Interesting Code!


We Dutch are world-famous for our directness, so American conversations require a whole new set of skills. In my previous post, I wrote about an example of what Americans say and what they mean. There’s a lot of that. I have figured most of it out by now–at least I think I have.  But that doesn’t leave me any less mystified.

Take “That’s interesting”.

At first I wondered what someone meant, exactly, when I showed him/her something and the reaction was, “That’s interesting”. But I gradually figured out that it’s code for, “Good God, I’ve never seen anything this ugly in my entire life!”

So what mystifies me is this: Why the code when everyone knows it means you hate it? Why not just say that you hate it, and then what you think is wrong with it? That would at least be helpful. Because how polite is it, really, to say “That’s interesting” when both parties are fully aware of the code?

In America you could have a whole conversation in this coded way.

“And here’s our bedroom. I’ve always wanted teal walls.” — “That’s interesting.” (Teal walls? What the hell was she thinking?!) — “Hmm, yes, we should have lunch sometime.” (Interesting, huh? Well, this is the last time I’m getting together with you, missy!) — “Yes, I’ll call you.” (When pigs fly, you crazy teal lover!)

Of course the trouble with this kind of code is that it is also regular language. So sometimes “We should have lunch sometime” just means “We should have lunch sometime”. I know for a fact that, when I say it, it’s an actual invitation.

Telling the difference will forever remain tricky. Really, Dutch directness is so much easier!

7 responses to “Interesting Code!

  1. Yep, I got a few people here I still have to have lunch with too!

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  2. As an American myself, the difference between sarcasm, saying what you mean, and saying something just to be polite is so ingrained that I barely notice it when speaking with others. Sarcasm usually has a recognizable inflection (which my Dutch boyfriend never fully understood in conversation), but the latter two are probably much more difficult (especially for foreigners) to tell apart. Usually, I can tell if a person is being genuine through their body language and the look in their eyes, if not the tone of their voice (many Americans, especially girls, have two voices that they use, one is a “real voice” and the other a “polite/fake” one).
    I loved your take on the subject- so funny and insightful!

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    • Barbara Backer-Gray

      Hmm, interesting. Just kidding! I think I can recognize sarcasm if there’s the body language and the inflection, though. What makes it so tricky is that–in my experience–it’s said in seemingly full earnestness. The other day I walked into the locker room at the YMCA, and three grown women were talking. They were all three being very friendly, and I assumed they were perfectly good friends who had met up for a swim. When I walked back into the locker room a bit later, one of the women was gone, and the remaining two were talking downright bitchy about her. Would you label that sarcasm or hypocrisy, I wonder? Anyway, thanks for reading the post. I can use every input I can get on this topic. After eighteen years, navigating this aspect of American conversation is still hard!

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  3. I always sense some awkwardness when one person is reaching for something that’s not negative to say and can only come up with “that’s interesting.” I assume that when they say it, they are thinking, “I’m being too obvious, using the Code & all. I should have just said, ‘wow!’ and nodded my head.” I have a list of expressions in American English that make no literal sense and I wish people would stop using: http://daisybrain.wordpress.com/2010/08/11/daisybrain-presents-common-expressions-that-make-no-sense/

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  4. I agree with your last statement “Dutch directness is so much easier!”

    It is not that the Dutch are impolite or anything, far from it even. All the people I have talked to who have been to the Netherlands, always praise the Dutch for being so nice (of course there are a lot of shotheads too! LOL)

    As to the teal walls, I reckon I would have said “Well, it wouldn’t be my choice of color, but you really made it work” especially when I would see you would really love your teal walls and I wouldn’t 😉 Is that Dutch directness I wonder?

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    • Barbara Backer-Gray

      I think it is. Because you’d say it isn’t your choice of color. That makes it clear it’s not your style, and saying that would be way too direct for Americans.

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