An American friend was visiting Berlin last week and mentioned that
he was having a hard time negotiating transactions, that his usual
smiles and friendliness weren’t being rewarded the way they are in
Austin. He was frustrated. He was confused. I explained my grand theory
of respect and he moaned “Where can I read that? It would have been so
helpful to know all this before I set out on this trip.” So here
it is: what I’ve figured out about how to show and receive respect, and
all the nice things that come with it.

Before my trip to Greece in 2010, Patricia Kyritsi Howell sent along a huge packet of information to help us prepare. One bit in particular turned everything I’d figured out about demonstrating respect on its head: “Don’t stand by patiently and politely, or you may be there all day. Greeks expect that you will watch out for yourself.” I read that, gnawed on it, observed it in action, and tried to fit it into my general theory of respect.

When I moved to Berlin last year, my usual strategies for demonstrating respect did not work at all. I quickly learned that they saw someone who smiled and acted friendly for no reason as an idiot. What worked in the South failed here. I tried the Yankee approach. When I was direct and assertive, they recoiled as if I had rushed at them and they wanted to get out of the way. “Germans are slow to open up,” I was told. I began to imagine them as dangerous, wild animals that I didn’t want to scare. I would come slowly into their peripheral vision, making no sudden moves, no eye contact. I allowed them to approach me. This worked better. People were more helpful toward me. It still didn’t feel quite right, though.

I went to Ireland. It felt like every interaction began with a test of my wit. Before I could check in to a hotel, or order a meal, or introduce myself, I’d be thrown a curveball, a jab, a barb. I could feel my Irish ancestors behind me, handing me witty comebacks. I was in some topsy-turvy land of competitive humor, but it was all oddly familiar. If I was quick enough, and funny enough, my interlocutor would burst open in a smile and I’d be on stable ground, able to proceed. It was a little exhausting and intimidating, but within a week I was always prepared, always armed with a quick word, ready to show I was worthy.

And then a trip to Rome. In Berlin I had grown accustomed to secure and leisurely crosswalks, a tight correspondence between the streetlights and the reality of the street. In Berlin, you can walk when the light is green, without even checking both ways. Germans stop on red and go on green, neat and tidy. In Rome, I found myself standing at crosswalks, forlorn. When will it be my turn? And I remembered the pre-Greece trip advice and realized: They expect you to watch out for yourself. I began to notice that you can actually cross the street pretty much any time you want in Rome, you just have to believe you deserve it. Tiny, hunched over old turtle men crossed the road agonizingly slowly, but with an aura that said I DESERVE TO CROSS THE STREET NOW.

Finally, it hit me. The equation that had worked so well for me in the States ran in the other direction here. In the States, I can smooth an interaction by showing respect. In Europe, in different ways in different places, you smooth an interaction by demonstrating that you are worthy of respect. I ran this idea by some Europeans. Duh. Head nods.

It took me months, but my current operating theory of respect seems to be working for me in Germany. I demonstrate that I am worthy of respect by showing that I know how to behave appropriately. I am punctual, I am quiet. I don’t make unnecessary noise or gestures. I contain myself and do not exhibit uncontrolled emotion. I accept disappointments and delays without overreaction. I do not come at other people too directly or forcefully or with inappropriate intimacy. The other day, I got validation that this approach is working. A German commented that she was amazed that a bureaucrat at the foreigner’s office had given me her direct email, to help me through the bureaucratic process. “I’ve never heard of that happening. You must have really impressed her.” And then later: “You could be a real German.”

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