A funny thing happened the other day. I was in Starbucks to get some to go coffee for an afternoon break down by the river on a particularly sunny afternoon with my Swiss colleague (don’t judge me, I swear Starbucks is a rare occurrence. But sometimes I just have a yen for that filter coffee). I asked the woman behind the counter in German what the difference between 2 types of coffee was, and she gleefully went off a long catalogue of frothing and milk proportion differences. It dawned on me quickly that this woman was American, which is not a normal occurrence in service jobs- to get a work visa as a non-EU worker you need to have some seriously sought after skills, and as important as coffee brewing is, there are quite a few qualified candidates right here in Switzerland.
So after her little monologue, I politely placed my drink order and then, switching to English, asked where she was from. Florida, as it turns out. She didn’t seem surprised by the question, either- she had clearly also realized I was American, although I had only spoken one sentence, and that in German.
We exchanged a little small talk about how we ended up here, but she had to move on to the person behind me in line, and my friend and I moved on to the little coffee doctoring station where we did our usual pre-coffee rituals. My friend was amazed, however.
“How did you know that she was American?! Her German was perfect! I never would have guessed from what she said that she wasn’t a native speaker.”
I didn’t really have a good answer, and it is certainly not the first time that such a thing has happened. I can often tell another American, particularly if they are my own age, just from walking down the street without a word being spoken. After this little encounter, I conducted a brief survey of my colleagues of various nationalities to see if they have the same experience, and it seems many to some degree have. (Although I did get some protests, particularly from my Australian and British friends, that they avoid their fellow countrymen like the devil and so largely can’t make any comment. I will not overinterpret this statement ;))
Humans are just humans no matter where you go in the world- the same hopes, fears, petty grievances, gossip, and laughter. This is absolutely true, and I think a lot of our societal problems would disappear if we all could just grasp that on a fundamental level. But where we grow up DOES influence us, does affect the way we communicate, our sense of humor, our outlook on life, even the way we look to some degree. Why are we able to recognize our compatriots, sometimes without even knowing why? Why have so many people told me that I have “an American smile?” There are so many unnameable things that go into making a person who they are- sometimes I wonder how much of any of us is a product of where we grew up, the commercials we watched, the newspapers we read, the shape of the world we lived in.