Valley Voice
What Californians really mean when they say something

Small talk in Silicon Valley can be difficult. Most of the times, Californians mean the opposite of what they actually say. Here are a few things you have to learn.
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Small talk in Silicon Valley can be difficult. I realized that lately when I had dinner with a Californian friend. At the very moment I finished my chicken curry the waiter came and took my plate away. He also confiscated my glass although it was still half full. At first sight I was way too overpowered to say anything, but when the guy came for the check I expressed my surprise. „I couldn’t finish my Chardonnay, because you took it“. My friend flinched. The waiter looked as if I had assaulted him. For a moment or so nobody said a thing. „Oh, my…“, the waiter blushed, started stuttering and then escaped to the kitchen. I was confused.

My friend looked at me as if I was a naughty child. „You can’t talk to people like this“. I said that I didn’t understand. After all I just described what was obviously happening. On the contrary, I said, it was a wrong thing to take away my glass while it was still half full or half empty or whatever. But my friend seemed not convinced at all. „You probably think that, but what Californians understand is just the opposite“. If I wanted to make friends in San Francisco, I had to learn the rules.

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For example: What do I have to do when somebody blocks you off on the sidewalk? A Californian would always say something like „Excuse me“, although it was definitely the other person’s fault. And when somebody runs into you, it’s always you to say „I’m sorry“. And when a neighbor invites you to a party you really really don’t want to go to, you are supposed to say: „Super, great, yes I’ll try“. This behavior sounded very complicated to me. Why don’t people just say what they mean instead of saying the opposite? „It’s because Californians are always polite“, my friend answered. I said that I would think about it.

A week later I talked with my friend over the phone again. It was about a watch I borrowed from him half a year ago. I ended up liking it so much that I didn’t want to give it back. At the same time he didn’t want to be impolite, so he didn’t really ask for it, he just said: “Should I get that watch too?” I on the other side wanted to show that I learned something about Californian politeness, besides the fact that I really wanted to keep the damn watch. It was for these two reasons I answered: „Ok, I’ll try."

Es gibt auch eine deutsche Version dieser Kolumne.

Immer Dienstags schreibt Britta Weddeling, Korrespondentin für die Themen Internet und Netzwirtschaft des Handelsblatts im Silicon Valley, über die neusten Trends und kleinen Kuriositäten im Tal der Nerds.

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