American small talk vs German no talk

Germans don’t do small talk. (Well, sometimes they do – but they rarely admit it.) Most German-speakers will tell you that their language is too serious and precise to be wasted on small talk or chitchat, especially with strangers. Anyone who has lived in Berlin for any length of time knows that Berliners in particular aren’t prone to idle chatter – even if they know you fairly well.

So I was amused to read an article on German stereotypes and “Chatiness” in the latest issue of The Atlantic Times (Dec. 2009). Jabeen Bhatti writes of her astonishment when – in a single day in Berlin – she experienced several strangers chatting with her, something “as rare as seeing a white Rhino.”

In the US, such banter among perfect strangers is nothing unusual. In Germany such “superficial” interaction is frowned upon. I don’t think I exchanged more than two words (“Guten Tag!”) with the mail-lady in Berlin. In the US, I know that my postman took a vacation recently in Hawaii and has family there. I’ve seen him chatting with my neighbors as well. Although I saw her less frequently (it was an apartment house), the icy Berlin postlady wouldn’t even have said hello if I hadn’t forced her into it. (I’ll discuss the exceptions later. Right now we’re talking about what’s “normal.”)

In an earlier blog I wrote about how a German check-out clerk you see every other day at the supermarket or drugstore will act like she’s never laid eyes on you before, even after your 20th visit – something very rare in the US. At times I took perverse pleasure in forcing German clerks or other strangers to engage in meaningless chatter. Sometimes they even seemed to enjoy it!

Besides explaining with immense pride how difficult and wonderfully complex their language is, the one thing Germans like to tell us Americans is that we are friendly but superficial. (So Germans are unfriendly but deep?) Germans often fail to understand that small talk does not necessarily mean the same thing as insincerity or shallowness. Germans will say “Auf Wiedersehen!” to perfect strangers when leaving a train compartment, but will stand around silently at a party rather than engage in small talk to break the ice.

I experienced culture shock every time I got a haircut in Berlin. German “barbers” are almost always young women hairdressers who don’t speak English. Nothing wrong with that, but they don’t seem to speak German either. With an American barber (male or female), I’ve always been able to strike up a conversation of some kind. For many years I had a barber who loved to talk politics and the news. In Berlin I found it difficult to engage in the basic barber babble that would be normal in the US. Even after a second or third visit, German small talk just wasn’t happening. I tried several different Friseursalons before giving up on the idea of German haircut chitchat. Apparently Germans can sit in a barber chair in silence, but it drove me nuts.

I did have a nice chat with a Berliner Sparkasse bank branch manager. (He’s from Neuruppin.) But I was setting up a new bank account, so that may not count. That was also the one and only time I chatted with anyone at that branch. It had no cashier window and no tellers! You could talk to a real person, but you couldn’t exchange any cash. All my interaction after that was with cash machines. (They had a cool one that would count your euro bills, swallow them, and print you a receipt.) I had to go to the Alexanderplatz branch to make my initial cash deposit. You can’t even talk about the weather with an ATM! But I’m not sure it would have been very different if they had actually had tellers.

There is some unspoken German code of behavior that requires serious talk – or no talk. Germans mean what they say. Their frankness is legendary. It is often perceived by inexperienced Anglophone expats as rudeness. German serious straight talk often seems undiplomatic, verging on insulting to Americans and other English-speakers. That may explain why small talk is not a German thing. Bluntness and small talk really don’t go well together.

Despite my irritation over taciturn barbers and cashier clerks in Berlin, I had much warmer encounters with postal clerks in Germany. Although it was usually overcrowded, the clerks at my neighborhood post office in Berlin were always friendly if not chatty. But a lady clerk at the Frankfurt airport post office (Tip: Open 24 hours a day year-round!) stands out. My wife and I had to mail two cartons of books and other items to the US. We had the DHL/Deutsche Post boxes and tape, but we needed scissors to cut the wrapping tape. Beside being particularly helpful with the shipping red tape, the clerk lent us a pair of scissors. They were so sharp, I cut myself while trying to get the two boxes taped up. Seeing drops of my blood on one of the boxes, the nice lady clerk was kind enough to give me a bandage!

2 thoughts on “American small talk vs German no talk

  1. How does that saying go? Germans are like coconuts and Americans are like peaches. Coconuts being hard to penetrate but soft inside; peaches of course being the opposite!

  2. It’s always funny reading this blog. I’m from Germany and very interested in learning the English language. Currently I’m studying in the UK and I’m surrounded by people from other countries (Kenya, US, China and Japan). It’s funny that everybody wants to pick up each others “customs”. Like saying hello and good bye in the other ones language.

    However, it’s a bit weird that even your barbers don’t like to chat. My barbers always killed me with their talking. (And all I wanted was a damn haircut – not chatting) Usually they start talking and then you join in. After a few minutes you have a main topic the other person wants to talk about.
    I think it’s very possible that the barber became shy, because he or she recognized you’re not a German person. Germans get shy when they need to talk with another person in a foreign language. They don’t want that the other person thinks they are dumb, impolite or something. So we prefer saying nothing than saying something stupid.

    German barbers usually don’t have a high-level education they leave “Hauptschule” and then start working. At this point they had about 6 years English in school. Learning a foreign language is a pain the first years. (As you may have noticed) So the people leaving Hauptschule are not very sophisticated in speaking a foreign language.

    Combine that with “I don’t want to say something stupid” and voila. There is your German barber friend.

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