For all you Americans out there: there are a lot of Northern Europeans out there who think you are shallow. Just so you know.
I’ve talked to a lot of people who lived in the US for a while, and the one observation they all seem to have is that Americans are shallow and can’t be trusted to mean what they say. They usually tell the following story: they had a great chat with an American, the American invites them for dinner but then they never follow up, and the dinner doesn’t happen. Even though they kept saying everything we told them was “soooo interesting!” They act nice enough, these Americans, but they don’t mean it at all!
I’ve always found this a funny thing, this idea that when people are nice, they’re supposed to mean it. This is a very Northern European attitude, and has a lot to do with the preference for direct and open communication. Northern Europeans like to know where they stand with someone, and if someone does not intend to have dinner with you, they will never mention anything relating to dinner. When you invite people for dinner, you immediately check your diary to set a date. When you’re friendly, you’re supposed to mean it. Otherwise you’re being a fake, and this is a bad thing.
Now compare this to the general attitude in the US, where being friendly is almost a religion. Most notable when, for example, you go out for dinner and you are greeted by a chirpy waiter. But also in regular, day-to-day life, Americans tend to be a lot friendlier. Why? It’s the polite and right thing to do. I think in general Americans believe that being friendly is more important than being truthful, as opposed to Northern Europeans, who believe being truthful is more important. An American will not see Inviting someone for dinner as an actual invite, ’cause it’s not. It’s just small talk.
So while the phrase “let’s have dinner” is the same on both continents, the actual message that is being transmitted is very different. When an American says “let’s have dinner”, they’re really saying “this was a nice conversation, maybe we should do it again in the future, maybe not. Or I’m just being friendly, ’cause that’s the correct thing to do and I’m just making small talk”. When a Northern European says “let’s have dinner”, they mean “let’s have dinner, when are you available?”.
People who are used to direct communication usually perceive people being overly friendly as untrustworthy and fake, whereas people used to the friendly-no-matter-what attitude perceive direct communication as rude. So it’s easy for people to get their wires crossed and get the wrong idea of the other person’s intentions!
The first step of successful intercultural communication is recognising that while the content of a message is the same, the meaning and interpretation of it can vary wildly across cultures. It’s always worth considering that people might not be saying what you think they are saying, double-check it if necessary!