Riding the local subway into Altona Station in Hamburg, a recorded message in German explains that the next station is Altona, that the train terminates in Altona, and that all passengers must disembark. The recorded voice also says, in German, ‘On behalf of the employees of the subway system, we will now say goodbye and we look forward to seeing you next time.’ The voice then switches to English and says, ‘Next station Altona. This train terminates here. All change, please.’ Period. No, the train does not look forward to seeing you next time.
A fine example, I think, of the oft-made decision in Germany to favor truth over social niceties: the recording knows that frequent riders of the train are likely to understand Deutsch, and that riders who understand English but not Deutsch are likely to be occasional or one-time passengers. Why tell the latter group that you are with bated breath awaiting their return?
When I worked at an incredibly busy non-profit women’s health clinic just after college, it was often my job to explain to the increasingly frustrated clientele that there would be a significant wait. I approached this task with as much empathy as I could muster, which, as a 21-year-old liberal arts grad fresh off a woman’s studies concentration who felt as though her work in the clinic was directly challenging the patriarchical, capitalist, anti-immigrant social norm, was a LOT of empathy. I apologized for the wait, I apologized for the crowded waiting room, I apologized for the lack of refreshments, I apologized for the broken healthcare system that made it difficult to access care, I apologized for the wait again, etc. A co-worker, however, approached it in a different way. She said that she was not going to apologize because the wait was not her fault (supply was simply outpaced by demand,) and that any minute spent explaining the wait was a minute not spent on getting people through the lines and into the exam rooms. She said, ‘I’m not going to say I’m sorry when I’m not. Why lie?’ And I, in all my 21-year-old sincerity, thought about it and said, ‘Because it’s nice.’
Rather than take the train’s Deutsch/English discrepancy as the xenophobic slight that was no doubt subconsciously intended, I will simply choose to use it as a reminder that there are always perks to learning the language of a place, and that it is my duty as a parent to teach my children to be polite little liars. I’m confident that this is a task I can manage, even with no help at all from the German transport system.