Talking the Talk: On Social Interactions in Vienna

Kelsie Seehusen
February 1, 2016

It has been about three weeks since I landed in Vienna, but I feel as though I have been here for months. This is due partly, I think, to the three-week German language intensive that is nearing its end, but more to Vienna itself. Indeed, time seems to move slower here than in America, where I plan my days down to the minute and aim to get from one place to the next as fast as possible. Here in Vienna, I have time to wander the palace-lined streets between classes, and I can spend a few hours in a cafe without being pressured to leave by an ever-present waiter. Vienna may be Austria's capital, but it lacks the hustle and bustle of American metropolises, such as New York, and feels much more like a large town than the most populous city in the country. Even the subway system here (called the U-Bahn) is easy-going, with only five lines that span the whole city--which, might I add, I have learned navigate like a true Wiener. To that end, I am actually shocked by how comfortable I feel in Vienna so far, as if the city is not entirely foreign to me; this is true, to some extent, because my grandfather lived here in the 1950s, so I have made a point in the past few weeks to visit the same places he did. I guess you could say there was already a little bit of Vienna in my blood.

Despite my overall acclimation to life abroad, there have been a few challenging obstacles--namely, German. Thankfully, two years of high school classes and one intermediate-level semester in college gave me enough of a basis in the language that I'm not completely overwhelmed. I'm proud to say that I've had a couple of successful interactions using no English whatsoever (although my American accent is pretty obvious, I can't deny it). But still, real people speaking fluent German in an actual German-speaking country is far more intimidating than even the most difficult class I've taken. The hardest part of interactions here is not so much the language itself, but my lack of confidence in using it, and how my anxiety makes me forget every word I have ever learned. I'm sure my German will improve immensely over the course of the semester, but until then, I will continue to try my best, and hope that the look of utter confusion on my face doesn't give me away--at least, not every time.

Aside from the inevitable language barrier, which I was expecting, I've also been adjusting to some subtler differences in social norms. When walking the streets of Vienna, or riding the U-Bahn, or sitting in a cafe, one will notice that there is not a whole lot of smiling going on. To be quite honest, most people look rather unfriendly, or at least bored. Unlike in America, it's not normal here to smile at a stranger with whom you make eye contact, unless you are inviting them to talk to you. My first thought when learning about this different custom was, "I have finally found the land of the introverts!" As someone who is quite uncomfortable in social settings, not feeling the need to acknowledge random people I pass has relieved me of some unnecessary anxiety. It's not that I don't want to smile at people, it's that I don't want to have to. I'll certainly smile back to someone who initiates, but if no one does, I don't mind living in my own little world. I can't help but wonder though, why does everyone seem so aloof? They live in Vienna! What better reason is there to smile? I'd be waltzing down the street and singing showtunes (which, let's be real, would be from "The Sound of Music") if it was socially acceptable. Instead, I've been working on my poker face, which lies somehwere between thoughtful and tired.

However, I've been wondering  if I am trying too hard to be Viennese and leave behind my American-ness, at least in terms of social interaction. I certainly want to fit in with society here, as I'm sure every student studying abroad does. I think my problem is that when I'm at home in America, I don't feel very American; I've dreamed of living in Europe since I was little, and I often feel like I belong here rather than there. It's an awkward space to occupy, not quite knowing where I belong, but that's one of the biggest reasons I came to Austria, to see if I'd want to stay. I sure don't know the answer to that question yet, but from what I've seen so far, I think I could get used to Vienna. I don't feel so on edge here; I feel like I can be my introverted self and not be seen as "the quiet girl"; generally, I feel more like myself. I am in a place where I can think out the person I would like to be, and I have the space to start becoming her, one potentially awkward German conversation at a time.

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Kelsie Seehusen

<p>Kelsie is a junior at Skidmore College, double majoring English and music. Her academic interests include creative nonfiction, piano performance, German language, and feminist theory. When she isn&#39;t in class or at the library, Kelsie spends her time playing piano, writing personal essays, knitting, or just curling up with a good book and a few cats. While studying in Vienna, Kelsie hopes to improve her German and piano skills, as well as immerse herself in Viennese culture.</p>

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