Friday, June 15, 2007

Culture matters 10: ATTITUDE TOWARDS FORMALITY

There are many differences between American and Austrian attitudes towards formality and it would take too long to go into every detail. Therefore I decided that I will pick only one part of this field, namely “Using first names with people you’ve just met”. The Peace Corps article says that in America people tend to do this, however, this isn’t true in Austria. There are many unwritten rules concerning how to address people and that is why I would like to tell everybody who’s not from a German-speaking culture more about those rules.

Background information: German does separate the personal pronoun “you” into a formal “Sie” (goes with the last name) and a more informal “du” (goes with the first name).

Adult +adult
An adult would use the polite and distanced “Sie”-form to address another adult he/she doesn’t know too well. At some point one of the two might offer the other person the more informal “Du”, unless they only meet because of occupational interests. For example, parents are unlikely to call a teacher “du” and especially higher ranked teachers (like “Professoren”) are unlikely to ever offer the “du”.

How to offer the informal “Du”: If you’re not used to the customs you better wait until the other person offers the informal pronoun, since you have to have a feeling for how long it takes to do that. If you offer the “du” to early, Austrians might think you’re too intrusive and if you ask later than usual here, people might assume you’re cagey. If you’re confident that you already know when to do so then you can use many different ways to ask. The most common way is to reintroduce yourself by using the first name only. It’s common to start with a small introduction (one sentence is sufficient) in which you explain why you find it appropriate to use the “du” now. For example, you could say, “Jetzt kennen wir uns schon so lange und siezen uns immer noch. Ich bin die Eva/…”. However, as I told you before, don’t do that if you’re not familiar with the customs.

Adult + teenager
Adults normally use the informal pronoun to address teenagers, but legally they would have to say “Sie” to them as soon as they are 14 or older. Therefore, teachers in Austria ask them at that age which form they prefer, but most classes agree that they want to stay with the “du”. At the university, however, all lecturers use the impersonal form.

Adult+child
All children are addressed with “du”, of course, even if those adults don’t know the child.

Teenager and adult
Teenagers are supposed to use the “Sie”-form with adults they don’t know well. And yet, many teenagers say “du” to adults unless they are their teachers or in other jobs of high hierarchAll young people use the informal pronoun to refer to each other. y. For example, I noticed that sales clerks are often addressed with “du”, even if they are much older, which is, of course, highly impolite.

Teenager/child+ child/teenager
All young people use the informal pronoun to refer to each other.

Anyone + pet
Since many people who have pets speak to their darlings, I thought it might also be worth mentioning that Austrians use the "du"-form to do so.

To sum up, there are much more rules concerning formality in Austria than in America- this is just one example. Just think of the importance of titels in Austria or of the way people visit each other (you need at least an oral invitation). That, however doesn't mean people are not as open as in America, that we don't want to see our friends etc. There are just more rituals around all those actions, which we consider normal.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Under the Tuscan Sun- movie reviews

Yesterday I told you about my personal feelings towards “Under the Tuscan Sun”. Today I would like to compare and contrast two reviews on the movie.

The first one I would like to examine was written by San Francisco Chronicle writer Mick LaSalle. He praises the beautiful pictures of Italy and especially of charming Diane Lane. In his opinion she not only is strikingly beautiful, but also a great actress. Due to some changes to the original book, the movie is not only about the wonderful Tuscan landscape, but even more about the search of love. Though admitting that the movie sometimes seems to use too many clich├ęs and from time to time even seems to be the Italian version of “Sex and the City” LaSalle seems to like it, overall.

The second review by Elvis Mitchell “Restoring a Villa While Repairing the Heart” was published in the New York Times. To him, the movie is “eminently superficial” and predictable as a movie can be. Basically, the movie is about the desperate protagonist Frances, who doesn’t find happiness, if it wasn’t for the abrupt end where suddenly her current partner Ed appears.

To sum up, both reviewers seemed to be stunned by the Diane Lane’s facial expressions. Whereas the one mostly liked the romantic story, the other one was more critical and claimed the whole story is superficial. The homepage “Rotten Tomatoes” sums up all the reviews giving it 62% from 100%. That certainly is not bad, however, not staggering, too. So if you are into romantic movies and love Italy the movie might be worth watching. However, don’t expect too much.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Under the Tuscan Sun- the movie

I started the long weekend with watching the movie adaptation of Frances Mayes’ “Under the Tuscan Sun”. Well, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t too optimistic, since I wasn’t quite sure if a movie based on the renovation of a holiday house in Italy could possibly be interesting. My doubts proved to be well-founded.

After Frances Mayes, an American writer in her thirtysomethings, learns that her husband is unfaithful, she feels absolutely devastated. The divorce is a hard and expensive process and Frances seems to be at the end of her rope. That’s why her worried friends (a lesbian couple, by the way) send her to a trip to Italy. There she immediately falls in love with the wonderful house called Bramasole and buys it right away. With the help of three Polish workers she renovates the old house and even manages to find a new love, the Italian Marcello. When the pregnant Patti, one of her friends who made her go to Italy, arrives to stay a little everything seems to be perfect. Unluckily, once again love disappoints her when she finds out that Marcello, too, is unfaithful. Simultaneously, one of the Polish workers, who by this time are close friends of Frances, falls in love with a young Italian girl. Frances helps them to convince the girl's parents to allow them to marry and at this wedding she gets to know her future partner Ed, which is the happy end.

Everyone who has read the book might wonder, where the lesbian couple comes from, why Frances seems to live in Italy permanently and why poor Ed appears so late? Maybe a happy couple who is looking for a holiday residence in Italy isn’t too thrilling for the audience. However, that leads me to the question why someone would make a film of that very book, if the content doesn’t seem to be interesting enough for a movie version. Also, now I understand Pam Mandel’s comment, that she wonders how Frances financed her living in Italy. I mean in the book it’s clear that she works most time of the year, but in the movie she seems to be unemployed.

So although I really liked Diane Lane’s acting, the movie wasn’t too captivating. The book, as usually, is much better!

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Culture matters 9: CONCEPT OF EQUALITY

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

For all who do not know these lines: It is the opening of the American Declaration of Independence. Nowadays all people from the leading industrial nations agree that egalitarianism has to be a political and moral priority, though many people, especially minorities realize that there is still a long way to go. However, it is obvious that some nations have managed better than others to create an equal society. So let us compare, once again the American and the Austrian culture when it comes to this concept of equality.

People in the North America always depended a great deal on teamwork and in successful teams everyone has to be respected equally. When the first British settlers came to America everyone had to make their contribution to create that target “city upon a hill”. Of course, it was not easy to keep up this ideal, since in a community it is likely that there are people who feel superior to others. Just think of the witch trials, slavery and other social evils that took place in the US. But people seem to have overcome those difficulties, to put it euphemistically. Was not the Revolutionary war some kind of struggle against the monarchical structures prevalent in Europe? They wanted to have a more democratic system and what else is democracy than giving all people the right to be heard. That history may explain why Americans emphasize the importance of egalitarianism so much.

Compared to America, Europe has a tradition of monarchies, totalitarian states etc. Europe’s history was always a history of conquering, ruling and suppression, but that just means that we may had to struggle a little harder. People in Europe, too, always longed for egalitarianism, which especially shows in all the revolutions there were. That is why, despite Europe’s cruel history, we also managed to create states in which people are considered to be equal.

However, both concepts are very idealistic ones. There are still people who are discriminated, there are still people who are not heard and there are still people who are assumed to be inferior. Even whole countries are assumed to be below our wonderful industrial nations. When it comes to America such nations are to be found in the Axis of Evil, while Austrians (and let’s be honest here) regard east European countries to be inferior.

Certainly no one would put it like that, but you can see such attitudes every day. Just think of people talking to immigrants or, to give another example, look at some attorney who buys something in a supermarket chain. They speak with the sales clerks as if they were kind of nuts. The reason why I’m getting a bit emotional here is that I also do such blue-collar jobs from time to time and I experienced that some well-off people not even notice what hard work it is to do such jobs.

As you can see there are still many problems in both systems, although it could be so easy if we all just believed in the simple and, according to Jefferson, self-evident phrase “all men are created equal”.

Friday, June 1, 2007

"Knowing Right and Wrong" by Alex Byrne

"Throwing good taste out with the bathwater for the sake of a clear example, everyone knows that boiling babies for fun is wrong."
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Based on this morbid example, the philosopher Byrne analyses different theories on moral law. Undoubtedly everyone has some kind of sense of morality, but those ideas often differ greatly. Some say, for example, eating meat is ok, others reject this idea. That is why Byrne, like many people before him, started wondering where we know from what we ought to do or ought not to do? Are there biological causes for this patterns of thinking, comes this knowledge from God or do these ethic rules don’t exist at all?

One theory assumes moral to be natural feature. Byrne explains there are a lot of natural facts that lead logically to moral behavior (e.g.: the water is hot> hot water hurts the baby> I do not want to hurt the baby) Unluckily, this theory does not always work in practise, since facts do not necessarily motivate people to do or to not do something. Smokers, for instance, know the fact that they will die earlier because of that unhealthy habit, which does not convince many of them to quit smoking. Therefore, the assumption moral laws just haven’t been described by scientists can’t be right.

I, personally, was very fascinated by John Mackie’s theory that there are no moral rules. People just believe there are, which is why they behave accordingly. That, of course, is highly agreeable, since those imaginary rules make people better and improve the social life in general.


I loved reading this article, since I am absolutely interested in philosophy and even more on the existence of moral laws. He sums up a lot of ideas about moral and comments on them, that is, sometimes in a very confusing way. What made his text a little hard to understand is that he uses language like mathematicians use numbers and formulas. That is whyI had to reread some passages to get the meaning, but nevertheless I was impressed by all those sophisticated ideas.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Culture matters 8: SOURCE OF SELF-ESTEEM/ WORTH

According to the LDOCE self-esteem can be understood as “the feeling of being satisfied with your own abilities, and that you deserve to be liked or respected”. However, this is not a complete explanation, since self-esteem is not only being proud of your abilities, but even more how one uses those talents. So what is it exactly that builds our sense of self-esteem? Are there differences between America and Austria?

Once more I consulted the Peace Corps website on the American vantage point. It says- unsurprisingly- that Americans tend to build their self-esteem on the jobs they have and the money they earn. The self-worth of a person is not received “by virtue of birth, position, seniority, or longevity”, though I suppose there are exceptions. Just think of Paris Hilton, who is just famous for partying, or world’s oldest people, who are also treated with respect just for being old. In addition, I think Americans are actually not only after money, like the website claims, but merely want a job that is satisfying even if it is badly paid and laborious. At least, that is what I have learned from the book “Gig”.

Austrians also tend to judge people on what they are doing, that is, a doctor is certainly ranked higher than some Spar-employee. However, the self-esteem is also build on the friends one has, which is especially true for younger people. The more acquaintances/ friends the better! And yet, self-worth has not always to be created by oneself. In Austria, for example, the wives of doctors are also called doctor and people in higher positions surely respect others more if they, too, come from affluent families. People with a low-income, on the other hand, do not respect people more just for having more money, but tend to judge them more on the basis of their character, friends and so on.

By and large, I came to the conclusion that there are many causes for self-esteem and self-worth. It depends on your social class, on education, job etc. Being an American, however, certainly means emphazising jobs

Saturday, May 26, 2007

"Spaghetti sauces" or "How Howard Moskowitz changed the food industry"

I’ve just had a look at the TED homepage Mr. Newman talked about in his blog. And while I was browsing the various themes, one special talk captured my attention- a man talking about spaghetti sauces. Considering that spaghetti are my main source of nourishment I HAD to listen to this talk named “What we can learn from spaghetti sauce”.

Malcolm Gladwell, a man with a haircut similar to Einstein’s, is a writer, who has published two best-sellers and also writes for the “New Yorker”. In this 17 minutes long monologue he talks about Howard Moskowitz, a psycho-physicist, who revolutionized food industry.

Howard Moskowitz was the first one to realize that it’s not enough to produce food in one style. There have to be many flavours of one product to please all American people. Gladwell tells how Moskowitz came to this idea, about his struggle to spread it and about his success. Gladwell says, not only did Moskowitz enriched the market with many sorts of product variations, but he also taught us three very important lessons:

  • Firstly, Moskowitz claims that the consumers don’t exactly know what they want.


  • Secondly, he tried to show that products aren’t better just because they are more expensive or mainstream products. People should choose the products that suit them, no matter how cheap or unpopular they are.


  • And lastly, he made the food industry realize that they have to try to please the individual people and not only the majority.

Gladwell seems to be deeply impressed by Moskowitz’ doings and by the way he managed to make people happier with industrial food. In my opinion, this topic is a little too trivial to name it an "idea worth spreading", however, I loved listening to Gladwell. He obviously has excellent rhetorical skills and, in addition, is funny, too.



Have fun checking out the site!



Life of Brian