You put the emphASSis on the wrong sylABBle

About a year into our marriage, my husband shared with me that I had hurt his feelings on several occasions by telling him to shut up. He had learned that “shut up” was extremely rude so he thought every time I said it I was really disrespecting him. This was our first lesson in the difference it can make when English speakers sing to emphasize their feelings. Germans, of course, rely strictly on words rather than a combination of words and sounds so you always know exactly what they mean whether the language is written or spoken.Β In this way, I think German is a far superior language. Germans’ Facebook conversations must surely go a lot smoother than English ones since you often have to actually hear a person speaking in English to understand the heart behind the message.

I explained to my husband the differences between, “awww, shuuuuuuut uuuuuuuuuup”, and “oh, you shut up!”, and “SHUT UP!” He was bewildered. The fact that you can say the same exact words many different ways and mean many different things astonished him.

Last night, we were lying in bed talking and giggling and being silly. I started to get sleepy and struggled to get my eyes back open after blinking, and in his silliness, my husband over-exaggerated the face I made. I replied, “You always mimic the faces I make and over-exaggerate them so I look like a total idiot.”

The German: No. You don’t look like a TOTAL idiot!

Still in good fun and knowing he would never actually call me an idiot, I said, “That is SO mean! You need to be nice to your wife!”

The German: What??? What did I say?

Me: Ohhhhh yeahhhhh… I forget that you don’t sing your language so you don’t realize that by emphasizing the word “total” it’s basically like saying, “Yeah, you DO look like an idiot, but not a total one!”

The German: Ok. Then I guess I should say “You don’t LOOK like an idiot.”

Me: (I couldn’t stop laughing) Yeah, honey, you can’t emphasize the word “look”, either. That’s like saying, “Even though you don’t look like an idiot, you’re still an idiot.”

The German: Ok. YOU don’t LOOK like A total IDIOT! How’s that?

Ha! At that, I was sent into a tailspin of sleepy giggles. We have a very dangerous language, folks. It’s no wonder people lose friends over innocent Facebook messages or email conversations!


5 Comments Add yours

  1. I’m a Linguistics student and I love this topic πŸ™‚ Being here in Germany has particularly taught me that I have to put away some of my British niceties in order to communicate efficiently (always with the efficiency). I do find it difficult sometimes though to get straight to the point of a conversation, rather than talking my way to it…and I really miss excusing myself unnecessarily!
    But when I visit home, I find myself incredibly rude and abrupt!
    Language is definitely not just about what you say.

    1. This has been a problem for my husband and me. I actually don’t know a ton about British culture, but in American culture, we like to dance around tough issues. So, for example, when someone makes dinner and says, “Is everything ok? You don’t seem satisfied with the meal.” Rather than just coming out and saying, “It’s just really salty,” we would say, “Thank you so much for the meal. It was so nice of you to cook for me, and everything really does taste so good. It’s just a tiny bit too salty for me, but it really is great!” And as I’m sure you know, Germans would say, “It’s too salty.” My hurt feelings have boggled my husband’s mind more times than I can count! I’ve learned to be less sensitive and he has learned to be less direct so things are much better now, but it happened regularly in the beginning of our relationship!

      And you are so right. Language is definitely not just about what you say!

  2. We’re exactly the same! For example, in the situation that you need to get off the bus but someone is sitting on your coat, rather than ‘You’re sitting on my coat, can you move?’, we prefer ‘I’m so sorry, but you’re sitting on my coat. It’s no problem but I need to get off the bus. Would you mind moving just a bit?’ etc. I think the idea is that we feel we’re transmitting negative feelings towards a person by being too direct. I think the English language also has the capacity to be vague in the way that German can be startlingly specific!

    I don’t have a German husband myself (!) but this problem with directness has come up in a past relationship and it was so difficult to try to explain that I could deal with some directness if he could learn to ‘soften the blow’ sometimes! His response at first was ‘Why would the truth hurt your feelings?! Don’t you want me to be honest with you?’ (Following the conversation: ‘I think I look pretty tired in that photo.’ ‘Yeah, you look really bad, stop staying up late.’)

    It’s definitely a balancing act between two cultures!

    1. Ha! I have to giggle about your story with the photo because my husband and I had a similar situation. I was super proud of my new Facebook photo about which many people commented things like, “Oh! Beautiful! Marriage suits you!” My German didn’t like it. So rather than abiding by the rule “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” he asked if he could touch it up because I looked really bad. I was livid, and of course he was shocked that I wasn’t appreciative of the truth.

      I almost cringe telling that story because it makes him sound like a horrible jackass, but I think you will definitely get it. He’s just so very German. πŸ˜„

      1. Haha! I think there are certain areas in which I demand sensitivity and photos of me are one of them! πŸ˜‚

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