Germans and Small Talk

I started watching a vlog by a charming American woman who lives in Munich with her German husband. In her cheerful voice full of positive energy, she talks about living in Germany, explaining different aspects of the daily life here to those from abroad while also addressing habits and the lifestyle in the United States.

In one of her  videos she talked about how small talk is not really a thing here in Germany compared to the U.S. and that got me thinking.

I thought to have noticed that difference, too especially after having met some Americans and Canadians during my time at international schools but until now I somehow thought that maybe this had something to do with my own attitude untl I heard other Americans share the same thoughts with me.

I don’t want to generalize. Berlin is such a multicultural place that it is often impossible for me to tell if someone is German or maybe has foreign roots just by plain first sight. What I did notice by living here is that strangers don’t talk to each other very much, especially not spontaneously, unless the situation requires it; with some exceptions of course.

I used to have the urge to have random conversations just to be nice and maybe make new friends but as time passed I noticed that whenever I approached someone spontaneously to have small talk, people wondered what I actually needed from them. In Germany, so I felt, you talk to people with a particular purpose, at least most of the time. If you talk just for the hell of it, the other person might feel like you are wasting their time or be generally surprised about why you are talking to them.

I have also noticed that over the past years, if I actually ever had engaged in small talk, then it was with middle-aged or elderly people. It is more likely that you will spontaneously be discussing the surprisingly low price of strawberries at the Turkish store with a middle-aged customer who just happens to be standing near you, than with someone in their 20s.

I remember how I stood in an immense crowd on the 25 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall a few years back, watching as the balloon barrier was released into the night sky. There was an older lady next to me and somehow we started talking and she told me all about where she was on that historical date 25 years ago. How her family and her were sitting in front of the TV, not able to believe what was happening. Of course she was obviously able to relate to the historical situation but I guess that if I were to chat up a person my age at lets say the yearly gay pride parade, my chances of engaging in a conversation would be lower in Germany than maybe somewhere else.

And somehow that anti small talk attitude got me, too. Not that I don’t like it but the few times it did actually happen to me with people my own age, I was very much taken by surprise.

I was doing groceries one night and got in line behind a group of young people who were definitely travelers. One of them turned around, looked at me and smiled. He asked me something. I don’t exactly know what he said. Maybe something like how I was doing and what I was up to. Whatever it was,  I felt as if the situation was just like I would imagine it in a grocery store in America after all that I have heard. I was so surprised. I was standing there thinking: “Are you talking to me? Just like that?Out of nowhere?  Why?” I needed too long to say anything back and just smiled. He didn’t expect that response I guess and asked me if I did not understand English. 🙂

It does not stop at travellers though. I have met an exception to the rule only a few months ago. I was reading a book by a bus stop when a young woman with blonde hair sat next to me. She looked at the cover of the book I was reading (Fabian- The Story of a Moralist by Erich Kästner) and asked whether it was a war book. I looked up in surprise. Was she talking to me? Just like that? Without knowing me or wanting anything specific like asking what time it was or when the next bus was coming? Why was that? I told her it was a historical novel set shortly before WWII. She asked if it was okay if she smoked, lighted a cigarette and started talking about this one book she was reading, too and how this actor who played Walter White in Breaking Bad was playing in a new movie based on some other book (maybe even the one she was reading. I can’t remember today).

So maybe attitudes are slowly coming to a change but in general small talk is not such a big thing here in Germany. People like to mind their own business but who knows when you will meet an exception to the rule?

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