Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Mastering (sort of) the art of complaining in German

This story, as they say in German, has a ''Happy-End.'' It's part of that seemingly endless round of getting used to a foreign culture, whether in Germany, France, Japan - or America. It comes from the June 1983 annals of The Christian Science Monitor bureau in Bonn.

But first, a general observation: The two hardest things to master in a language and culture not one's own are probably jokes and complaints.

About these ads

Small talk, of course, is impossible before a certain stage of proficiency. (''I didn't know Frau Pond had a sense of humor,'' a German friend of four years muted acquaintance marveled to another, following an afternoon of - at last - shared laughter.) And appeals for redress of grievances - whether as victim or inadvertent perpetrator - are the most difficult of all; they require the treading of a fine linguistic and attitudinal line between assertion and politesse.

Sometimes the foreigner stumbles on the right approach. Sometimes he doesn't. A colleague from the New York Times successfully atoned to Japanese immigration officials for his failure to register with the local police in time by simply signing an apology form in quintuplicate.

A Harvard graduate student who was living with a family in central Japan, on the other hand, couldn't understand why a freeze suddenly came over relations with the family after she mentioned that the space heater in her room no longer worked. (In such a situation, her Japanese professor later explained, simply saying that the heater didn't work without faulting oneself for the malfunction was tantamount to blaming the family.)

Then there was the time in Moscow an American reporter unwittingly triggered the scorn of a waitress, a development fraught with far graver consequences there than in New York. On being told definitively that there was no cream - and even more emphatically that there never was any cream by this hour of the afternoon - he inquired why, if afternoon customers were always frustrated in their quest for cream, the cafe didn't simply order more cream in the first place?

''The customers?'' exclaimed the waitress with disdain. ''If you humored the customers, there'd be no end of requests!''

But back to Bonn in 1983 and the special postal service the Monitor subscribes to that includes a clerk's telephoning and reading aloud any cables received (with the English of the cables very nicely rendered). Over the months the service had slipped back from the immediate phoning at the usual midnight arrival time of telegrams (night clerks perhaps couldn't quite credit the notation ''reachable at any hour'' on the instructions) to special delivery of the cables at the Monitor bureau-apartment at 7 the next morning.

This was fine, since telegrams still arrived before the workday began. But on the Rhineland holiday of Corpus Christi, the cable that had arrived in Bonn at 11:47 p.m. Wednesday didn't arrive at the door until 2:30 p.m. Thursday, with no advance alert. The Monitor therefore called the post office to ask how such a delay might be avoided in the future and was steered to Frau B.

About these ads

Now with Frau B., the maxim ''The customer is always right'' had yielded, it seemed, to that other maxim ''The best defense is a good offense.'' She declared , first, that two phone calls about the cable had been attempted in the morning (at an hour when no phone rang and despite the fact that telegraph phone calls had lapsed altogether in the previous half year).

More alarmingly, she went on to accuse the Monitor of causing ''difficulties'' with the cable office in the past. This was news, since no complaints about the Monitor's conduct as a cable customer had ever been voiced before. Efforts to ascertain from Frau B. just what kind of difficulties she meant were unavailing, leaving one to surmise that perhaps the Monitor correspondent's unkempt appearance at the 7 a.m. doorbell rings might have offended the affable and rather more kempt postman.

From first phone inquiry to completion of a lengthy call-back, the dialogue with Frau B. lasted a surprising 40 minutes. Monitor attempts to deflect the conversation from past blame to future performance were in vain. The auf Wiedersehens (goodbyes) ended on an inconclusive note.

Now at this stage, the uninitiated might have considered the encounter a rebuff and a failure. Nothing could have been further from the truth. At four minutes past the next midnight, the telephone jangled and a voice announced, just as naturally as if there had never been any six-month gap, ''We have a telegram for you from Miami.'' (Why Boston telegrams go via Miami is just one of those mysteries better left unexplored.)

The world is again in order, with the cultural ritual for reordering it somehow having been fulfilled. One lives and learns.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.