Monday May 7, 2012
The fight to be right
SAMBAL ON THE SIDE By BRENDA BENEDICT
Nobody wants to be in the wrong – some Germans included. Then again, why argue only to get ulcers?
IT was supposed to have been yet another ordinary outing for groceries. Or so I thought.
As I slowly pushed my trolley to one of the two (of the total of five) checkout counters that were open, I inadvertently became a bystander to an animated exchange between a middle-aged couple and the cashier.
Unable to manoeuvre out of the queue with five more trolleys already lined up behind me, I was forced to sit through the drama.
The couple had wanted to purchase a DIY metal garden bench, which was encased in a rather large package. The cashier had been unable to scan the bar code of the first package and so, the gentleman had to return it and lug another to the counter.
However, she had problems scanning the second one too, and was forced to page the store manager. While waiting for him, the couple kept asking why the bar code could not be scanned, which the increasingly reddening cashier was unable to satisfactorily answer.
By now, some people in the queue were shifting from foot to foot, rolling their eyeballs or sighing exasperatedly.
Finally the manager came and explained that for this particular item, the cashier had to key in some info before scanning the code. Triumphant that they were not in the wrong and thus not responsible for the hold-up, the gentleman kept pointing at the cashier while loudly intoning, “Sie ist Schuld! Sie ist Schuld – nicht wir!” (She’s to blame – not us.)
It was like the German equivalent of that nasal, singsong childhood taunt that went, “Nyeh, nyeh-nyeh, nyeh, nyehhhh!” (While this may sound archaic to readers who are more accustomed to sending out a testy tweet, I hope some readers of a “certain generation” get it.)
Seeing that he was not going to let up, the embarrassed cashier simply groaned, “Yes, yes, it’s all my fault.” Appeased, Uncle and Aunty then sailed out on a cloud of smugness.
This need to always be right often complements the need to instruct or admonish – oftentimes unsolicited.
A German work client, who prefers to be known as The Six Footer, recalls an incident at his office canteen during lunch hour. (Herr Six Footer works for a non-profit organisation that promotes sustainable development in emerging and Third World countries).
He had been standing in line behind two co-workers he refers to as Ökotanten, which directly translates as “eco aunties”, German slang for women who take eco-friendliness (and themselves) a tad too seriously.
Anyway, when their turn came, they grilled the food server about the fish of the day; it was pangasius. Aghast, they admonished him about the negative effects of pangasius farming on the environment. Disinterested, the latter retorted, “Would you rather have meat?” – which incited further tut-tutting.
Herr Footer then blithely interjected: “Producing hot air also impacts the environment!” Glaring at him derisively, the two then hit the salad bar.
Newcomers who are unused to the German language and culture may be quick to write off such behaviour as arrogant or unyielding. However, if you’ve been in Germany long enough, you’ll come to realise that this is a trait you’ve got to learn to live with.
Like how you simply have to learn to speak the language well enough not to be written off as an Ausländer (foreigner) who refuses to integrate. Besides, it’s empowering to bring a wiseacre down a peg or two in his own language.
I admit that when I first encountered such people, I’d inwardly think, “Oh, lighten up!” Like the time when, out of politeness at a party, I was at the mercy of a complete stranger who held forth on how to play badminton despite my repeatedly telling him that I come from a badminton-playing nation.
I’d also locked horns with some of my host countrymen before over matters both mundane and meaningful.
But I’ve wised up since – more so because my husband often tells me to eschew “face saving” behaviour when faced with such characters. Now I either beg off to go to the ladies after succinctly making my point, or I let it slide. Arguing is not worth the stomach ulcers.
In their defence though, this probably stems from their innate need for perfection – a quality that is oft underscored, especially in professional circles. However, some do take it to the extreme and for no apparent benefit, like Uncle at the supermarket.
Oh well, at least it’s something for bemused onlookers to write home about.
> Brenda Benedict is a Malaysian living in Germany. She will not forget the last “discussion” she’d had about Christmas Day being on Dec 24 instead of Dec 25.