Before I moved to Austria, I had only ever lived in a single culture. As such, I believed the rules of etiquette to be fairly ironclad. Allowing for differences between generations, and different class and social backgrounds, there are certain customs and behaviors that I just believed to be GOOD, RIGHT, and POLITE, in an absolute sense, and those that were not.
It’s been an uncomfortable adjustment to realize that’s not true.
The issues that a society emphasizes as polite are pretty arbitrary. Well, probably not entirely arbitrary, because I’m sure they have a history and come from something, but they are incredibly subjective. Things that at home would be incredibly rude, like cutting in line or spitting on the sidewalk, are commonplace here, while things we take for granted in the US as acceptable, like running late for an appointment or wearing yoga pants to the grocery store, are gauche in Vienna.
The little things like that you adjust to quickly (I haven’t worn my yoga pants outside of the house in years — not even to walk the dog), but there are other things that are tremendously difficult to let go of, even though I know they make me weird.
For example, earlier this month, B was invited to a birthday party by a kid in his class. Liam was not. We RSVPed that B would be there (which is weird enough — Austrians don’t really RSVP, and if they do, they don’t feel bound by it, nor any obligation to inform you if their answer changes either way), but didn’t mention Liam, because he wasn’t invited. The party was for the child who last year came to B’s birthday party … unexpectedly (to me) accompanied by his older brother who we had never met. Part of me really wanted to assume that this probably meant that Liam was supposed to be invited to this party, too, but I just couldn’t. Though by Austrian standards, it was probably a safe assumption, I just couldn’t let go of my deeply ingrained reverence for the intention of an invitation. The issue became irrelevant when Liam busted his lip open the day before the party, because he certainly couldn’t attend a McDonald’s birthday party an open wound on his mouth.
But, as it turns out, he WAS “secretly” invited. Well, secret from my perspective. The hosts asked where he was and had a goody bag ready for him. I’m quite certain that an Austrian mom would have read the situation correctly (and, if she hadn’t, no one would have really cared, because while bringing an uninvited child to a birthday party in the US would be a faux pas, it just isn’t a big deal here).
Another example came up this week. It was B’s last week of school, and after 3 years in the same class, I wanted to do something special to thank the teachers. I agonized over gifts (Dan finally helped me think of something good) and spent at least an hour composing heartfelt notes to each teacher in German. But … I don’t think they really do that here. B’s teachers have kind of gotten used to me with the Christmas gifts and the year-end thank you gifts, but I’ve definitely gotten the impression that, although the gesture is appreciated, the strangeness of it makes it a little uncomfortable for them. I’ve checked, and it’s not forbidden or anything that they receive gifts from the parents . . . they just generally don’t.
I give the gifts anyway. I know it’s odd the way I do things, and it’s certainly not my desire to be weird or to make anyone uncomfortable, but I can’t let it go — it’s all I have. I know (reasonably well) how to be polite and gracious as an American. I have very little idea of how to be a polite Austrian. So if I were to stop doing my weird American things, I would JUST be a slightly rude person by Austrian standards. This way, I’m STILL slightly rude by Austrian standards, but I at least get comfort by being reasonably polite by American standards, even if no one else here really gets it.