Why Europeans are code switchers

Code Switching – a cultural survival technique for many Europeans

Christoph WaltzWhen Germans communicate with each other they do it in their native language and within the codes of their culture. This may sound like stating the obvious, but it is important to note that these codes generally differ quite strongly from the way Americans communicate. For instance, whereas Americans like to move into an informal mode of address quickly, Germans are happy to keep a formal, polite distance for a much longer time into a relationship.

For many Germans there is a clear boundary between time spent at work and time spent with family or in private. This usually means that Germans – especially the members of older generations – don’t mix their business and their social lives. This separation of public and private is reflected in the use of the personal pronoun “you”: Germans never address each other by their first names, unless they are friends or family. In formal conversations Germans use “Sie” instead of “du”, combined with the last name. Using somebody’s first name and “du” with people you don’t know well is seen as rude and presumtuous.

However, in companies where English is used as the primary language, this doesn’t apply. Plus, Germans are experts in code switching. Almost effortlessly, they will switch between formal and informal styles of communication when foreigners are present.

What also helps them is their familiarity with cultures other than their own. Being nestled in the center of Europe with nine neighbors has taught Germans that their communication style isn’t always shared by others. And for quite a few, knowing some of the neighbors’ languages is an added bonus. Take Austrian (= not German, but close enough for the sake of the argument) actor Christoph Waltz, for instance.

From an AP article:

Waltz won the best-actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival and is an early prospect for a supporting-actor nomination at the Academy Awards for the World War II saga “Inglourious Basterds,” in which the performer hurtles through Quentin Tarantino’s rapid-fire dialogue in German, French, English and Italian.

The film takes some jabs at Americans’ relative lack of language skills, but Waltz said his own multilingual talents are simply part of life in Europe.

“I’ve been in places in Europe where you need a different language if you go out for dinner. I worked in southern Germany, and we went into France for dinner. You just go across the river, different language, different culture, different food, different everything. So it’s nothing extraordinary,” Waltz said, adding that Americans would possess similar language skills if necessity demanded. “If you needed Cherokee to order dinner, you’d speak Cherokee.”

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