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Changes Set In

I am Australian. Which means I am by nature outgoing, friendly, and a maybe a little too loud. I make eye contact and say hello to people in public places. I love making small-talk. I generally arrive late. I interrupt people to make comments I think would add to the conversation.

No Place for Chit-Chat

Another mistake I made was to try to continue my Australian habit of making small-talk at the supermarket checkout. In Australia, it is normal, even expected that you chat to your checkout girl/boy while he/she scans your groceries and loads them into bags for you. This process usually takes quite a while, and thus leaves you time and opportunity to chat about the weather or the price of apples, or whatever.

However, in Germany the supermarket checkout process is designed to be a highly precise affair. The employee behind the counter will whizz all your groceries through the scanner so fast you have to catch them on the other side to stop them flying onto the floor. You are expected to bring your own bags and pack them yourself — also at top speed — while simultaneously handing over the exact change to pay for your purchase, thank you.

Freshly arrived from Australia and wanting to try out my first German sentences, I once naively attempted to engage an aggressively competent checkout girl in small-talk about the weather. She looked shocked, but answered with gravity that, yes, it had been surprisingly warm recently. I was smilingly formulating my next sentence when her slightly panicked look over my shoulder alerted me to the line of people behind me sighing pointedly and looking at their watches. I had obviously broken an important unspoken rule: never disrupt the streamlined efficiency that is the German supermarket checkout! (And also, as a side-lesson here: Germans don’t do small-talk. Words must serve a purpose. This is why Germans are completely confused by the fact that the Australian expression, “How are ya?” doesn’t always require a reply.)

Ulterior Motives

On a similar note, casual chats with people in coffee shops or bars are also not common in Germany. This is especially true when it comes to interactions with the opposite sex, as I found out after an embarrassing misunderstanding in which I started a casual chat with a young man sitting next to me while waiting for my husband in a bar, only to quickly discover I had given him the wrong impression. "Idle" small-talk, especially between men and women, does not exist in Germany, and a woman initiating a conversation with a man in a bar can only mean the woman has an ulterior motive.

This incident led me to look more closely at male-female interaction patterns in Germany.  It turns out things work very differently. In Australia, men approach women. Especially in cafes, bars, clubs, etc. As a female alone in a bar, it won’t be long before you are approached by a man, using a more or less obvious pick up line, usually under the watchful eyes of his encouraging friends. Even if she is in a relationship or not at all interested in the suitor, an Australian girl will usually respond more or less politely (depending on the attractiveness of the guy and the tone of the pick-up line) to these sorts of approaches, engaging in small-talk while at the same time making it clear that she is not interested.

German girls, on the other hand, respond to any kind of public approach by a male — as politely worded as it may be — with a look that says "get away from me you repulsive bug, or I will stamp you into goo on the floor". Faced with the prospect of this response, it is understandable that German men very rarely approach women in public.

And German women, although unlikely to receive such rejection, just don’t consider it "done" to strike up conversations with strangers in bars. If a German woman does, against all odds, meet a boyfriend in a bar, she admits this fact to her friends with a small, almost embarrassed smile and a look that says "please don’t think I am the kind of girl who talks to strange guys in bars". So, lesson learned: starting conversations with Germans in bars implies that you are looking for more than a chat!

Once Ingrained…

Other lessons I learned the hard way on my path to Germanization include:

  • Making any noise louder than a whisper while on public transportation will result in a wave of tut-tutting and glares from those around you.
  • Making eye-contact in the street makes you seem crazy — the safest thing to do is keep your eyes on your toes.
  • Complimenting strangers on their attire will make Germans back away carefully.
  • Never be late. Not even ten minutes late. Everything over five minutes will lead to a phone call or message asking if you are "still coming".
  • A good German conversation is strictly regulated — one person speaks while the others listen. If you don’t wait your turn to speak, you will confuse people.

After the first couple of years in Germany, I stopped noticing these little differences — I subconsciously adjusted my behavior to match that of my new countrymen and felt happy, "normal", and comfortable in my new surroundings. I didn’t realize just how much I had re-programmed my social code until recently, when, shortly after I arrived in the USA, a woman on the bus tapped me on the shoulder to compliment me on my earrings, which resulted in the "Germanized" me jumping back in shock and clutching my bag defensively. Confusion in the lady’s kindly eyes made me realize that the process of subtle social readjustment has to be started all over again…


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