Sunday, January 15, 2012

Frickin' Cultural Differences (Censored)

One of the things I like about Switzerland is the sheen of relative innocence. I see it in the way it's safe for kids to walk to school, and in the way I see shade umbrellas at cafes touting the logo for wholesome Ovomaltine (a.k.a. Ovaltine) rather than, say, sexy Campari or a boozy beer brand.

Yet, in Switzerland, I have overheard cute little kids yelling the equivalent of "sh*t" outside or at after-school care, and the locals do not look taken aback. At risk of coming off as prudish, I admit it still seems odd to me.

This has been a frequent cause of surprise for me in expat life - hearing words considered really, really rude in my native language spring forth (usually in German) from the lips of little kids, teachers, neighborhood mommies and daddies. It's not about a slip of the tongue in a harried moment. It just seems like no big deal at all. Even the wonderful children's choir is singing a song containing the word schyssdraegg, which is Swiss German for something I don't think Americans would hear in a kids' choir.

Elsewhere, in the German-language production of Grease, the character nicknamed "Rump" in the original English version (because of his hobby of mooning people) was nicknamed "Arschi" in German. This might be very(!) loosely translated as "*ss Guy." You wouldn't find characters so nicknamed in a musical in the U.S., would you? Fun for the whole family! And in the 1990s, there was a popular song on the radio called (roughly translated from German), "I Think You're Sh*tty."

It's not a Swiss thing, actually, but German. Mark Twain observed a precursor of this phenomenon when he travelled in Germany, noting that you might hear the primmest old ladies uttering phrases that would shock their American counterparts; for example, "Verdammt!" and "Mein Gott!" In the 21st century, the U.S. is a known exporter of crude, rude, violent, profane pop culture (movies, TVs, computer games, music), yet there are still certain expressions considered inappropriate in even moderately polite company, let alone a school setting.

At least it used to be that way... right? Maybe I've been away from the U.S. too long, and all the babies crawl around cussing nowadays. Or, if I had to do a quick analysis (and risk making annoying generalizations), I might chalk it up to the stereotypical traits of openness or bluntness in German and superficiality or keeping up appearances in the U.S. It would be equivalent to the habit, more often observed stateside, of acting warm and friendly towards strangers even if people don't really mean it. (Clearly this doesn't happen all the time, but it seems more common in the States than here!) Americans might be doing more of their swearing privately and putting on a show of good manners. We all know what's being said when Jon Stewart or a rap sing get bleeped, but people must still need that bleeping and somehow feel like the material is okay if it's bleeped and otherwise not okay.  

I wonder if this is a German vs. English thing, and if so, does it apply only to American English? Have you noticed the phenomenon? What do you notice in other cultures? Would people find it normal in the U.S. to hear a younger kid shouting a curse word? Are you teaching your kids that swearing is no big deal, or are you strict about it? I'd %#(*ing love to hear all your opinions, dear readers!


  1. I finally gave up on not swearing in front of my kids. I blame it on the Doha traffic but take full responsibility for it. I simultaneously decided to teach them that while it's okay for me to say some of the things I say while driving in a car with the windows rolled up, it is not okay to say these same words with the windows rolled down or when people other than family and close friends are around. The reason I give them is that when you use those words you look stupid and other people see them as deeply offensive.

    What I don't understand is why the word shit is considered more offensive than the word poop. It's all the same thing, just society putting a meaning on that particular arrangement of letters. I think I may have to piggy-back this post with one of my own. Great questions!

  2. Here's what I wrote about this topic a few years ago:

  3. Don't worry about that words... Don't you think that people can be really rude using just "nice" words? The intention speaking makes the difference. For example: if you said to a very ugly person: "How good-looking you are! is worse that just saying: "You are ugly"? It depends on the intonation... No problem with those words you talk about. In Spain we use it over and over again and noone makes a fuss, it lacks importance!! Will anyone be better person for not using them?

    1. That's a good point! There is much more to being a good person than using certain words or not. Still... I sometimes wonder if cursing around certain people is just using those words that don't *really* matter? Or is there some basic level of respect I should do a better job of teaching my daughter? It's a little like table manners. I actually don't care if my daughter and I stab our food and gnaw at it from the fork like Neanderthals. But my daughter had better understand *how* to have nice manners and when they are needed, out of respect for other people.

      Andrew, that was very, very funny.

      Kooki, also a good question.... I guess it's arbitrary at some point, like someone had to decide which coin had to represent 5 francs and which was 1 franc. There's cold, chily and freezing; azure and cornflower blue and navy. There just has to be a word that represents what we feel when we say sh*t and one for what poop means, I guess.

      I remember, I think, William Safire saying that the best reason to be circumspect with swear words is that if we overuse them, there will be nothing left that REALLY means F*#@ when you need to say it! (It's a hazy memory and I may be completely misquoting Safire - but that idea has stayed with me.)

  4. I recently saw the version of Austen's "Persuasion" with Sally Hawkins playing the lead. It was amazing to see how cruel people can be to each other as long as they maintain a veneer of politeness. And not one "rude" word was ever used!