This totally just happened. See the comments for hints on the German parts if you like.

I was enjoying a light snooze on a train ride back from Hannover home to Regensburg. From Göttingen to Würzburg there was a couple (Arbeitskollegen? BF/GF? Mann u. Frau? Schwer zu sagen…) sharing a four-seat table group with me on our ICE. I had been struggling with my work computer, trying to get my cellular modem to work, and fall behind in the daily battle against my inbox as little as possible on this trip. But in the end, fatigue won out — I never sleep well on business trips — and I zonked out a little.

I awoke rolling into Würzburg with the guy next to me saying “ja, es war immer komisch, mit ihm zu sprechen. Es war Deutsch, jedoch war es irgendwie anders.” And she said “ich bin froh, nicht mehr mit ihm sehr viel zu tun zu haben.” He nodded, “ja, Amerikaner, so egozentriert, wie sie sind.”

That’s where I piped up. “Was sind wir?”

“Oh, Entschuldigung!” he stammered, obviously surprised.

“Egozentriert war das, oder?” I clarified.

“Ja, hm, direkt halt, meine ich.” “Direct” and “egocentric” are not the same thing. I know this, and I am pretty sure he knew this, and I would have loved to rub his nose in his Zurückrudern, but I needed to change trains, so I kept it short.

“Verallgemeinerungen gibt es für wirklich jede Nationalität. Die Deutschen, zum Beispiel, wissen nicht, wer neben ihnen sitzt.” I grabbed my stuff off the rack above our seats and wished them a “Gute Weiterreise.

17 thoughts on “egozentriert”

  1. CN Heidelberg


  2. cliff1976

    (Colleagues? BF/GF? Man and Wife? Hard to say…)

    “Yes, it was always weird talking to him. It was German, and yet it was different somehow.”

    “I am glad I don’t have much to do with him anymore.”

    “Yes, Americans, so egocentric as they are.”

    “What are we?”

    “Oh, sorry!”

    “You said we’re egocentric, right?”

    “Well, I mean ‘direct.'”

    (“Zurückrudern” may or may not be a good translation for backpedaling.)

    “You can make generalizations about any nationality. Germans, for example, don’t know who’s sitting next to them. Have a nice trip.”

  3. Kathy

    Love that you could beat them at their words. I wish I grasp the German Language but I’m hopeless.

  4. G

    I would understand the conversation, but my fallback seems to be to give the cut back in English: I just am too unsure of my grammar in German. Although I might have pointed out that while my German was shrecklich, at least Americans are known for their hoefliche ways while the Germans are known for their cold and unhoefliche ones.

  5. B.

    Then there are the Americans who inspire Germans to feel this way. The other night we were out to dinner with a group of Americans when a man at our table asked for ice in his drink. When the waitress she said they didn’t have any, he said in a VERY loud voice, “What is this, a third world country? You people don’t even have ice for your drinks?!”

    The worst part: with the exception of me/Jim, everyone at the table laughed uproariously. I sat there watching the server’s eyes cloud over and thought, yep, another blow to American/German relations.

    Your point was a good one. Anyone can generalize; there are asshole from every walk/station/corner of life. Unfortunately.

  6. clickclackgorilla

    Nice comeback. I only ever come up with comebacks that good three days later.

  7. Dave

    Ouch! I think everyone’s accidentally offended someone at some point, but with this kind of generalization, these two did it with a lot less class than usual.

    These generalizations always kill me. When people start (knowingly) telling me that “Americans are like this or that” it drives me up the wall. My usual reply: “Yes… and which lame stereotypes would you like me to throw back in your face about YOUR nationality?”
    Most Germans do have a sense of humor.
    Most Polish people are just as smart as the rest.
    Most Russians are not vodka-chugging, rich&rude fat cats.
    Most Americans are not fake-polite, geographically-ignorant morons.

    I could go on, but I’m sure I’d end up accidentally offending someone ;-)

  8. Jentry

    That is awesome! I once had some teenies talking about me, in English to each other. It was about something I was wearing or whatever or the fact that I was most likely reading the Bravo. I made some snide remark in English, in which they started talking about me in German, to which I made another snide remark in German. Then they shut up. This was a few years ago on a train. But they were teenagers…no excuse for the arschloecher next to you though. I’m really glad you had such a great come back. :)

  9. G

    Hmm. I’d say;
    most Americans actually are polite and friendly- which is characterized by parochial Germans as being fakely friendly, because they are only friendly to people they went to kita with (that might be Berlin, though- I hear it’s friendlier in the South),
    I don’t actually know any Germans with a sense of humor(my husband’s idea of a joke is that I married him for his sense of humor!)
    The Polish stereotype I know is that they are hard-working… and so on.
    I thought the point of this comment was how mean these Germans were about someone who actually tried very hard to fit in- didn’t they say he spoke German, but it just wasn’t good enough? I cut people loads of slack for just trying: I hope they cut me some too. But I see a lot less slack cut here (and even worse in Austria) than I have in other countries I have visited. I also see an awful lot of open xenophobia- from different groups- because being open about it seems to be acceptable.

  10. Mandi

    Pure awesomeness. Wish I coulda been there to see that go down in person.

  11. cliff1976

    Thanks all for the encouragement. I must say, my zinger comebacks are normally more like clickclackgorilla’s — with the added “benefit” for Sarah of hearing me work through my permutations and contingency responses until both of us are sick of it.

    I have to say; it’s not like this guy was a complete rabid curmudgeon intentionally insulting anyone; he seemed genuinely embarrassed to be “caught” like that and I got the impression he wouldn’t try to openly convince any Americans present of their egocentricity (or any other faults). Rather, he airs those gripes when he thinks it’s safe.

    But now I’m not sure which is worse.

  12. Dad

    Nice one. You have your Mother’s gift for language. I could come up with something good in English, but about an hour later.

  13. Yelli

    Score 1 point for witty comeback and 100 points for doing it in not-your-Mutter-Sprache! On another note, it was times like this that sometimes I wish I didn’t understand German. To be blissfully ignorant can be a blessing.

  14. Jen

    I’m in the blissfully ignorant category at this point. ;-)

  15. headbang8

    An unfortunate stereotype, to be sure. But one can see where they’re coming from.

    Let’s assume this man and woman were business colleagues.

    In America, everybody has a right to be heard. Your opinion is just as good as mine. Freedom of speech. These are some cultural fundamentals that affect much American behaviour, in a thousand subtle ways.

    An American employee who goes to a company meeting and “has nothing to say” regards it as a small professional failure.

    In many ways, a German feels he has to earn the right to speak, by having content, facts and actual work to share. Or, by having some status or expertise which makes your opinion more valuable than any average Joe.

    It’s easy to see why Americans come across as egocentric, and make these German execs uncomfortable. Frankly, after working around the world for most of my life, I found the American business environment pretty excruciating, especially New York. Me me me me me all the time. If they would just STFU, maybe it would be more productive and less exhausting.

    The current teabagger debates on health care and such could convince an outside observer that a selfish streak runs through American life. It could colour their view of the American character, and make innocent remarks appear “egocentric”.

    (Is there such a thing as the “American character”? Perhaps the subject for another discussion…)

    On the other hand, the German model works great for efficiency, but has drawbacks. Like decisions don’t get questioned and whistles don’t get blown.

    Of course, Cliff, stereotypes are unfair. They undermine exceptions and fail to account for outliers. You have criticised me before for stereotyping, with justification. I’m willing to cop that criticism again, since this is a case where I believe acknowledging and unpacking the stereotype might give some real, valid insight into human difference.

    Besides, it’s a free country, dammit. Right?

    1. cliff1976

      Thanks, HB8, for the perspective.

      I agree with you that this is a case where the stereotype can reveal a lot about us as humans, provided I’m willing to peel back a layer or two and not immediately get offended, loudly reminding everyone in earshot that I don’t conform to your pre-conceived notion of what Americans are like. What about me, you bigot? My intrinsic individuality defies your stereotype as I live, breathe, and glower at you!

      Oh wait…

  16. Mom

    Way to go, H8.

    It would be darned interesting to meet up with the train couple again and get their side, after all this dialogue. But this experience points up the shortcomings of stereotyping: We form an opinion based on some set of ideas and don’t wait to see if they are valid or not before we apply them to other situations that seem to match what that set describes. The set may be accurate and useful sometimes, and dead wrong and offensive other times, and most of the time will be woefully inadequate but with enough validity to perpetuate itself as a truth.

    No one likes to be on the receiving end of a negative stereotype and maybe your comeback (pretty funny and sharp for a foreign language!) woke them up to their tendency to make judgments, or maybe you just proved it again for them.

    Next step is to check yourself against the German expectations of corporate/office behavior and see what message you’re giving, and then through actions that are routinely yours and don’t compromise your values, surprise them with how thoughtful/kindly/generous/etc. Americans are. We are, aren’t we?


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