Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Gritty Politeness

Americans are a friendly lot.  The Viennese -- not as much.  Polite?  Yes.  Cordial?  Sometimes.  But friendly and warm?  Pragmatic and blunt are more like it.  Waiters in restaurants don't introduce themselves by name (first or last) and they don't tell you they'll "be taking care of you this evening."  The customer-vendor transaction rarely is -- or becomes -- personal.  Diners don't care what the server's name is, where he/she is from, and that they're aspiring to be a reality TV star, doctor, or both.  Shopping for clothes is a similar experience:  it is a rare occurrence if a salesperson approaches you and volunteers to help you find a particular color, size, or style.  If you need help, you ask.  Nordstrom this isn't.  This isn't to say, however, the Viennese aren't helpful -- they are when called upon (usually) -- but they have no interest in feigning over-the-top friendliness just to make a sale.  This was a bit jarring at times but once we got used to it, we began to like it.  Turns out this frosty politeness is, according to the Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, an Austrian stereotype:  "First of all, they are very polite and second, they don't mean it."  In the first 3:15 of the clip posted below from the Conan O'Brien talk show, Waltz explains the differences between Germans and Austrians as well as stereotypes the Austrians as insincerely polite.  We don't know whether or not the stereotype is offensive to an Austrian but at least the brusqueness -- much like the customer service -- isn't personal.

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