Recently I had a (quite literal) run-in with a German lady that had me questioning where I fit in German culture. Now, before I begin my story, I’d like to acknowledge that this was just one encounter with one German woman and is not intended to be representative of an entire people. That being said, I do still think there are broader differences in cultural expectation that were highlighted by this incident and are therefore worthy of comment. So, here it goes:
As I was leaving work one day, I mounted my bike eagerly headed for home. Before even going 15 meters, a woman swiftly exited a building without looking and walked directly into the front wheel of my bicycle. I didn’t have enough time to brake, swerve, or otherwise make her aware of my presence, so we both went down to the pavement.
My expectation after the accident:
Both parties: “I’m so sorry! Are you all right?”
Party who is clearly less injured: “Please, let me help you up. Are you sure you are OK?”
Injured party: “Yes, I’m fine. I’m so sorry about that.”
Less injured party: “No problem; it was an accident. I’m just glad you’re OK.”
German lady’s immediate response (rough translation): “Why are you on the sidewalk? The bike path is over there! Look, I have dirt on my pants. You imbecile! What have you done??!!”
Me, feeling defeated: “Sorry.”
German lady walks away in a huff of “Scheiße” and other unsavory words.
While she certainly had a point that I should not have been riding my bike on the sidewalk, even for such a short distance while I was picking up speed to merge to the bike path, this interaction left me fuming. I realized much later that I was really upset not because of the fall itself, but because what had happened directly conflicted with my cultural expectations – and it left me baffled and speechless. So, what exactly did I expect?
1. I expected to be treated like a person. The woman didn’t bother asking if I was OK. We both fell down , but my bicycle broke her fall while my hands and elbows were scraped by the concrete. However, she wasn’t the least concerned about my well-being; she was only concerned with reprimanding me.
2. I expected to have the chance to apologize. It took me by complete surprise that the interaction went immediately to blaming and finger-pointing before I could even make amends. I wanted to express my regret for running into that lady, but she barely gave me the chance. Once I could finally say sorry, it probably seemed as if I was only admitting fault in response to her words, not that I felt it sincerely within myself.
3. I expected both parties to admit fault. Yes, I rode my bike on the sidewalk, and yes, I know that it is frowned upon to do so – I was in the wrong, definitely. However, she also walked out of the door without looking to see who else was on that sidewalk. As we say in America, she should “watch where she is walking,” meaning to make sure she is not walking into someone else’s path or any other potential hazards. She didn’t look in my direction at all, only directly where she was headed. So, in my eyes, both parties were at fault.
What’s interesting about this (probably American) desire to tell Germans to “watch where you are walking” is that it is not isolated to this particular incident. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been elbowed in the supermarket and was NOT apologized to, or I’ve been walking down the street and a person walking from the opposite direction doesn’t break stride to make room for me on the sidewalk. Let me just just say that from an American lens, this is really frustrating; it makes you feel like you are invisible or less important than the other person. To put it bluntly – it feels rude. But hey, it’s their culture, and it probably seems really strange from their perspective when I smile and subtly move aside to make room for them instead.
4. I expected to be able to express myself. Had I completely understood her words and had the quick German language skills to make a retort after the accident, perhaps it would have been satisfying to tell the woman off after she yelled at me, but instead I felt completely powerless. That was the worst of it all. I was taken by surprise by her reaction and was then forced to listen to her verbal abuse without any ability to defend or explain myself.
I think that’s the really difficult thing about living in a different culture and not really speaking the local language. You find yourself in these situations where you have so much you’d like to say, but you just can’t express yourself. I used to feel much more quick-witted when I lived in the US, but here I can barely answer a question about where I live or what I do without sounding like a 2nd grade writing assignment. It’s one thing to be able to understand the language (which I do to an extent, but I’m not great), but it’s a completely different thing to speak eloquently and be able to hold a meaningful conversation without interruption of thought.
As for the woman on the sidewalk, if I had the words at the time, I would have loved to say, “Lady, everyone bikes on this sidewalk, and if you don’t have the half second to look where you are going, you had this coming!” Nah, just kidding. I wish I would have just said, “I’m sorry. I hope you are OK!”