How do you know if Americans genuinely/literally mean what they say?

  • I have come across a few situations when an American will say something like "We should have lunch some time" or "Let's have lunch some time." Or "you should come down to visit me in D.C. (or Miami or wherever"); we have great museums (or Cuban food or whatever)."

    It turns out though that more often than not they don't really mean it. Because if I then immediately follow up with "Oh how about lunch tomorrow?" or "Oh will you be in Miami in early December? I could come by then.", they usually start getting evasive and awkward, and back out of what seemed like an invitation that they just made.

    How can I tell when Americans genuinely/literally mean what they say, especially in the aforementioned situations?

    Perhaps this is common not just to American culture but also to some other cultures across the world, but it was (and still is) very puzzling to me and I am still trying to figure it out.

    In Egypt we actually have a name for this kind of invitation "boat owner invitation". This comes from a story where two boat owners meet in the middle of the sea and they shout to one another each inviting the other to come over. Of course both of them know it is impossible, yet they have to do it because it is being polite.

    Is it just me or don't you folks find it annoying when someone uses the word *literally* when they should be using *figuratively*. The usage in the title is correct.

    @RenaeLider One of the dictionary definitions of "literally" is now literally "not literally". Heh.

    I don't get why people feel ***really*** bad about people using literally as an intensifier. It's not like it's never happened before. It's not even a ***really*** big change like the divergence of terrific and terrible (that did not happen to horrific and horrible). Whatever word we start using to replace really once again will end up being used as an intensifier, like really before it and like literally now. "Correct" is for pedants who don't have quite enough facts.

    I'm from the USA, and this drives me nuts. People just want to pretend that they care without actually trying to care.

    this sort of social behavior is in no way specific to the usa

    Funny, question, does this mean that Americans then simply closet Brits? ;) This question really reminds me of this handy guideline that might apply to americans as well:

    I am told that the Japanese are absolutely notorious for doing this. I took classes in Japanese language and even textbooks would tell you this. I think it's just a matter of fulfilling expectations for how people are expected to conduct themselves. To make things even more confusing, the Japanese also customarily refuse an invitation and the inviter has to ask again if he is sincere.

    In Europe, espeically in the central and eastern parts, this is very differenlty handled between rural and urban areas. In the city I was used to how cookies and drinks were offered to guests: I offer them, and they either accept or refuse. If they refulse, I maybe offer it once again, but that's it. In villages, they always refuse, you must offer it again, they refuse it again and again, and they expect from you to almost force them to take some.

    The same has happened to me, several times in the UK

    @ceejayoz Definitions are only as good as the people writing them. I prefer the one given here. See also the usage notes here. This is anything but new.

    @Wlerin I literally exploded with rage when I saw them redefine literally as "not literally" myself. :-p

    I am curious about knowing a culture where people always mean what they say.

    Please keep in mind that the comments are not the place for extensive discussions. Keep that to the chat.

    It's true, when Americans say this type of thing, it's just politeness, they don't really mean it. Generally, when an American really means something they will put exact dates and times right at the moment. They will try to get you to agree to a specific meeting right then.

    This can differ coast to coast. Some areas of the US do this often, others do it rarely. It is mostly a social thing.

    Judging from the comments, it's a worldwide thing, only with intensity varying between regions. It introduces ineffectiveness and is effectively hypocrisy (implies you think the peer doesn't deserve or is incapable to embrace the truth), so the gradually upcoming "new sincerity" culture advises against it.

    Apparently, this wasn't always like this. Russian writers I.Ilf and E.Petrov wrote in their *"One-storeyed America"* (they visited the USA around 1920s, I believe) they were shocked the Americans they met actually *did* mean what they said when making invitations and carried out the necessary arrangements in some cases, much to their astonishment. They didn't specify though if this was the case with the invitations they actually *accepted* (I'm sure the authors paid next to no attention to this).

    As a german I loved this the most in Japan, where a 'No' is said by the pause between question and the following "Yes'. Short pause, it really means yes. Long pause and it meant no.

    It annoys me that this question doesn't include where the OP is from. Apparantly it assumes some cultural difference between Americans and another culture, but we don't know which other culture.

    @popovitsj: Then you will also be annoyed by many other questions on this site, which are also about specific cultural traits and in which the OP does not identify his/her country of origin. I think that based on the answers and comments here, it is fair to say that at least some substantial portion of the world differs from the US in this particular respect. Suffice it to say that I am from that 'substantial portion of the world'.

    I don't believe for a second that this is a specific cultural aspect of Americans. Your notion of an abstract "substantial portion of the world" seems rather farfetched to me. Is it a big secret where you're from? What's the deal with that? It would simply help to make the question more concrete and more apt for decent answers. The current top answer actually assumes that the question is asked from a German perspective.

    @mosaad: Would that be "عزومة مراكبية"?

    @hippietrail exactly :)

    99% if the time, they don't. Our culture says that 1 word of truth must be surrounded by 100 words of fluff(useless words and promises)

  • Thorsten S.

    Thorsten S. Correct answer

    6 years ago

    There is an essay which explains the difference between "polite" and "direct" cultures. First of all: For members of the Anglosphere like Americans, Britons and Canadians the Germans are using the term "Angelsachsen" (Anglo-Saxons) which is slightly different from the meaning in English, it especially has a more humorous connotation like "Teuton" for Germans. As it is used extensively in the original essay, the original author suggest the use of "English speaker" as translation, be aware of the difference. The essay describes the cultural difference between English speakers (polite) and Germans (direct) very well in German. I translated the essay with help from other people, especially the user Semicolon, because it seems to gather much interest.

    Why Americans (Brits, Canadians) do not say what they mean
    translated by Thorsten Siebenborn with permission
    of the original author Scot W. Stevenson, a German-American
    "Hey, how are you" asks an American -- and is surprised when his German friend tells him that his pet ferret was killed by a car. "Just come on over sometime!" said the Briton and is aghast when the German sometime later really stands before his door. English speakers do not always mean what they say; Germans, in contrast, almost always do. If those two cultures come together, there are some more problems than just the handshake [Translator: Short addition to the essay: Germans shake hands and subconsciously slightly bow their head, Americans don't => Americans are arrogant, Germans are cute].

    Cultures from the Anglosphere are speaking with a cultural code which demands politeness. For example, it is considered crude to answer directly with "no." Therefore they use phrases that every other English speaker understands as "no," yet do not mean "no". (Dear women: Some problems with "no" seem more influenced by gender than culture. I am sorry.)

    When a woman asks her best girlfriend if a specific dress fits her, should the friend be German she may answer with a grimace: "You? Not really" or "I don't know if that really fits you." An American woman would be more apt to answer, "Wouldn't blue be a better fit to your eyes?" -- which means you are looking like an anorexic scarecrow with a drug problem -- while a German girl asking would get the inkling that they are talking past each other. "Eyes? Why is she blathering about my eyes? I want to know if my butt juts out!"

    Other examples: During a discussion with Americans, "I wonder if this is really the best solution" means "no." Likewise, "I'm wondering if we need more time" or "we might want to review some parts of the project" are also negative. Americans are perplexed (or simply angry) when Germans, after a short reflection, respond, "Nope, it's ok" and simply continue. From the American's point of view, the message was clear.

    The rules are valid for the daily routine, too. A polite Canadian won't tell you that he does not like a present because it seems to him to be indecent as it could hurt your feelings. And that is -- we are coming to the central point of the story -- in case of doubt, more important than the truth. For this reason he or she tells you -- if ever -- encoded in indirect language, and because the gift-giver is expected to know the code, he understands and everything remains polite. Not without good reason there exist the terms "little white lie" and "polite lie," which are significantly weaker even than "white lie": these are culturally accepted, even culturally mandated lies.

    This prompts the question of how Britons & co. react if they really like the present. In short: they freak out. "Look, honey, I wanted this since I was seven, no, I mean, before I was born, wait until the neighbours see that, oh my goodness!" There will be many, many, many thanks. This day will rest in his memory forever and he will tell his grandchildren about it and it will be chiseled on his tombstone, etc. If you are German and you begin to have the feeling that it's getting embarassing and you begin to suspect that your counterpart is pulling your leg, all was correct.

    While happy English speakers are a bit strenuous for Germans, the reverse situation is more serious. An American who gives a German a present is almost always crestfallen because Germans never flip out. In the codebook of an English speaker, a completely normal German "Thank you very much" is a sign that the present was not liked. The author needed to comfort several saddened English speaking compatriots coming back from a date with German woman: "She didn't like my present! What did I do wrong? I don't understand." Erm, no, she really liked it, but she is a German. They are that way. Marry her nonetheless.

    And now the part which may be uncomfortable for interested readers: The rules are still compulsory for English speakers in foreign countries. "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything" has been hammered into their minds as children and so they will hold their tongue about anything negative during their time as a guest. Criticism as a guest is one of the most grievous offenses of politeness.

    For that reason it's impossible to find out what English speakers really think about Germany. If they are well-mannered, they will always say that it is wonderful. Amazing. Great! Any other response would be a catastrophic breach of manners on par with using the tablecloth as a handkerchief and chopsticks as cotton swabs.

    For Germans this is frustrating. After the guest has been in a new country for some time, the German would expect that there a things which their guest don't find to be as good as in their home country -- naturally. It's expected in Germany to mention such things "honestly" because it shows that you have a "sophisticated" opinion about the world and a cultivated and critical mind. People who find everything super, great and wonderful are considered dumb, gullible and superficial -- the last one is, not without reason, the leading German prejudice about Americans. From a certain American view it could be considered a compliment.

    Such cultural differences are known to most Germans in regards to countries like Japan, where "no" only exists in a dictionary because the communication police demand it. For unknown reasons they don't expect it from Britons and Americans. It's also not taught in English classes, which remains a complete mystery for the author. As an exercise I ask the reader to imagine normal German au pair pupils in London, New York or Ottawa. They will all be asked "How did you like your stay?" -- and every year, thousands of unsuspecting German children will run straight into the cultural knife.

    When Germans in frequent contact with English speakers become aware of the code, they're prone to panic. Every sentence and statement will be dissected: Does he mean it or is he polite? What do I do now? I want the codebook!

    You need to realize that you just won't know some things. A good host will always give the impression that life has changed a bit. If you cannot cope with that you need to follow their train of thoughts, put yourself in their position and trust your empathy. If you are guest, please spare your criticism for your diary and concentrate your honest praise on one point -- at least, as honest as possible. It was different means it was terrible, so you cannot escape easily.

    A rule of thumb is the principle I explained above -- behavior that looks like overstating is more than politeness (though be careful with Americans who live in Germany long enough and now know what to expect). There is a helpful "three times rule": If an English speaker tells you something three times ("Please come visit us again!") or enough times that you are irritated, you can safely assume it is honest. One time means nothing.

    In the end you should know: No one expects a foreign guest to exhibit completely correct social behavior. Most Americans know that Germans are, erm, more "direct". If you don't mind fulfilling stereotypes, you have a certain leeway to handle things.

    If you know the rules or are at least aware of their existence, you could break them on purpose. The most beautiful German [Translator: His wife.] sometimes uses the introduction "I am German, so I am sorry if this seems to be a direct question," which causes immediate blood freezing of every English speaker in hearing distance. Ist der Ruf erst ruiniert... [Translator: German idiomatic expression meaning that once your reputation is ruined, you can stop worrying about what other people think.]

    He advises that in addition to Max's answer about necessary included information in your interaction that repeating it several times is an indicator of genuineness. Three times is almost binding; once is simple politeness.

    Another thing is that in polite cultures real happiness and agreement are likely to look overstated in general. If the person in question does not change much from his usual politeness, it means nothing; if you get the impression that he/she is out of control for happiness, it really might mean "Yes".

    He also added that if you ask for something where a negative answer contradicts politeness ("Did you really enjoy your holiday here?") you won't get an honest answer and you really must look for empathy.

    I will add some general information because the blog author is quite astounded that people in Western countries expect that other people in Western countries act the same. They do not.

    People in more "direct" cultures like Netherlands, Germany or Russia are quite simple. Yes means Yes, No means No. As noone is expected to adjust his mood for other people, people are looking sad if they are sad and if they are happy they look happy.

    What you are saying will be assumed to be true.
    If you as "Anglo-Saxon" say: "Just come on over sometime!" it means that you literally invited people to visit you at home !
    "Hidden" No's are likely to remain unnoticed. A "I wonder if this is really the best solution" means "I'm ok with that, but I think over if we can find a better solution later". You will be ignored.

    For people from more direct cultures it is quite vexing because you are operating outside cultural norms (which can be in fact very different in polite cultures) and if you know the difference you must always ask yourself: "Does he/she mean it" ?
    For people from polite cultures people from direct cultures appear to be rude, dismissive and obnoxious. A "No, please redo this parts again" which means in a direct culture "Quite ok, but this part needs some polish" is a complete disgrace and dismissal in a polite culture.

    Speaking as a Brit, I think the author you cite at length is projecting American culture onto the British. It's true that we understate criticism, but we also understate praise and thanks.

    How do you actually say in American/British "I'm okay with that but let's think later on if we can find a better solution" then?

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM