Recently, my partner and I traveled to another city to celebrate a friend’s birthday party. On the way there, we met another person who was also traveling to the same party. I had never met him before, but my partner had, so we struck up a conversation on the way to our final destination.
We had been talking for about 15 minutes or so – in German – when it was mentioned that there would be someone at the party who generally prefers to speak in English, since they’re still working on their German.
“Well, Tori will be happy for that,” my partner commented in German. “She’s always happy when she has a chance to speak to someone in English.”
In that moment my heart sank. I felt oddly betrayed. Why? Because I knew from that point on, the acquaintance’s demeanor toward me would change. I wasn’t just someone’s partner anymore, someone that you can banter with about random topics. I was now The Foreigner, soon to be specifically revealed as The American, and that meant the perfectly pleasant, neutral conversation we were having was over. Now we had to talk about Foreigner Things.
Once it was out there, the normal questions came. Where am I from? How long have I been in Germany? Why did I come over? Would I rather speak English?
And of course, absolutely none of these questioners were mean-spirited. Quite the contrary, all the questions were polite and expressed genuine interest – as is usually the case; I’ve never actually met a German who has a problem with me being foreign in general or American in particular. But the politeness doesn’t change the fact that the longer I spend here, the more I hate being “outed” as a foreigner at the start of conversations rather than having the chance to control for myself when and where this information is divulged.
This all may sound a little controlling or paranoid. What’s the big deal, you might wonder. Chances are people can figure out for themselves that I’m foreign based on my accent or other mannerisms (this post is not meant to imply that that I am SO good at German that no one notices i’m not a native speaker, because that’s definitely not the case). My foreignness isn’t some great secret to hide.
The issue for me stems from my desire to have people get to know me first as, well, me. Not as The Foreigner or The American. Because the second people find out a detail like that, they immediately start adopting preconceived notions of what kind of a person you probably are.
Foreign? Ok, she probably doesn’t speak German very well. She must have come here to be with her German husband. I bet she works in a really internationally-focused job where they speak English all day. I guess if I start talking to her I should weave in some jokes about German bureaucracy?
American? Ok, she almost certainly doesn’t speak German well – if she does at all. I bet she came here because her great-great-great-grandfather was German or something – Americans are obsessed with that. She must find it really hard to live over here – I bet she thinks a lot about going back. I should make a Trump joke to see how she reacts — maybe she’s one of those Americans?!
Based on these assumptions, one of two things is likely to happen. The first is that people avoid talking to me altogether, mostly because they assume that because I am foreign, I can't really speak German and perhaps they don’t feel like speaking English. The second, and admittedly more common occurrence, is that learning about my background naturally leads into the standard set of questions about where I’m from, how I’ve ended up here, when did I start learning German, and if I think I’ll ever go back to the U.S. (I have a lot of feelings in particularly about that last question, but that needs a separate blog post). They’re all perfectly reasonable questions that I don’t usually mind answering, except it gets exhausting and more than a little monotonous to have every social interaction follow the same script: I’ve been speaking German for 10 years; no, I didn’t move here because I fell in love; no, I don’t have any German ancestry; no, I’m not going to move back — and no, it’s not just because Trump is president. These conversations tend to leave me feeling that the most interesting thing about me is that pure luck decided I would be bestowed an American passport.
So what’s different when I get to control when in a conversation my foreignness is brought up? In those cases, I actually have a chance to start getting to know people as more of a tabula rasa. We can start the conversation with things we have in common – for example, whatever the reason is we’re in the same room. Or about neutral topics, like work, relationships, television, music. Or we can be more ambitious and talk about politics – without any initial assumptions that because I’m American, I must not understand a certain issue or that surely I have a typically American opinion on something. Whatever the topic, I have a chance to establish who I actually am separate from my nationality and all of the assumptions that come with it.
It’s worth noting that this is an extremely privileged position to be in among foreigners in Germany. Why? Because that fact that I am annoyed at being “outed” means that I actually otherwise have a chance at passing for German and not immediately being identified as foreign. For people who look visibly non-European, they don’t even have the chance to avoid their heritage as a topic of conversation – it’s front and center.
I also don’t want any of this to suggest that no one should ever ask me about my experiences living here as a non-German. That is absolutely untrue, and it’s a subject I’m often happy to talk about if people are curious. But what I want to avoid is for interactions with new people to follow a uniform script, or to be guided by assumptions people have made without actually getting to know me. Of course, if a conversation does start that way, it doesn’t mean I have no chance of forming a non-superficial relationship with that person. But regardless, I feel more at ease, and more natural, when I get to start talking with people about normal, everyday topics, rather than beginning by zeroing in on the one thing that makes me different from everyone else in the room. And that feels like a better basis for starting off relationships.
Here’s another anecdote to close things: A couple weeks ago, I attended a conference abroad for work. I ended up spending a decent amount of time with one of the only other Germans in attendance (counting myself as a German here, since I was there representing my German employer). We chatted during the day – it was oddly comforting for me to speak German while so far from home – and then met up for dinner, where we continued our conversations, mostly about our work and the fields of interest we share. It wasn’t until about 45 minutes into dinner that he started to ask questions about where I am from / what my personal background it. And at that point, I was more than happy to answer his curious questions – because I wasn’t being treated as The American. Instead, I was being treated as a professional peer who happened to have an uncommon background.
And that’s exactly how I want my foreignness to be treated in social circles: it is absolutely a relevant part of me, but it is not what defines me. By all means, ask me about being American, my experiences living in Germany, or my opinions on how Germany compares to the U.S. But when it comes to first impressions, give me a chance to set the tone.