Small talk is one of the greatest casualties of German efficiency. Germans, in general, are a direct sort, skipping all unnecessary chat and getting right to the point. Diplomacy, banter, and politeness are all noise that distort the intended message. This social practice was one of the biggest adjustments when I first began interacting with native Berliners, I rarely got more than a half hearted ‘Morgen!’ before they began broaching serious business.
If you want a surprise, try to engage in small talk with a German — the results were never what I expected in the beginning. Asking someone ‘Hey, How’s it going?’ was almost always interpreted literally. One guy delivered a five minute status report on his physical ailments, emotional frustrations and personal gripes while another gave me the short and joy-kill answer of ‘BAD!’ Sometimes, I didn’t even get an answer and instead I was met with apprehension and criticism like:
‘You don’t care, do you?’
‘What is it that you actually want?’
‘You Americans are so fake!’
According to my American sensitivities, all of these responses were off. Who doesn’t know how to chit chat? Occasionally I would come across a German native familiar with what I’ve now learned are the tedious social habits of Americans and engage me in small talk but even those conversations quickly sunk into a monologue about their disapproval of America’s international policy or some other big distant issue. It seemed like the conversations post chit chat were all serious and impersonal. No one mentioned life or feelings even if they were going through something. I was about to give up attempting social interaction in my new country until I decided to step back and try to look at the situation objectively. People at their core have similar desires and social needs, I just had to identify the German cultural aversion to casual conversation.
For starters I was attempting something casual in a place of business, my coworker, the woman at the bakery, or teller at the post office were all on the job when I attempted these leisurely interactions. I slowly gathered that Germans, more so than Americans, value their privacy and desperately keep their work and personal lives separate. The average German would label two to three people in their lives as a “freund” (friend) since the word in German implies a deep long lasting friendship. If you aren’t a friend, you are an acquaintance, two words in German that mean totally different things and would never be used interchangeably as they might in English. It still rubs me the wrong way when coworkers who I have known for years, invited into my home, and introduce to my loved ones still refer to me as a “colleague.” Perhaps I will have to take a bullet for them in order to be upgraded to a friend.
Still, while Germans may come off rude or cold to those unfamiliar, I think it just takes them longer to warm up. There may also be people that would have been more open to my small talk but language formed an additional barrier. When I made my first steps toward making this place my home I noticed many things, like the absence of small talk, and perceived through my American filter. Now my experiences have evolved into one of a global citizen and I’ve stopped assigning values to things like conversations as better or worse and simply recognized them as different.
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