This past weekend has pushed me to explore a question which has become quite interesting to me. The question is at what point is it fair to loosen your adherence to a country’s culture, making yourself more comfortable at the expense of the norms around you?
I’ll elaborate on the context. My friends and I took the weekend to travel to Berlin as it was only about a 4.5 hour bus ride from Prague. I arrived with an expectation that German people are somewhat reserved, and not exactly fond of foreigners to some degree. I adhered to these expectations and watched not to speak to loudly on transit, staying out of people’s way, and even putting effort into how I dressed to appear more German than American. This however did not seem to matter, blending in was not exactly easy considering I was with a group of nine others, but city residents did not strain themselves to make it easier on us. Our group was on the receiving end of plenty of scolds and stares.
The restaurants and bars did not seem to be fairly accommodating either, recognizing we were American and ignoring us or expressing subtle displeasure of our presence in other ways. Waitresses would roll their eyes when they saw we didn’t speak German, bartenders would be hesitant to serve us, the understanding that people were annoyed if you did not speak German was recognized. I was already uncomfortable as it was trying to act differently to not give away I was foreign, but I was not working and the reactions I got were not very encouraging.
After the first day of experiencing this, I went into the second day with a different attitude, I decided I was not going to adhere to some of the norms of the culture. I spoke on the metro without fear of others hearing my English, I wasn’t afraid to stop and take pictures and look lost like a tourist would. My friends and I joked and laughed at a higher volume than we did the day before. And I was less concerned if my outfit looked “European”. I have to say my second day was much more enjoyable. It seemed the day before I was wasting energy trying to follow what I thought are the social norms, but was receiving negative reactions anyway. The next day I decided to disregard the reactions of those around me and just act the way I pleased and there was much less weigh on my shoulders. I should mention I was not being rude or obnoxious in anyway, I was simply not taking the extra step specific to the culture to blend in. This brought me to my question, at which moment is it fair to stop paying special attention to the norms of the culture to better your own experience. Just because I leaned towards ignoring the norms in Germany, I cannot say I am strictly for one side of the question or another, but still think its an interesting thought I will come across more as I travel.
A few last things I should mention are that I had a wonderful time in Berlin and these instances far from convey my full experience, they are just specific experiences that brought me to the question which the blog was about so I honed in on them rather than my trip as a whole. I am also certain that the people of Germany are by no means mean and judgmental, I assume the people of Berlin are harsher as they live in a bustling city that also has plenty of pesky tourists. Finally that I drew comparisons of the way some the people of Berlin seemed to treat foreigners to the way Americans may treat foreigners. I know plenty of people in America become downright annoyed and frustrated when they come across a foreigner or citizen who does not speak English.