Just yesterday I was talking to a befriended flight attendant who services the first class section of transcontinental flights. She spoke of all the perks that flying first class brings and what it costs to upgrade. Those costs reminded me of how upgrades aren’t for everyone – not just in flight, but also in language. Upgraders in language are those words that express your ideas in extremes.
Americans are infamous for positive upgraders: ‘Fantastic!’ ‘Awesome!’ ‘Amazing!’ ‘Great!’
It took just one word for me to out myself as an American in Germany with my answer to a question about the acoustics at a small concert – Me: ‘Great!’ Singer: ‘You’re American, aren’t you?’ Not that I’m ashamed, but it is a bit alarming to have your nationality called out with just one word.
We Americans like to see things in a positive light, and often metaphorically paint things prettier than they actually are when we use words like ‘great’ on things that a lot of other cultures simply see as ‘good’. More than once, I’ve heard here in Germany the comment that we Americans lose a bit of credibility with so many of these upgraders. If we call what really is just ‘good’, ‘awesome,’ then how do we go up from there when something truly is ‘awesome’? I’ve heard accusations that Americans come across as superficial, in part because of these upgraders, and the lack of differentiation that they bring in cross-cultural conversations.
This ‘translation’ meme sums it up quite well:
Americans aren’t the only ones though that use upgraders to describe things in extremes. Germans do, too – just in the opposite direction. Germans use negative upgraders with phrases like: ‘Das geht gar nicht!’ (That’s absolutely unacceptable!) ‘Eine Katastrophe!’ (A catastrophe!) are thrown around quite often to describe things that people simply don’t agree with. In Germany, these phrases pearl off of other Germans, 1. because they’re common reactions and 2. comments are meant and taken less personally. Comments like these in America though, where critique is given more indirectly to try to preserve group harmony, can give a person the reputation of being arrogant, overly negative and difficult to work with.
If you really want to be understood and connect with your conversational partner, it ‘s not enough to simply speak grammatically correct to express your ideas. It’s not enough to use your own language as you use would use it in your own culture. AWARENESS of what you are projecting with your words is important. Learning to connect isn’t just about learning about the other culture. It’s also about learning about your own.
The next time you choose to ‘upgrade’ some of your statements, consider what the price may be in the message you’re making and the image you’re projecting. I will always remain my positive self, but I might just begin to pick my words with a bit more care and use ‘great’ for things that I really feel truly are ‘great’!
What do you think? Will you pick your words more carefully?