This Christmas break my husband and I went to Germany. All my family and friends live in Germany, and since I emigrated from Germany to the US in 2003, I have not been able to be home for Christmas. Being in Europe for my Master’s studies finally offered us the opportunity to go back, consume Glühwein and roasted nuts at the traditional Christmas markets and generally enjoy the comforts of nostalgia and childhood memories.
A few days into our journey, my husband made an off the cuff remark about the apparent acceptance of discomfort in the German culture. Immediately I wanted to defend “my people”…How dare he. After all, I was born and raised in Germany and to some degree, still considered myself one of “those” people. I started defending the little actions made by my friends and family that he was describing, and wrote them off as simple differences in personal preference. But after this short exchange of thoughts, the idea stuck with me. The great thing about traveling with someone who is new to your own culture is that you get another opportunity to see your own cultural norms through the lens of a foreign voyager.
My husband’s first observation was in a small cafe in my hometown Kiel. He observed the people in the restaurant. He described to me how “they were so packed into these tiny tables on tiny chairs, that they had to eat, in some cases, with their plates on their laps. And they were completely fine with it and having a grand old time. It dawned on me I had seen this behavior at a few different places and it is so different from the way I would picture American patrons behaving in an American restaurant.” I hadn’t noticed before, but he was right. People were practically sitting on each other’s laps, yet no one seemed bothered. It wasn’t so much about what they were doing as much as how they were reacting (or not reacting) to the situation. Just to be clear, when I talk about these comforts I don’t mean the difference of being able to afford better and bigger things. I mean the subtle, minuscule-seeming choices people make in regard to personal comfort and their awareness of such.
So for the rest of the trip, I started looking (really looking) around while riding on trains and buses and in public places. I assume in most places in the world, travelers would consider saving a few Euros by taking the night train, like we did for our trip from the south of Germany back up to Kiel. The hot, tiny and stuffy compartments had six seats, three on each side facing each other. We were so cramped that our knees were literally touching the strangers across form us. But the other four people didn’t seem to be bothered, at least not in an obvious way. Undoubtedly there are people in the US (or anywhere in the world) who are thrifty and would make these same decisions, but it made me think about choices and expectations… Instead of simply placing those observations in my bucket of memories of myself growing up and living with those same “European comforts”, I tried to observe with the eye of an outsider.
How can I judge whether the American culture demands more comfort than the German (European)? Each culture has completely different standards, and more importantly, a different awareness of these comforts deeply embedded in their society. So maybe the goal is not to figure out how to increase our comfort level at all times. Maybe we should investigate this hugely fluctuating expectation and understanding of what comfort is and how much of it we need when and where. Maybe we need to step back, especially when we believe we fully understand a certain culture and its small, built-in “unspoken cultural rules”.
I think the difference we were observing is that to the people living in Germany (which has a population of slightly over 80 Million people and a population density of 609 per square mile) sitting in a overcrowded night train or eating with the plate on your lap in a full cafe with tiny tables wasn’t even something you think about. The US has a population of roughly 312 Million people, but as they are spread out over a much larger space (with a population density of only 84 per square mile) people are more used to having space, and therefore larger things and more room to store items. (It is obvious that in the US there are also large, densely populated areas and that I am generalizing in my argument). People in Germany accept these small discomforts because “that’s just how it is.” Maybe even more accurately, they wouldn’t consider the small discomforts as being discomforts. In some Asian cultures, it is considered comfortable to sit on the floor, with your legs folded for hours at a time, which seems impossible to many who grew up in the western world. Many of our expectations and our definitions of needs are based on what we are used to. So in order to understand what people perceive and expect as basic comforts (and why), we must understand the context and the embedded expectations of the culture in which these people function. And in order to understand the context, we must be able to take a step back and take on the role of the foreign voyager.
I grew up in Germany, spent my late teens and early twenties living (and growing) in the US, and I am now living in Scotland. I have traveled to many different places and spent long periods of time in different cultures, such as India, for my studies. Sometimes I catch myself analyzing whether I make certain observations of people’s behavior here in the UK from the perspective of my German-self, my American-self…or a mix of all my “selves”? I often wonder at what point our outside perspectives become internalized? At what point, when living in another culture, do we adapt? When do we stop looking at the things that are different and new to us and let them blend into our understanding of what is normal…and comfortable?
In my opinion, this is the goal of the Design Ethnographer. In order to understand a specific culture, you have to be able to understand the culturally accepted norms and the boundaries in which this society functions. However, if you don’t have the curious eye of the foreign voyager, if you cannot see the “established sets of behavior” through that long lens, you won’t be able to make out the fine details, you won’t get the proper depth of field and you won’t be able to grasp the entire picture.