In a recent article by Mary Swander, writing for the Iowa Capital Dispatch, she describes receiving an abruptly direct call from someone Amish. I found this of interest because it raises the question of whether the Amish could be described as more rude – or lacking manners – compared with your average Americans. And if so, why that might be. Here’s how it opens:
“What are you doing this afternoon?” a man’s voice came over the line on the telephone.
I didn’t know if I were being harassed or this was someone friendly. He sounded friendly, but a harasser can sound that way, too.
“Who is this?” I asked.
“I’m wondering if you could run me into the doctor in town.”
The field was narrowing. It had to be one of my Amish neighbors. I hadn’t lived in my place, an old Amish school house, for more than a year. I knew some of my neighbors, but not all of them. And I certainly didn’t know them by the sound of their voices.
“Who is this?” I asked again.
“Oh, Moses. Sure, I’ll run you into town.”
I was stumped by the way the Amish seemed to lack manners. They were a very polite culture, but they didn’t have the niceties I was used to. They never introduced themselves on the phone. They never said “please” or “thank you.” They might finish a conversation by just walking away.
You may have noticed the same thing. That the way Amish communicate tends to be more direct, and with fewer pleasantries. Especially compared to the often over-nice manner of speaking predominant in America today.
I think Amish are more like some modern European cultures with their more direct and brusque manner. There is less polite packaging around Amish speech. Less small talk to warm up a conversation and more abrupt transitions between topics. And at times you may be left guessing at whether there is more to what’s been said.
Assuming the above is accurate, what are some possible reasons for this? (Note: when asking “are the Amish rude?” the usual caveats apply about Amish as individuals, different groups, etc.). Generally speaking, I think Amish are simply more about getting to the point in their communication, as a matter of practicality. Among other reasons this may be in part a function of their family sizes. When you have more people in a family you have more moving parts and more communication that needs to be done. You see this at the Amish dinner table, where there is no “please pass the ketchup.” Rather, it’s just “ketchup”. Whoever’s nearest to the bottle knows they need to shuttle it your way.
Another part of it may simply be that Amish people are more comfortable with silence, with pauses in discourse. Less of a need to fill in empty spaces in conversation. Silence can easily be interpreted as rudeness, or a lack of manners, and can create discomfort.
But silence functions differently in an Amish context than in a non-Amish one. In The Amish Way, the authors discuss silence in the Amish context throughout the book. To take one example, “silence exemplifies Gelassenheit – a person’s willingness to accept things without demanding an answer to why they happened the way they did” (p. 156). The also quote John Hostetler describing silence in Amish life as “an active force”, used in a variety of contexts.
Mary Swander looked into the matter and found another reason for what she found to be a lack of manners from her Amish friends and acquaintances. She continues:
Then why did the Amish, a religious society bound together through custom and tradition, skip over manners? At first, my interactions with the Amish seemed curt, abrupt, and a bit disconcerting. Maybe they didn’t have words for please and thank you in their German dialect, and so the sentiment didn’t translate into English. Maybe they weren’t sure about me. A single English woman. Maybe they didn’t want to interact with me. But I hadn’t contacted them. They’d called me from one of their phone shacks in the middle of a cornfield. Maybe they just wanted to do business and not socialize at all.
These interactions remained a mystery. I still took their calls and gradually got better at recognizing their voices. But they continued to speak without identifying themselves and seemed happy to let me guess.
Then I did some research about their linguistic patterns and found that the Amish cut out the niceties in their speech for a reason. They thought that manners were an elitist construct. The use of such phrases as “please” and “thank you” would make them sound like the upper class, a class that was on a higher social rung than others, and one that might condescend to others.
I think there is something to this explanation, as Amish especially in prior eras have been sensitive to the ways of the world and “faster” groups around them. Rejecting the cultural trappings of one group is one way of establishing identity and laying down markers. You see this in clothing and hairstyles and other lifestyle indicators. It would make sense that it would apply to manners of speaking as well.
Changes over time
Now I also think that the manner of communication for some Amish has changed over time. And again this traces back to the big change that’s unfolded over the last several decades – adoption of a small-business focus and entrepreneurial ways that have drawn Amish into closer communication with English people. This leads to them taking on more of their ways, including their manners of speaking.
For example, I can picture some very polite and engaging Amish people that I’ve met and gotten to know over the years. A number of them work in businesses dealing with the public. They use “English” phrases at times and have no problem making small talk. But the way they have learned to speak with potential customers and English friends may differ from how they communicate in their own circles.
What do you think? Are Amish people more “rude” than typical Americans?