IT DOES NOT MATTER HOW SMART YOU ARE. It doesn’t matter that you have an advanced degree, or that you’re a respected manager, or that you have lots of good experience to share, or that you went to some fancy B-school, or that you happen to be a parent of 5, or that you’ve lived on two different continents, etc, etc. When you don’t speak the local language, you are always the dumbest person in the room.
Take for example, the time way back in September when we decided to order a piece of furniture – a new kitchen table – from a local furniture store. We had the option to drive 45 min to a store that had english speaking salesmen, but decided we were going to “Live German” and buy local. Melissa and I walked the store to find the table she wanted, and once she had picked it out the inevitable moment of engaging the sales person in dialague (is that what it’s called?) came. I turned around to find Melissa had disappeared to the van with the kids, leaving me to negotiate alone.
What followed was a half an hour conversation with a salesman with no capability nor interest in understanding English. At the end, I felt like I placed the order well enough, and understood it would be delivered to our house in 6 weeks. So…what does one do in that situation when 8 weeks pass and no table has arrived? One might, for example, stop in the store (which I did) and get a long string of explanations from that same salesman that would be perfectly clear to a German kindergartner. But to the Over-Educated-American-with-no-language-skills he might as well have been communicating with a pig.
After that failure, one might decide, frustrated, that it would be easier to send an email asking for some written help as to how to get our table, and ask for a written response (so that Google Translate has a chance to intervene). And if one did that, then the salesman might, hypothetically, call back on the phone the very next day and repeat the same instructions (This time I was far enough along in my language training to say “But I don’t understand German” in German, to which his response was, “You understand well.” Um, I’m pretty sure that’s wrong, but I don’t know how to tell you that.) And then, somewhere in the chain, someone might finally take pitty on you and your table will show up one Friday 10 weeks after you ordered it. Hypothetically. And that whole time, between you and the furniture salesman, you are the dumbest person in the room. Sure he gave us a table, and all it cost was my pride. And about a 1000 Euro.
That’s what it’s like every time I am in a meeting where I am the only English speaker. Although at first everybody is very gracious and agrees to speak in English, inevitably at some point the conversation switches from forced English to fluent German ‘just to explain a few points’…and of course, it never switches back. And during that whole time, I’m the dumbest person in the room.
THIS SUNDAY WAS THE FINAL STRAW. We go to a church we’re really excited to be a part of. It is vibrant, culturally relevant, and a great environment for our whole family. The only down side we can see is that the entire service is in German. That makes it a little awkward for us, and church is a place where it can be hard to fake it. A couple of weeks ago a greeter realized the situation we were in and graciously offered to set up a translation service until we had a chance to get acclimated. What a great idea! We thought that meant headphones for us with a mic’ed translator hidden away somewhere in the building (that’s how this normally works, right?). We were thinking that right up until this Sunday morning when the translator introduced himself to Melissa (“Hi, I’m Chris, I’m your translator”). and plopped down next to her. For the rest of the service – approximately one hour – he leaned close and whispered the English translation into her ear, sultry-German-accented-word by sultry-German-accented-word. Thanks, I’m sure that was much less awkward for both of us. It was a extremely kind gesture and we are really are thankful for the help, but…why do we have that feeling like we’re the dumbest people in the room again?
So for us, the reality has set in that it’s not just about living German anymore, it’s about living with a little pride. We have to learn the language. We have to learn the language. I need to learn it so I can order furniture without laying awake the night before thinking about it. I need to learn it so I can actually contribute to a conversation. I need to learn it for my own piece of mind. And Melissa needs to learn it too, because I’m not sure I’m OK with letting Chris whisper in her ear like that again for a long, long time. 😉