A Cultural Faux Pas to Avoid in Germany

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Faux pas 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.
Morning.

Morning.

1 bread please. Thank you.

Goodbye.

Goodbye.

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.

Morning.

Morning.

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.

Goodbye.

Goodbye.

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.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

4 COMMENTS

  1. 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. 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. @ Alex…yes it was Matthias and Daniel (not sure if you met him) plus the others. I don’t think I ever saw Daniel 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. 🙂 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.

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