Are You a Coconut or a Peach?: Austrian vs. American Friendship
“I remember your very first village festival here”, an Austrian friend said to me at the same annual festival in Upper Austria this past weekend. “That must have been really hard for you.”
“What do you mean?” I replied, surprised, not used to this level of empathy from my Austrian husband’s more devil-may-care friends.
“Because you were brand-new. And Austrians don’t really talk to people they don’t know.”
Well, you can say that again. My first few months in Austria were very hard for me. Not because of homesickness or the German language (although it did take me a long time to figure out what the heck people meant when they shouted Pfia di at me from afar*), but for another reason altogether: Austrians are coconuts. And I come from a land of peaches.**
Me at the Village Festival in 2019
Confused? Stay with me here. Imagine a coconut. A hard, brown shell on the outside, very difficult to break through (I speak from experience – I recently saw a waiter try and try to get the milk out of a particularly stubborn coconut in Costa Rica – it didn’t look easy). But once you finally do make it through that hard Austrian exterior – after years of shared experiences, long conversations about non-personal topics, etc. – you’re rewarded with a sweet milky center – or a true friend for the rest of your life.
And then there’s the American peach. While the skin of a peach is easy to pierce – meaning Americans are friendly to anybody and everybody – you still have to crack that hard inner pit to become our true friend. Just because we’re nice to you doesn’t mean we’re friends for life – which is hard for the Austrians to understand.
Let’s Talk About The Outer Barriers
In Austria, it’s very hard to get past the protective barrier – or the coconut shell – of a person. The Austrians are more closed off, more reserved, and not very interested in chatting up strangers on the street. Or a new person to a group, for that matter. When I was first meeting all of my husband’s friends back in 2011, my first impression was that they had absolutely no interest in me. Almost no one*** asked me where I was from, how I was liking Austria, how many siblings I had, etc.
Now, to be clear, not one person was ever mean or rude to me – as the girlfriend of one of their own, I was accepted into the group – but if I didn’t join in on the conversation myself, contributing my own two cents to whatever topic was being discussed (soccer, soccer, Obama, soccer), I wouldn’t say anything the entire night. That coconut shell is hard to break through.
Let’s cross the pond to the soft peaches of America. We, with our soft peach skin, let people in easily – at least at surface level. As weird as it was for me that no one asked me questions in Austria, it was the same level of weirdness for my Austrian husband his first year in America. He first met my family Easter weekend, when he came with me to my giant family party. And when I say giant, I mean giant. My mom has ten brothers and sisters (that’s why you need to ask people how many siblings they have, Austrians – it could be interesting!), and our Easter party consists of all ten of them, all of their spouses, all of their children, and their children’s significant others. 50 people, minimum. Now, that’s a lot of peaches for one Austrian coconut. Especially one who was just relearning English.
My family is known for being friendly – we are from the Midwest, after all – and they all wanted to make sure my new Austrian boyfriend felt welcome at our party. “How do you like America?” “How do you like St. Louis?” “What are you studying?” “Did you try the ham?” and of course “How many siblings do you have?” flew at him like arrows from all 50 members of the family, non-stop throughout the nine-hour family party. Needless to say, my coconut – who was not used to people he didn’t know asking him personal questions – was a little overwhelmed (but don’t worry family, he still liked you).
In Austria, people were trying to show me respect by not asking me questions – asking a person about their private life when you don’t know them simply is not done. You’re not through their outer shell yet, and they’re not through (what they perceive as) yours. Whereas in America, it’s the opposite – if you don’t ask a person questions and include them in the conversation, it’s seen as rude, or self-involved. Which is why I spent a lot of time whimpering teary-eyed to my Austrian husband that first year in Austria, wondering why no one was even trying to get to know me. I hadn’t learned about the peaches and the coconuts yet.
And The Inner Barriers
While the asking of so many questions may be overwhelming for Austrians, they do tend to – originally – think the Americans are kind and extremely friendly. An Austrian friend who had just made his first trip to America this year told me enthusiastically, “Everyone there was so nice! I was in a men’s bathroom – a bathroom! – and a guy next to me asked me how I was doing, heard my accent, and then asked me where I was from! He cared where I was from – a stranger in a bathroom!”
or, from others:
“We were lost in Boston, looking at a map, and three different people came up to us and asked us if we needed help. And we didn’t even know them!”
or, from yet others:
“We met some friends of a friends at a party, and they said, “Hey, you’ll have to come for dinner sometime!” even though we had just met them! So friendly!”
For Austrians, who are used to their fellow countrymen basically ignoring their personal lives or not issuing many invitations until they’ve breached the inner sanctum of the coconut, the openness and warmth of Americans is hard to believe – but they do like it. Humans are humans, after all, and most people enjoy when other people are nice to them.
But Then The Problems Start
Since Austrians wouldn’t be this warm and open with people until they’ve really become friends with them, they tend to think that, if an American says, “Hey, you’ll have to come for dinner sometime!”, they are now really friends with these Americans. They’ve breached the inner shell, and they are rather excited. A new friend for life – and in America, no less!
But when the American never calls with that dinner invitation, the Austrians are shocked – and extremely disappointed. They thought they had a new friend. And plans. That’s when they begin to think the Americans are superficial – friendly on the outside, but not really meaning it on the inside (you have no idea how often I have heard the phrase “Americans are rather superficial, aren’t they?” in Austria). And they begin to get disillusioned with all that friendly small talk that they find originally found so charming.
But It’s All About Expectations
So is one better than the other? Is it better to be a bit colder to strangers, but at least know that someone really means it if they ask you to hang out? Or is it better to be friendly to everyone, but take it with a grain of salt when people issue invitations?
For me, I think it’s all about expectations. I don’t agree with the Austrians that Americans are superficial. I see how it can seem that way, especially coming from a culture of coconuts. But for us peaches, we’re used to it. We know that when the cashier at the grocery store asks us how we are doing, she doesn’t really want to know – she’s just making conversation (and it’s actually proven that engaging in conversation with strangers, however meaningless it may be, does make you happier). We know that if someone says “Hey, we’ll have to get together sometime!”, it means something like it would be nice if we could get together, but it may not actually happen. We’ll see how things turn out later. It’s an inner code of language, and all of us Americans are in on the secret.
But for the Austrians, who haven’t grown up knowing this code, of course its disappointing when nothing ever comes of an invitation they were excited to receive. I totally get it. Just as I was sad when no one asked me questions upon my arrival in Austria, they are sad when Americans don’t follow through with what they suggested.
That’s why understanding a culture is so important. If Americans in Austria know that the lack of personal questions is not because Austrians aren’t interested in them, but because they are trying to respect the person’s privacy, then maybe they wouldn’t feel as rejected as I originally felt. And if Austrians in America know that while Americans are friendly in nature, just because someone is nice to you doesn’t mean you have automatically surpassed all the levels of nurturing a new friendship, then maybe they wouldn’t think Americans are superficial – and they can take the American friendliness for what it is – kindness.
So, whether you are Austrian or American, remember that we all value human connection and friendship – the path to get there just looks a little different depending on where we grew up. Here’s to friendship and Freundschaft – for peaches and coconuts alike!
*Pfia di is an Austrian phrase meaning “Goodbye”. Definitely not the “auf Wiedersehen” I learned in school.
**This comparison was created by Kurt Lewin, a culture specialist.
*** Things were a little different with my husband’s immediate family. They did ask me questions and try to get to know me – as the shell with immediate family members seems to be less prevalent.