Cultural difference and a compliment sandwich

What happens when you’re the only American in a language class of a dozen students?

I’d never had that experience until I came to Slovenia, where five days a week I trek from my Ljubljana apartment to Pionirski Dom, where the classes are held.

In my class are students from: Hungary, Russia, Lithuania, Argentina, Austria, Finland, Belgium, Serbia, and Scotland.

For each of us, in our own different ways, Slovenian culture is taking some time to get used to. That’s not to say it’s bad—but it’s just different than our own cultures. Each of us is finding things that we like, and things that we’re still trying to understand better. And though it’s different to us in our own ways, there is a bond that is formed as you as outsiders try to break the unspoken code of social patterns and behaviors.

After class last week, I went with the group to a kavarna, a bar/café in downtown Ljubljana, where I connected with the Finnish girl in my class.

She described to me her perception of Slovenian culture when it comes to speaking honestly or directly when asked for an opinion; in other words: telling the truth in situations that don’t matter.

She told me that she found Slovenians to be less direct than Finnish people. That meant that early in her stay in Slovenia, she found that she may have been unintentionally offending people by answering questions too directly. In Finland, she told me that, in her point of view, being honest—even if it was brutally honest—was valued above being polite.

The example we used when talking involved a shirt that a friend was wearing, which, for the sake of our hypothetical situation, we said we didn’t like. We talked about how someone in Finland would say that in comparison to someone in Slovenia.

She said that in Finland, if she didn’t like the shirt, she would simply say that she didn’t like it directly: “That shirt doesn’t really suit you.”

In Slovenia, she found that kind of honesty to offend her friends—when she had no mal intent, and was confused and distraught at first, unable to understand what she had done wrong. In Finland, she said it is considered offensive to try to sugarcoat your true opinion—that doing so is akin to being deceptive or lying, rather than being polite.

What was most interesting to me about this conversation was the fact that I’d had the exact opposite reaction to Slovenian culture in general. As opposed to thinking that Slovenians were too polite—I found that many times, I thought that Slovenians were far more direct than I was accustomed to in the U.S.

For example, if I didn’t like the shirt that someone was wearing, I, personally, would never dream of telling someone I didn’t know well that I didn’t like his or her shirt. Even if it was someone I did know well, I might phrase the comment like: “Well, that color looks really great on you. I’m not so sure about the cut of the sleeves, but, I mean, really, the color is really nice.”

I certainly don’t speak for all Americans, but I know more than a few people who would have a similar response for me.

(On a side note, it’s interesting to try to explain that since the population of the U.S. is so large, and the populations of European countries are, in comparison, so small, that it’s nearly impossible to speak on behalf of the entire U.S., even if I wanted to. Actually, I might have a sort of cultural adjustment to make if I moved from New England to a small town in the Deep South, for example, the same way that someone would have to adjust moving from one country to another in Europe). 

In any case, I could tell that my response to the shirt scenario would be confusing to someone like my friend with a very different cultural background. My compliment sandwich—compliment, suggestion of what I really think, then compliment again—would clearly reveal my opinion in an indirect but polite way to someone in the U.S., perhaps. But outside the U.S., it would be confusing or considered rude.

My Finnish friend and I began to muse about the implications about growing up in our respective cultures. What habits of ours were really ours, and what habits were culturally inherited and could be subject to change or adjustment without affecting our character? In other words, what habits made me an American, and what habits simply made me Kristina, a unique American?

We didn’t come to any conclusive answers, but raising the questions began to bridge a lot of the cultural gaps between us. I began to see more clearly, then, why it might be more enjoyable for immigrants to other countries to not mix in with the cultural habits of the native population 100 percent: by not conforming to a new country’s customs in every way, you keep some part of your unique identity.

Of course, reaching out toward natives of a new country, and toward foreigners from countries other than your own, is interesting, eye-opening, and deeply rewarding.

But making friends with someone from a very different background requires not only a common language, but a commitment to not being easily offended, and an ability to brush off remarks that you might not tolerate from people back home.

And it also requires moments of leveling with each other and discussing cultural differences earnestly and honestly—whether that takes the form of a plain and direct statement, or a sort of compliment sandwich.

Published the week of November 15 in the Southbridge Evening News and other Stonebridge Press newspapers.

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