I remember the first time I entered a public toilet stall and was greeted with my own personal chamber music concert. The piece was Mozart’s famous ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik,’ energizing and full of determination. As I hovered over the computerized Toto seat, I was full of expectation (for what was yet to come) and also intrigued by the musical accompaniment. Later when I asked my Japanese girlfriend about the music in the stalls, she carefully explained that the ‘modesty music’ allowed women to relax and enjoy their bathroom experience without fearing the embarrassing noises that sometimes break the bathroom bubble. “Ingenious!” I exclaimed.
Modesty has no limits in Japan, a land of conflicting contractions. During my years spent in Japan, I observed groups of Japanese women always covering their mouths when they laughed, or holding their Louis Vuitton or Prada bags behind their miniskirts as they walked up the stairwells in the subway stations. They would always whisper or cover their mouths when they spoke on their cellphones, and they always excused themselves with, “Sumimasen,” (I’m so sorry) when they bumped into me, even when I was the instigator. Their humility and modesty kept them from feeling embarrassed or breaking the social norm. But social norms vary from culture to culture. And it’s always fun to compare and observe, which is what made me wonder, “What do Germans get embarrassed about?”
Because I live with a German, I posed the question to my husband, who nonchalantly declared, “We don’t get embarrassed about anyzing.” “Of course,” I thought. “Why didn’t I realize that?” After I pestered him further by asking, “Really? Nothing at all?” He looked at me as if I were starving dog and threw me a little bone to gnaw on. “Oh, alright,” he relented. Maybe we are embarrassed to be late.” “Of course,” I perked up. “Why didn’t I realize that?” And the more I thought about it, the more I realized he’s right; the only times that I have seen him experience anything close to embarrassment or unease is when we are running late for an appointment, usually because of me. To me 7:00 means I can show up any time between 7:15 and 7:30. To him 7:00 means you show up at 6:45; showing up at 7:00 is too late and embarrassing.
Today, however, I did experience something rare: a blushing German. Had I had the forethought, I would have snapped a photo to show all my friends that Germans do blush and get embarrassed. But alas, I was equally embarrassed, given the situation, so I was too concerned about my own modesty to take note of his. What a missed opportunity!
I will spare you all the gory details but just imagine:
You walk into a German Apotheke (pharmacy) to get a prescription filled. Because the Apotheke is empty, you quickly approach the young man behind the counter, hoping for a quick transaction before anyone new arrives. He greets you and takes your prescription. Although you’re in a bit of a hurry, the young man has all the time in the world. Welcome to Germany! He saunters into the back to pick up your drugs. He returns with two packages and places them on the counter.
At this point, if you were in the U.S., Japan, Canada, or any other civilized country, he would put the drugs discretely into a bag, quietly tell you how to take them, and include a print out of the detailed instructions and let you be on your way. Not so, in Germany.
After he places the drugs on the counter, he asks if you have ever taken them, to which you lean in and whisper, “No.” He seems to misunderstand your whispering as a sign that you are deaf or stupid. He nonchalantly increases his volume as he explains what the drugs are for, how often you should take them, for how long, etc. Of course, he’s saying all this in rapid-fire German and the only word you catch is “Tablette” so you think, “Oh, it’s a tablet that I ingest orally.” You ask him if you can eat it with water or milk. He stares at you, in surprise, as if you have just declared that you will squeeze Preparation H into your mouth a la Cheez Whiz, which, based on your limited German, you may have asked. Realizing that something is ‘lost in translation,’ you do the only thing that comes to mind: you smile. Your smile suddenly interrupts him and he says, “Nein, Sie sollen die nicht essen.” (No, you shouldn’t eat it!). When you ask him where it should be taken, he seems confused and then his face colors a deep red. “OMG!” you think. “I’ve embarrassed him with my stupidity; he’s blushing.” After he explains clearly how, where and how often you are to administer the medication (it’s not a ‘tablet’ as you assumed it to be), you pay the bill, he wishes you a good day, you say, “Ihnen auch!” (You, too) and then you turn to leave.
Suddenly your face colors crimson as you discover a dense line of about 10 customers hovering behind me. They heard everything about what you have, how you will administer your drug, etc., but, surprisingly, they don’t look embarrassed, surprised, or in any way interested in what they just heard. They only look bored and eager to pay for their purchases. However, you’re still feeling hot and embarrassed and wishing you were back in Japan, in your own little bathroom sanctuary, listening to loud Mozart music, drowning out everything embarrassing around you.