It’s a matter of trust

After many years here, a theme that always seems to come up for me is that of trust. We Americans are known for being open, especially when it comes to sharing information about our personal lives. We Instagram, we share every minute detail of our lives on Facebook, we tweet. And many of us don’t think about doing so. Even people in their forties and up are sharing their everyday lives on social media. And these are usually attached to our real names (unlike many of my German friends, who use funny half names or split their first name in two, like Ka Te). It may be that we are naive; it may be that we just don’t care who knows all this stuff about us. We are more worried about our kids getting kidnapped off the street in broad daylight (thanks, local news) than we are about someone abusing or using our personal information. What does this say about Americans as a culture?

Trusting hands

Once Germans make friends, they do trust you and hold you to your word. PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock

I often think about this topic. I have lived here for almost 20 years. I still get annoyed with the lack of general friendliness in daily interactions. Don’t smile, don’t talk to your fellow busriders, and heaven forbid, don’t start talking about your personal life with strangers. My theory for a while is that Germans have an innate fear of each other. Or maybe it is a wariness or general cynicism regarding people they don’t know. While many Americans see a stranger as a potential friend, or at least as someone to while away the wait with, Germans seem to think about what that person could possible want from them or do to them. As expats, we’ve all had these kind of moments. And as much as I understand the culture and appreciate it, I will never adapt to the way people interact with each other here.

My husband hates asking favors of friends at neighbors. I somehow think this relates. He sees anything we ask of someone else as verbindlich, meaning we will owe these people something and will have to be somehow obligated to them forever. I can see the culture clash when it happens, but I really just don’t understand it. I am always happy to help people – which means I don’t say no as often as I should. I have learned, however, not to sign up for every school event (especially because they usually take place at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday, when I am working). Instead I bring in my muffins or cookies – which tend to be deemed too sweet by even the German kids – and run back to work. The stilted conversations that these events entail are not my cup of tea. I think they sometimes see me as the alien in their midst. I’m one of these foreigners who doesn’t have others of her kind to hang out with. My culture is a non-culture. I smile too much and I admit to being a feminist and to enjoy working full time. The list goes on…But hey, I speak good German and if they take the time, we could have an interesting conversation. We’re not always as superficial as we’re made out to be. And I also have to be able to open my mind in a different way, to see that the stranger danger that many people here exhibit doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to get to know me.

But let’s go back to trust. Do we Americans trust each other? In this political and school-shooting climate, maybe we shouldn’t. I can only imagine that the American society should begin to be less trusting of their neighbors. There seem to be a lot of crazy people around with access to a lot of stuff that can be harmful to others. The relationships start very differently, but once Germans make friends, they do trust you and hold you to your word. So we as Americans also have to remember to stick to what we say we will do. If you say you’ll call, call. If you say, “Let’s meet for a drink,” then make the effort. Here in Germany you need to earn the trust of your fellow citizens – and it can take years. But once you have it, we need to work to maintain both that trust and the friendship. It’s worth the effort.

9 thoughts on “It’s a matter of trust

  1. I am fascinated by how averse a typical German is to small talk. I was in Germany for few weeks this summer and desperately tried to chat with folks in parks, cafes etc and share my experiences as American and ask about the stark differences i observed in Germany. But most people keep it to themselves. Do you think, they only use words when they have a “specific goal” or objective to meet. Otherwise its waste of time…Probably having a “light conversation” is not in their DNA.

    • I am preparing a cultural training session for my company (for the Americans about the Germans). One of the books I am using as a source for the workshops is called “No Such Thing as Small Talk.” So true.

  2. I found your point of view very interesting. I am a German living in the US for the past 20 years and have a lot of the same thoughts over here, so I wonder is it really strictly cultural or just the fact we are foreigners living in another country?
    I became a citizen here 8 years ago and don’t feel anymore “American” than before. I too feel that people in general will always treat you as an foreigner ( would help to have a name they can pronounce:) ). In general people are nice here, quick with small talk but hard to make real connections with, while in Germany once you have those, they are for life. It is extremely difficult here I find to make long lasting friendships, haven’t found any of those in all these years and 4 different states. Some of the things I miss most about my home country is that familiarity with people. It was okay to stop by unannounced just to say hi or come in for a cup of coffee. Would never be acceptable here, people are very protective of their home and defensive. There are a lot of things I could talk about, I’ve lived here for a long time, my children were born and raised here, I work here and I love the beautiful country, don’t get me wrong. But I also know that one will be forever a foreigner here and learned not to expect too much from people in general.

    • Utterly fascinating! I am also an American of south asian descent, living here for 15 years. While i call America home, Germany is my fantasy world and i watch DW etc for ten hours a week, not to mention research and reading on Germany and german culture. You are right in everything you have stated above. My own take is that while you can always strike up a conversation in your neighborhood grocery store, most Americans (sorry for stereotyping) will forget all about you/your name/conversation, next time you bump into them. One of my colleagues told me that, when i ask people “how are you doing”its more of a courtesy gesture and i am never even listening to the answer. Whereas this “faux” politeness is considered superficial or unnecessary. My take, for long term relationships like friends, i rather know what they feel about me, my views hence prefer a german sort of behavior of being honest and up front rather than politically correct views. While for other business interactions i.e. shopping, customer service, colleagues i would prefer politeness, smiling behavior as it makes for a pleasant experience. To me it will be best of both worlds…but again, may be i am asking for too much!

    • When we moved to Ireland in 2010, I expected it to be more like the US in the friendliness of people. It was. On the surface, I found the general friendliness I craved in my everyday interactions. What was missing was the same thing that is often missing in daily interactions in the US. Irish people were interested and wanted to hear my story, but I was still what they call a “blow-in.” So I guess we are both right. I appreciate the way people deal with strangers at the supermarket in the US, and I do miss it. But I also appreciate the types of “real” friendships I have here. I found the same in Ireland, but those people tended to be more of the quirky types, not your run-of-the-mill Irish person who grew up in the small town and never left.

    • Very interesting (anyone old enough to remember”Laugh In” knows what comes next) but I don’t want to sound insulting so i won’t say it. Please forgive the typos as I have problems using my fingers and have gotten spoiled by my iPad. Anyway, I was born in Germany of German parents, came over at the age of 10 and now at the age of 67 have never lacked true, wonderful, lifelong American friends unless I let the friendship slide because in the days before computers and emails I’d write long letters which never got finished and consequently were never sent. Unfortunately I returned to Germany only twice, in 1968 and again in 1972. Both times I didn’t want to come back home to the US because I loved being “back home” so much. Yet here I am in 2015 wondering what happened to all those years and why. Both times I formed wonderful friendships with Germans, renewed same with childhood friends and family, kept up with and improved my language skills and then …poof….life intervened as children came along, loved ones died, full time work, single motherhood, aging relatives…blah, blah, blah. Now I have a son with a pregnant German wife (they met in Spain about 10 or so yrs ago) living in Heidelberg where I lived for a year in’72. This will be my first grandchild and I would love to be there but numerous ailments make travel extremely difficult if not impossible. I don’t know why you’ve not been able to form true friendships here, Rike, maybe one has to come here as a child to feel like an American. Or maybe you just haven’t met people you’re comfortable with. There are many types of Americans I wouldn’t want to befriend and many others who wouldn’t want to befriend me. It takes all kinds and I too have lived in four states. I know that I felt totally welcome and at home in both countries when I was young. As a point of interest I was totally comfortable popping in on people over here when I was young, but not in Germany. Now heaven forbid that anybody dare pop in on me announced or not because “I aint no hausfrau” and my home and yard look like h..l I’m so glad I found this site and have referred my son to it.

      • Thank you so much for your comment. I think that is true the world over. There are many types of people anywhere that we wouldn’t want to befriend. It just doesn’t work. That’s so exciting that your son and his wife are having a baby. I’m in Heidelberg as well (and have had a few babies). Let him know he can always make contact if he needs advice/help or wants to talk to an American. I wish you the chance to come over here and see your grandchild.

  3. Funny I had to learn the opposite. Moving from Germany to Australia – people you’ve met for 10 min invite you to their bbq afternoons, random people start chatting to you while lining up at supermarket check out (really enjoy that now but would never dare to initiate it..) lots of promised “let’s meet for a drink” from both genders that never eventuated, lots of superficial chatting instead of getting into more serious topics. Pubs instead of coffee and cake. Everyone is a friend (instead of colleague / neighbour/ aquaintant) . Guess it would be great if people would get taught about cultural differences at school and that you can’t shake those off easily. Some changes are easy to adapt to while others were such a no-no in your culture that even after years you cringe by just the thought of it. I don’t even like to imagine how hard it is for people from a non-western-background – I think it explains why many expats/immigrants hang out with peeps from their own country. Although I deliberately avoid that :o)
    PS I will never forget an english lesson I took held by a guy from Ireland while I was still in Germany: He: ‘You go to the train station and sit down on a bench next to an older lady – what do you say?’ Me: ” ??? Say?? Nothing!!! ” – In hindsight dead funny – I didn’t get it at all back then

  4. Great to see all the feedback your post generated, Sarah – more than I got in 2009. I wrote then about “American small talk vs German no talk” –
    I liked this quote on chattiness: “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.'”
    – Hyde

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