Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Schwäbische Komplimente / Swabian compliments

The Schwaben (Swabians) are known for their thrift. Pages and pages of jokes are devoted to this personality trait, though the same jokes are told about Scots and other thrifty folk. I'm totally confused about the geological origin of the Grand Canyon, for instance, because I've read that a Schwob lost a Deutsche Mark there, but also that a Scotsman went digging for a coin he dropped.

While there is much printed about Swabian frugality and thrift, there is less to be found about another type of restraint I've noticed and M and I have discussed quite often: the Swabian tendency to be sparing when it comes to compliments and praise. They are industrious at work and at home, and they don't expect to be praised for doing what needs to be done. I come from a place where, if no one lavishes praise on the cook and moons over how tender the meat is, how nicely-seasoned the vegetables are, and how fluffy the mashed potatoes are, the assumption is that the meal isn't very good. Here in the Ländle, "Net g'motzt isch Lob genug" (a lack of complaining is praise enough). The sense, I suppose, is similar to "Well, I didn't say I didn't like it, did I?" Going back a ways to traditional gender roles, at the end of a meal if her husband's plate was empty and he didn't grumble about anything, the Swabian housewife could be satisfied that dinner was good enough. If she dared to dig for praise by inquiring, "Hat's g'schmeckt?" (Did you like it?), she likely heard something along the lines of "Der Hunger treibt's 'nonder" (hunger gets it down). M and I have turned that into our way of saying to each other, "That was  DELICIOUS!!"  :-)

I've also heard "S'isch gange" and "Mr hat's esse könne," both of which mean "I managed to get it down." Ah, the Swabian compliment...

When dining out in the Ländle, when your server sees you've finished eating he or she will collect your plate and ask, "War's recht?" (Was it all right?). If it was one of the most delicious meals you've had in a long time, the appropriate response is, "Sehr gut, danke" (Very good, thank you). If the meal was merely good, then you can say, "Ja, war recht." (Yes, it was fine). More praise than that will come across to the Schwob as fake and insincere, and the Schwaben can't stand insincerity. Their chef is supposed to provide you with a delicious meal. He spent several years in school learning how to cook, and several more years working as an apprentice in someone else's kitchen. He should be good at what he's paid to do, and he doesn't need your accolades. Just finish your meal so he doesn't have to throw any food in the garbage. I'm pretty sure the "Clean Plate Club" originated in the Schwabenland.

This topic has come up in our English lessons with M's employees. They have some American clients, and we've discussed the need for kick-off rallies and parties or gatherings in American companies where employees are publicly praised, rewarded with plaques, gifts, or just applause (usually on company time). The Schwob among us has said he would find that embarrassing - to be praised for doing his job. "Did you think I was incapable of doing my job? Were your expectations of me that low?"

I saw the other day another compliment auf Schwäbisch: "Er macht sei' Sach' gut" (He does his thing/job well.)  I wrote it down and M saw it. His comment was, "Goodness, that is high praise!"

To be perfectly honest, I prefer the Swabian compliments to the trend among young Americans to call everything "the best ___ ever," intensified by "literally the best ___ ever." Since I know that means absolutely nothing more than "that ___ was good," I would rather hear a guest at my table say, "Thank you; I enjoyed dinner" or nothing at all, rather than "That was, like, literally, the best Schnitzel/salad/roast/soup I've ever had in my life!" The Schwaben have always been good at understatement, while Americans lean toward exaggeration.

I'm gradually starting to feel like I fit in well enough in the Ländle, even though I will never be good at the Swabian dialect. I think being frugal is a good thing, I prefer wine to beer, and I don't mind sweeping our sidewalk on Saturdays. I still have work to do, but I'm getting there with the help of Bob Larson's Your Swabian Neighbors, which is literally the best book ever written about the Swabians and their world* (and by now out of print).

*And by "literally the best book ever written about the Swabians," I mean it is a good, funny, informative and interesting book about the Swabians.

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