Sunday, May 3, 2015

Value conflicts and Exceptionalism

One of the problems with writing about Germany is how to express value conflicts in a respectful manner.  How do I talk about another culture without delving into stereotypes or being offensive?  It's a lot harder than you would think.

I really started thinking about this one day when I talking about how I perceived a lot of people in Brandenburg to be hostile to foreigners with a couple of German friends.  Usually when I talk about this kind of thing with expats everybody has a couple of stories of terrible customer service or rudeness and it's not a big deal.  But my German friends surprised me by expressing embarrassment and condemnation.   At first I was puzzled but then I realized that in the same way I get embarrassed for particularly obnoxious American tourists so are why many Germans are embarrassed by xenophobia in their country. And then I started to worry if Germans ever did read my blog, would they find it to be offensive?  Have I fairly written about my experiences? 

Despite being a fairly homogeneous country Germany is still very regional when it comes to much of it's culture, language (darn you regional dialects!), attitudes and general friendliness.  Even within regions there is a high level of diversity.  When we lived in Malente I had some of my positive experiences with strangers going out of their way to offer help.  Still we also had to deal with neighbors who made it clear they weren't happy to be sharing an building with an American.  And herein lies the problem with stereotypes, they are too narrow to accurately define the parameters of reality.    

Making things even more complicated is the problem with cultural exceptionalism, i.e. the belief that one culture or nationality is somehow superior and singular, which is something that can complicate the way one sees a situation.  American expats could be divided into two categories: those who believe in European exceptionalism and those who believe in American exceptionalism with the lines probably becoming more blurred the longer one resides in Germany. Exceptionalism tends to exasperate me because I hate the ranking of places based on mostly arbitrary criteria as well as the European/American cultural hegemony that dominates media. 

Understanding perspective is key to understanding experience.  My interactions are filtered through a process of self-referencing the body of knowledge and experience I have accrued as a thirty-something, somewhat educated, white, middle class American.  If you changed my nationality, my gender, my age or my socioeconomic status then you'd change the way I experience a situation.  This is probably why expats sometimes like to hang out with other expats.  It's always nice to talk  to someone experiencing reality from a similar perspective.

So if you landed on this blog by searching for the answer 'Do American think they are better.' (hey Russia) the answer would be yes, some of them do but some of them don't but stereotypes are a super limited way of viewing the world.


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