The German Way of Saying “I love you”

love german

It’s not to say it at all

As a German, who has not lived in her home country for almost a decade, I have come to the conclusion that being German can be defined by two things. The first is that Germans don’t use napkins or at least forget about them until mid-dinner when everyone’s hands are dripping with shrimp juice, oil, and lemon.

“Can I have a napkin?” my New York friend Bob recently asked me. We were having dinner on a rooftop in the South of France and his soaked hands were hovering above his plate as not to drip all over the table.

While using cloth napkins, carefully placed on your lap, are the norm in nice restaurants and dinner parties in the U.S. and beyond, in Germany napkins are reserved for emergencies.

“If you are not using napkins, then how do you do it?” Bob asked me, wiping his hands with a piece of kleenex I had handed him.

“I don’t know. We just, ehem, I guess, don’t need them?” I replied.

The truth is, that even though we do need napkins, we have found ways around to not using them.

Whenever I visit friends in New York, I get a nice cloth napkin for breakfast, which feels like pure luxury. At home, however, I just brush my hands against each other to remove any crumbs and intuitively rub the oily grease of cheese or bacon into my skin (and sometimes on my jeans).

The other thing that Germans reserve for emergencies is saying “I love you” to the people they actually love.

If I would call my parents to tell them I love them, their response would be:

“Did you smoke pot?” or

Who is calling?”

It’s not that we Germans don’t love each other, it’s just that we don’t say it.

Three years ago, when my husband proposed to me in our favorite Moroccan restaurant, he insisted on calling his parents to tell them the good news. “It’ll be quick,” he promised me, still holding my hand. We were sitting in a fancy, but tiny restaurant with just a couple of tables. It was the kind of place in which people whispered into each other’s ears and in which phone calls, or even taking out your phone to check something, felt out of place. But being in love and a little tipsy from the champagne we ordered, I thought it was cute that my newly-minted fiancé, wanted to call his parents.

His dad picked up the phone, and without an introduction, Benjamin blurted out: “We got engaged!”

“Oh, congrats!” his dad replied and continued, “I got a new piano this week.” He then went on for fifteen minutes to tell him all about the piano and its “fan-tas-tic sound,” which was a very German way of saying “I love you.”

For a German, the frequency of saying “I love you” or “Love you” in American movies and TV shows can feel bewildering from time to time.

“’Love you!’ just means ‘good-bye’, right?” my mom once asked me.

Earlier that day when we were having brunch in a café in San Francisco, I had explained to her that “How are you?” basically means “Hello.”

That was only after our waitress had asked her how she was doing and my mom had replied: “You know, I have this ingrown nail that is really bothering me.” The waitress was so confused that she briefly looked at my mom, hesitated, and without saying another word, turned around and walked away.

A few years ago, I interviewed the linguist Jean-Marc Dewaele for a podcast episode on language. Among other things, we talked about his recent research on why saying I love you feels different in other languages.

Dewaele interviewed over a thousand of college students who reported feeling differently when saying “I love you” in a language that was not their native tongue. I can relate and agree that saying “I love you” feels more casual than the hefty German “Ich liebe Dich.” What I found even more interesting about his research was his report of cultural differences of people expressing their love.

For example, Dewaele interviewed a Chinese scholar, who left her parents for the first time, to go to college in Australia. She recounts:

“At the airport, we fought back our tears and urged each other repeatedly to take care; we wore the biggest smiles to wave good-bye to each other, to soothe each others’ worries. Just like any other Chinese parting between those who love each other—there were no hugs and no ‘I love you’. Yet I have never doubted my parents’ profound love for me.”

“Love is expressed very differently in Western and Asian cultures”, Dewaele told me. But even within Western cultures there seem to be differences how it is verbally and non-verbally conveyed.

A famous book about different manifestations of love is Gary Chapmen’s Five Love Languages. Chapmen suggests that everyone has a primary and a secondary love language, which is either gift giving, spending quality time together, receiving words of affirmation, acts of service and physical touch.

While Chapmen is talking about the love language of the individual, there might also be a cultural love language, different ways to express one’s love that are culturally manifested.

For most Germans the cultural love language is – to use Chapmen’s term – acts of service: making a chocolate souffle for dinner, driving your kids to birthday parties, and making Pausenbrote in the morning for your offspring to eat during their break.

Germans might be just living their love instead of verbally expressing it. I can see how a cup of fresh coffee that your significant other brings to your bed translates as a casual “Love ya, honey!” I am having a slightly harder time, though, when translating a lift to the train station as an “I love you.”

Personally, I still can’t get used to using napkins on a daily basis, but I do I like to say “I love you.” It might have been growing up with American movies and TV, but for both my husband and me, it feels natural to say it often, and while it can indeed just mean “Goodbye,” it can also mean everything else.

However, I might not be so far away from the German way of experiencing love than I sometimes think. The other day, I was doing YouTube Yoga when my husband got out the vacuum cleaner and started vacuuming around me. I looked at him and suddenly felt like one of these couples you see in Noah Baumbach movies, in which everyone does their own thing, but is comfortable enough to do it in the presence of the other person. Vacuuming and Yoga, taking a bath and calling your parents, cutting your toenails and eating a sandwich.

I thought about all of this in the three-legged downward facing dog pose and while watching my husband from below how he pulled an accidentally absorbed sock out of the vacuum cleaner, I thought: If that isn’t love, what is?

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