The non-language barrier

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 09.08.2019

To the newly arrived American expat, Luxembourgers seem quiet, awkward, and perhaps a little bit miserable. How come? It’s an issue of perception. Even where language barriers don’t exist, another stumbling block keeps cultures apart: the styles of interaction normal in the public sphere.

In any society, the public sphere is a performative one. You wake up, shower, get dressed, and go out your own front door—whereupon you don your public persona, a version of the self equipped for interaction with colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers.

Your persona is a construction, of course, forged in reaction to a lifetime of public experiences. It’s useful for hiding insecurities and concluding the business of daily life, a sort of mask whose face is recognizable to the general population. Given this social functionality, the public persona is molded by the norms of a community, and so varies hugely by country, region, and even city.

For example, the average New Yorker’s persona rides the subway in brusque anonymity, showing annoyance at tourists and bitter disgust at the unsavvy. The Japanese, meanwhile, are known for being ultrapolite with foreigners, but reserving other standards for interactions amongst themselves that notably vary by age. For Dutch villagers walking down the street, every day is the perfect day to invite a stranger on a tour of the family windmill.

Due to the strange types of personae on offer in Luxembourg, Americans cannot settle very easily into interactions or relationships with locals. Not initially, anyway. It’s a persona barrier, a clash of what’s expected from a conversation.

Here is where Americans are coming from: in our public sphere, small talk is heavily acted out. For the polite, the central aim is to avoid being perceived as unfriendly, which probably honors a deeper urge to avoid being perceived as racist, xenophobic, classist, or otherwise prejudiced—important taboos in a country still grappling with its dark history and persisting inequalities. Our conversations are thus deeply ritualized, built on supportive comments and white lies. Your role is less to fully represent your underlying self, and more to tacitly work together to create a pleasant interaction.

Put another way, we seek to bond over similarities. If you remark that the city is crowded today, I will agree and throw on a complementary observation to fan the flame. If I struggle with a map, you’ll castigate the city planner, laying the groundwork for me to develop my claim. If a tall person complains about being too tall, you’re fully licensed to invent a skyscraping cousin with similar woes. To Americans, empathy is gold.

With all that in mind, the cornerstone of the American interaction style is the employment of quips, specifically quips that are fun, airy, familiar, and accessible. (“Did you watch the Tour de France? It was dope as hell.” “I know—that French countryside is legit charming.”) The quip secures the relationship on the grounds that we are similar, perhaps even the same—any differences in ethnicity, background, culture, etc. cannot stand in the way of anything.

But when all of these expectations come, in the body of a visitor, to Luxembourg, mutual horror is felt on all sides. That’s because the public sphere here does not at all resemble the quip-flinging festival of agreement we know from home. For starters, in Luxembourgish society there is less outward fear that difference implies incompatibility. So conversations are not lubricated (as much) with an aim to mutual agreement, there is no drive to make a stranger feel like family, nor any hurt if two acquaintances don’t share a wavelength.

In fact, you can visit the same patisserie every weekday, order the same sandwich from the same cashier, and after a year be treated with the same mundane surprise as ever. In Luxembourg (and perhaps its neighbors too) the public persona has a goldfish memory and no particular need to be liked. Meanwhile, if the same patisserie episode occurred in America, you would likely end up marrying that cashier, or at least high fiving one another in the street. We actually have the bizarre and petrifying maxim, “A stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet.”

Rather than trading quips, two acquaintances in the Grand Duchy might ask some basic questions to sort out the other’s background, casually looking for (rather than forcing) common ground. As opportunities for humor arise, they’re taken, and if the rare phenomenon of true compatibility occurs then a friendship may follow. If not, no effort is made to pretend that the interaction was particularly worthwhile or in need of reoccurrence.

Going further, it would seem that conversations here are driven by the invisible force of irony, whose effects are totally imperceptible to newly arrived Americans. This irony allows you to presuppose a few things about the other, assumptions around which questions and comments can be fired off. Across the Atlantic, taking this approach would be toweringly insulting because we leave no space between assumption and belief. (“Oh, so just because I’m from Tennessee I’m stupid?”) But in Luxembourg, the space between assumption and belief exists, and it’s where that irony is contained: you are from the Éislek; people from up there are hillbillies; so this conversation may genuinely explore to what extent you exhibit symptoms of being a hillbilly—made possible because the assumption needn’t implicate your identity. As I belittle your accent, you’ll know that I’m joking about a regional variance that has manifested itself in you, rather than believing you to be genuinely idiotic. And in return, I must answer for the strangenesses of my own cultural baggage, whatever they may be.

So, the tragedy of intercontinental conversation happens through all these missed expectations. Luxembourgers ask us questions to get to know us better, behavior that mirrors a colder type of American conversation: standard questions are to be traded with a distant aunt in town for the rodeo, not potential friends. So we try our quips on them, putting out feelers for similarities, but it’s a dead-end when they don’t take the bait and start agreeing. They might say something about Luxembourgish life instead, setting us up to contrast it to American ways, yet we find this an aggressive choice of topic because one party has total authority on it—we can’t quip about a place we don’t know! So we laugh and agree to things we barely understand, wrongly impressing on them a wish for closeness. And so on.

Nevertheless, aided by booze, determination, Tinder, or luck, plenty of intercultural friendships blossom. The Grand Duchy, with its fantastic multinormative culture, is blazing the trail in this area. You move here, break down your persona, and rebuild it… and in time, you’ll start whispering Gudden Owend to strangers on the bus without even fearing that twenty minutes of mindless chitchat will follow.

Jeffrey Palms
© 2019 d’Lëtzebuerger Land