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Viewpoints . . . Why Germans don't give compliments and
how an American learned to deal with it

Alexander von Humboldt turns 250 The absence of criti- their praise untrustworthy. I sup- notice the color of my blouse. No
cism can be taken as praise in pose there could be something to German man had ever done that!"
2019 marks the 250th anniver- Portrait or Alexander von Hum- Germany, Courtney Tenz learned that. How could I have known No criticism is a compliment
sary of Alexander von Hum- boldt by Joseph Karl Stieler the hard way. On Compliment Day whether my teacher was being
boldt’s birth. Celebrated as both (1843). she explains why she misses "su- honest when she said I was a sweet Despite all the nuances in the
a man of science and as a philos- perficial" American compliments, girl if I knew she'd told all of her American complimentary culture,
opher, Humboldt traveled exten- Published by but appreciates the German ap- female students they were sweet I find it much more difficult to get
sively in the Americas and Buffalo Standard Printing proach. An American, Tenz has girls? by without compliments in Ger-
intensively studied and docu- lived in Germany for over a de- How relevant is truthfulness? many, where, even years later, I
mented natural environments 3620 Harlem Rd. cade. struggle to sort out what replaces
wherever he went. Cheektowaga, NY 14215 By the end of the discussion, the role of the compliment as cur-
As a young girl growing up in though, I realized it didn't matter rency. As one fellow American
Buffalo’s German communi- 716-831-8013 the U.S., I took compliments whether or not a person was honest noted, "Consider it a compliment
ty enshrined his achievements for granted. in his or her compliments. To me, if you haven't been criticized." In
and his memory by working his compliments are not about truth. other words, interpret silence as
name into Buffalo’s Olmsted For Advertising Sales call: If I put on a dress, family mem- They are about practicing politesse praise.
park-and-parkway designs. One Michelle Kisluk or bers were sure to coo over how as much as they are about deter-
of German Buffalo’s most fash- Steve Kroczynski pretty I looked. If I got good mining hierarchies and power bal- Perhaps Germans don't miss
ionable streets, Humboldt Park- grades in school, I was told how ances. For example, you might not this the way that I do because it is
way, as well as its nearby park smart I was. Even if I polished off compliment a superior at work, for something that is culturally in-
now renamed for Martin Luther an entire birthday cake, I was com- fear of looking like a suck-up, but grained in Germany beginning in
King, were named for von Hum- plimented on my healthy appetite. you should compliment a subordi- childhood. One of the most popu-
boldt. nate on a job well done. lar child psychologists read by
Born between the "I'm OK, German parents today is Jesper
It’s also no coincidence that you're OK" generation and the There are also layers of context Juul, a Danish psychologist and
the Buffalo Museum of Science "every little thing you do is magic" embedded in these phrases that author of advice books whose
is located where Parkway and generation, I was given what I felt only the giver and receiver can ideas on child-rearing are quite
Park sharing his name came to- was a healthy dose of compliments interpret. When you receive a different from what I experienced
gether. Among other things, von – enough to encourage my self- compliment from someone like as a child.
Humboldt’s sestercentennial esteem without people going unre- your grandmother, you know to
should remind us of the ubiquity alistically overboard. reply humbly, "Oh shucks, that's Instead of praising kids, he
and greatness of Western New kind." But from a friend, you'd says that children really only need
York’s German communities! And I learned how to dole say, "Oh this dress? Got it at the recognition from their parents.
them out as well. Telling my moth- Dress Barn on sale last year." If the Don't tell a kid the drawing he
Subscribe today to er "You look pretty today, Mama," compliment is from a stranger or made is good, says Juul in his
$16 for 6 issues earned me a smile and a kiss. Ap- otherwise unwanted you'd simply book, "Your Competent Child."
plying a similar tactic as a school- say, "Thank you," and wonder, Instead, acknowledge the kid has
Name______________________________________ girl, I knew that telling my teacher, perhaps, if that person wanted made a drawing and ask him ques-
Address____________________________________ "You look great! Did you do something from you. tions about it.
City/State/Zip______________________________ something to your hair?" would
Phone______________________________________ keep me in her good graces. Beyond that, compliments in This sounded odd to me. Why
the U.S. can be a way to break the wouldn't I tell my child her draw-
Make Check payable to Buffalo Standard Printing and Compliments, I learned, served ice with strangers. As Alanna ing looked amazing? Americans
Mail to 3620 Harlem Rd., Cheektowaga, NY 14215 as a sort of currency in the U.S. Okun recently wrote in an essay use that phrase all the time: "You
Flattery, they say, will get you ev- for "Racked," about the art of giv- look amazing," "This dinner you
Since 1970 the Buffalo Standard erywhere. ing compliments while drunk: cooked was amazing," "That arti-
Printing Booster Club has raised funds Culture shock: German honesty "Nobody on the planet will make cle you wrote was amazing."
to support our family of publications. you feel as dopey as a fellow
Compliments are so frequent woman, three glasses of wine Instead, according to Juul, I
These funds have been used to off-set some of the and so ingrained in everyday life deep, … her compliments are effu- should say, "Oh, look, you did a
publication costs, increases in postage, and affords in the U.S. that I wasn't even aware sive yet genuine; her glowing as- drawing?" A dog would get more
the ability to secure the best writers in Western New how large a role they play in the sessments of your shirt or shoes or encouragement than that for put-
York. The German Citizen is published to serve the culture until I moved to Germany face are enough to buoy you for an ting his paw out to shake. I'm not
German-Americans of Upstate New York. Donors to over a decade ago. For most of my entire night out." saying a child should get a "Good
the Press Fund will be thanked in the last issue of the first year here, I thought there must boy" and a gold sticker and ap-
year, unless otherwise instructed by the donor. be something wrong with me. No There is also, of course, the plause every time they use the toi-
one liked my clothes or my hair or seedy side of compliments. There's let, as many Americans are wont to
MAIL TO: Buffalo Standard Printing Press Fund my shoes. No one told me they'd the Eric Clapton song, "Wonderful do nowadays. But there has to be
3620 Harlem Road, Cheektowaga, NY 14215 appreciated a lecture I'd given at tonight," which feels like the ulti- something more than just silence.
I want to make sure the German Citizen continues its service the school where I taught. mate in compliments. Who
wouldn't want someone to croon, Angela, a co-worker, said that
To the German-American Community. I could walk into a bar and "My darling, you look wonderful perhaps it's a misunderstanding I
Enclosed is my contribution of $ _____ people would not tell me I had tonight"? But its meaning gets a bit have, not differentiating between a
Name:__________________________________________ pretty eyes. I could wear an unusu- twisted when you learn the person compliment, which centers on ap-
Address_________________________________________ al skirt and the closest thing to a the song was written for is the wife pearance, and praise, which is en-
City, State, Zip___________________________________ compliment I'd receive was, of another man; suddenly the com- couragement for a process. "Don't
"That's an unusual skirt." pliment's intentions have subtle, get the two mixed up," she warned
Please { } Include underhanded meanings. me as I was writing this article.
{ }do not include my name in your list of contributors. At one class I taught, to adult But it's hard not to when, in Eng-
learners of English who also need- Not that many men in Germa- lish, the definition for compliment
ed intercultural training, one of my ny are freely handing out compli- is, literally, a statement of praise.
students remarked, "You're skinny ments. Sigrid, a grandmotherly
for an American." In the U.S., that German married to an American, Though it has taken me more
is what we might refer to as a said she'd initially been attracted to than a decade, I have finally come
backhanded compliment and so I her husband because of his will- to terms with the fact that in Ger-
started a discussion with my stu- ingness to pay her and everyone many, I won't be complimented on
dents, explaining that actually, in else he met a compliment. everything I do and when – if – I
the US, such a statement would be garner attention for praise, it will
considered quite rude. "There's no easier way to make likely be more sincere than any-
a person smile than to say some- thing I'd have heard in the U.S.
In return, Germans in the class thing nice," he'd once told her. "As Like the one a young girl recently
said that honesty is perhaps the a German, I'd never encountered gave me after I visited the beauty
greatest compliment, and that they anyone like this before. It was so salon: "You look much better now
find the American art of compli- flattering that he even seemed to that your gray hair is gone."
menting an exaggeration. There is
a strong belief here that people in
the U.S. are superficial and thus
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