Pin It
Friday, May 13th, 2011

Don’t Ask ‘How Are You’ in Germany


It hadn’t taken me long upon arrival in Germany from Armenia to figure out that Germans didn’t do small talk. The taxi drivers didn’t chit chat like New York cabbies. Neither did receptionists, bank tellers, cashiers or anyone really. In fact, they didn’t respond much at all to my attempts at small talk.


Each day on my way to the office, I stopped at the same bakery to get a broetchen (roll) followed by Wacker’s café for my morning latte machiatto. The same man served me each day at the bakery, yet our interaction, even after two months, followed the same script.




1 bread please. Thank you.






No deviation, no variation. After two months, I was not only bored of this morning exchange but it almost offended my American sensibilities when I thought about the casual banter at my morning coffee place in New York, the joking around at my deli sandwich spot and the first name basis at my corner bodega. It was just normal to be on a more casual basis with the same person you saw each morning. So I decided to try to thaw the morning exchange at the bakery when I went in the next day.






1 bread please. And as he reached for my bread, I asked, “Wie geht es Ihnen?” (How are you?) The man stopped and paused for what felt like seconds stretching into minutes. I could feel the other customers’ eyes on me. I wondered if I had mispronounced ‘how are you’ although I was pretty sure I had not. The man then looked up at me from the bread as if I was part-beast part-human, said nothing and handed me my roll.






I wasn’t sure what had happened. It was certainly a bit awkward. Here I was trying to be nice, friendly even, and he didn’t even have the decency to reply. Eff that morning bakery, I thought, no way am I going back.


When I arrived at the office, I told my German colleagues about the exchange. They burst into laughter that spanned the entire morning.


“You don’t just ask the baker, how are you!”


“Why not?”


“Cause you don’t do that. Why would you ask someone you don’t know ‘how are you’? Why do you care how he is?”


“I’m not asking his medical history. It’s just a ‘how are you.’”


“But you don’t do that,” they laughed. The entire morning at work became exchanges between my German colleagues that were some variation of: “Good morning. Coffee please. How are you?” They were falling all over themselves.


Once I adjusted more to life in Germany, I finally caught on to how weird it was to ask a total stranger, “how are you.” You only ask someone “how are you” if you really want to know. It’s not just something you let drop out of your mouth without caring about the response. When you ask “how are you,” you listen to the response. I continued to get my morning broetchen at the same baker but didn’t once try to alter the morning script again.

© 2011 – 2013, Stephanie Meade. All rights reserved.

More Great Stuff You'll Love:

How I Moved to Thailand with my Family on Less than $1000

It's cheaper than you think to make that move abroad you always dreamed about

Almost African: My Childhood as a Serbo-Croatian in Sudan

The freedom of growing up as the only Serbo-Croatian in Sudan

Many Languages, One America: 25 Proud Bilingual Children

These kids make clear what language the U.S. speaks.

Are French Kids Better Behaved Because They are Spanked?

Should spanking be part of your parenting toolkit to have well behaved kids?


Stephanie is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of InCultureParent. She has two Moroccan-American daughters (ages 5 and 6), whom she is raising, together with her husband, bilingual in Arabic and English at home, while also introducing Spanish. After many moves worldwide, she currently lives in Berkeley, California.

Leave us a comment!

  1. Commentssaill   |  Tuesday, 17 May 2011 at 3:00 pm

    Seems to be the opposite in Switzerland, where in villages anyway you can’t pass a stranger without exchanging “wie goht’s” (as they say). But maybe that’s because your supposed to know everyone in the village!

  2. CommentsAlex R.   |  Tuesday, 17 May 2011 at 9:59 pm

    So funny, Steph. Thanks for this article, I just had a good laugh with tears in my eyes. I can imagine how Matthias, Thomas and the others burst into laughter. Additionally to the fact, that you don’t ask someone how he is, if you don’t really care, in Germany it would start to be ‘normal’ to be on a more casual basis with the same person when you have been seeing him each morning for YEARS.
    It is strange anyway that he didn’t answer and say ‘fine’. Not smalltalking does not necessarily mean being unfriendly. Although my mother always complained about me being gelid, when people (Germans) tried to smalltalk with me – once I asked for a new passport and the lady behind the desk asked very friendly if I wished to travel (her intention was to be friendly), according to my mother I answered in an extremely cold tone: So ist es! (roughly: You bet!).

  3. CommentsThe Editors   |  Tuesday, 17 May 2011 at 10:06 pm

    @ Alex…yes it was Matthias and Daniel (not sure if you met him) plus the others. Daniel in particular is not the most talkative of guys and I don’t think I ever saw him laugh so hard in his life at that one!

    I can perfectly imagine you (or pretty much any German in general) answering in that “so ist es” tone. My other fave thing Germans say is “das ist nicht mein problem,” which the frequency of usage I think says a lot about how people think.

  4. CommentsAlex R.   |  Wednesday, 18 May 2011 at 1:42 pm

    :-) We’re just so darn pragmatic. What I forgot to say above, when the lady asked if I wished to travel, I recall thinking: “What a stupid question. Isn’t it obvious when I’m asking for a passport?” In that moment, it didn’t come to my mind she was trying to smalltalk.

Notify me of follow-up comments via e-mail.
Or leave your email address and click here to receive email notifications of new comments without leaving a comment yourself.

Get weekly updates right in your inbox so you don't miss out!

Why I Travel 13 Hours Alone with My Kids Every Chance I Get

Travelling with children, while definitely more of a mission, contradicts the old saying that “life is about the journey, not the destination.”

A Diverse Book for Preschoolers in Celebration of Multicultural Children's Book Day

A book that honestly and simply celebrates the every day diversity that children experience.

Why My African Feminist Mother Gave Me the Identity of My Father's Tribe

She gave me an identity so different from her own.

2 Children’s Books about Jamaica

Explore Jamaica with your child.

Costa Rica with Kids: Two Weeks of Family Travel

Two weeks of Pura Vida in a country with so much to offer families.

Should I Worry about My Child's Accent in Her Foreign Language?

See why Dr. Gupta takes offense to this question and where children learn accents from

How to raise trilingual kids when exposure to Dad's language is limited

My kids only get 1-2 hours of the minority language per day-help!

What Cultural Norms Around Bare Feet Taught This Mother in Guatemala

Her baby's bare feet ended up being a lesson on poverty and privilege.
[…] the breastfeeding culture in Mongolia compared to America. Did you have any idea that something as simple as breastfeeding attitudes can […...
From Breastfeeding in the Land of Genghis Khan
My mother born in the 1930's is originally from the northern part of Germany. I am in my mid fifties and have a terrible relationship with my mother. She is domineering and hurts those where it hurt...
From Are Germans Really Rude?
[…] JC Niala, InCultureParent […...
From Why African Babies Don’t Cry
[…] […...
From Breastfeeding Around the World
Although humanity is one Man (in a generic sense, including woman)has identified himself endless groups, religious, nationalistic, ethnic, cultural, linguistic, etc. Once you separate ME from YOU on...
From What’s an Asian? Race and Identity for a New Generation
[…] […...
From Breastfeeding in the Land of Genghis Khan
Some great tips here but not many working mothers could feed baby every hour especially if you work in a major multi-nationa...
From Why African Babies Don’t Cry
So true!!! Thanks for being so honest and self reflective. It's a proof of true characte...
From Are Germans Really Rude?
As a first-time mom I've spent the last two months of my four-month-old's life stressed out about her sleep and I recognize how crazy this is. It's clearly not working for me! I'm wondering how non-...
From The West’s Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep

More Communication Fail