that Germans are very direct. I was surprised when I suggested something in the UK and people would say: “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea, but maybe this would be better.” So it’s not a good idea. Okay, I got it. Communication with Japanese people is a bit more tricky. Whenever I invite Yuka, my Japanese flatmate, to a party or something else, I always have to listen and observe her very carefully. Yuka’s English is still at a low level, but you also have to watch out for nonverbal clues. Sometimes she won’t reply at all which means she just didn’t understand my question. At other times, however, there will be a delay in her reply and I have to figure out if she is thinking about my suggestion or if she’s too polite to decline. And sometimes we would wait for her the whole evening and she wouldn’t show up. So, keep in mind that there are different levels of directness when communicating with people from different cultures.

There is more than meets the eye – the subjective elements of culture:

According to T.L. Warren each culture has objective and subjective elements. Objective elements are easy to identify since they are manifested in official documents and hence clearly visible for everyone. Subjective elements, however, are those that are deeply engrained in a culture and that are, when discarded by inexperienced cultural mediators, the reason why cross-cultural misunderstandings arise. Imagine the following situation: Exchange students from China are invited for dinner at a professor’s house in Germany. When the students are asked if they would like to have a second helping they politely decline. Back at their students’ dorm they rush into the kitchen with a growling stomach. Why did they decline the professor’s offer? Apparently, in their home town, it is considered rude to accept the first time when being offered something. You are supposed to decline several times before accepting. The students, not being familiar with the subjective elements of the German culture, tried to follow the subjective rules of their own culture that the professor was unaware of, which then led to a cross-cultural misunderstanding.

A saying comes to mind. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” But first we have to figure out, how to do that.

Jenny Bui
Jenny Bui

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