The woman to my left mutters this under her breath as she searches her wallet for a final Euro. It is a word that is used frequently around here: I hear it almost every day on my bike ride to school, or when children are playing in the streets. Mostly, I hear it from fellow NYU Students, who enjoy the idea of expressing emotions in a multi-cultural way.
It is the German word for “Shit.”
Unlike in New York, Germans don’t seem to curse much. My language barrier may prevent me from understanding them completely, but my experiences thus far have led me to believe that Germans are rather reserved. They seem to mostly keep to themselves, not having the time or patience to bother with insulting others. After all, why would they want to insult people around them? They have better things to do.
The only Germans who may actually utter “Scheiße” in a real-life setting might be a cabdriver rushing through traffic, or children trying to be funny. Generally, however, I haven’t seen many people utter the word.
Cursing culture is not the only difference in communication I have noticed since moving here: The way Berliners use language can be fairly rude, as well. Rarely does someone utter “Entshuldigung” (“Excuse me”) when cutting in front of someone at a bar or in line, and the term “Dankeschön” (a formal way of saying “Thank you”) is only ever uttered by the elderly. The term is so out of fashion in Berlin, it is usually met with an endearing smile, by someone who knows you don’t belong.
This doesn’t stop me, of course; I still shout “Entshuldigung” every time I pass a biker on the road, and I sing “Dankeschön” whenever I speak to a cashier. Sometimes, I even enjoy spitting out “Scheiße” during my long bike rides, when a car cuts me off or the sidewalk feels too close to my liking. But the cultural implications of the word are lost on me; I do not know if my use of the word is welcomed, socially acceptable, or not. I am merely a foreigner; using the few words I know to feel less alienated.
There’s something freeing about being a foreigner: It is socially acceptable for me to mess up with words and phrases, merely because I do not know better. My misuse of words can be seen as either inexcusable (if one believes travel should be limited to the bilingual) or endearing (at least I’m trying to speak!). But, to me, every word feels new. Even if I do not know the proper way to speak, testing the language feels like a passageway into a hidden form of speech, merely because it is not what I am used to.
The woman to my left turns my way with an apologetic smile, so I shake my head and return a smile of my own. She can’t find her change, and she’s holding up the line.
It’s alright; I’ve been in her shoes before. It can be hard to live such a pressing lifestyle.
A few minutes later, she finds her coins and pays. As she leaves, I hope she understood; Just as “Scheiße” can be unnecessary to describe discontent, you don’t always need words to convey sympathy.