SHARE
COPY LINK
MOVE TO GERMANY COLLECTION
For members

LIVING IN GERMAN

How dropping the small talk helped me make friends with Germans

Even scientific studies suggest that Germans hate empty chit chat. As a Brit whose need to talk about the weather is as good as written into her DNA, Floraidh Clement struggled to break the ice with her German colleagues at first. Only when she cut to the chase did she find common ground with the seemingly cold people of her new country.

How dropping the small talk helped me make friends with Germans
The key to making German work-friends: less chit-chat, more conversation. Photo: Pexels

This article is available to Members of The Local. Read more Membership Exclusives here.

As Brits, small talk is somewhat integral to our national identity. From the Tesco queue to the dentist’s chair, the act of making polite conversation with strangers in all manner of social situations is one we’re all partial to.

I’ve never been any different, cheerfully partaking in exchanges about the weather and whatever was on the telly last night. The urge to make conversation has always felt like the natural thing to do, and back in the UK this was always reciprocated.

Small talk could be meaningless, yes, but it was always pleasant.

In that sense, moving to Germany was bit of a culture shock. Even before coming here, I was aware of the stereotypes: Germans would never dream of asking the cashier at Edeka if they reckoned it was “shorts and t-shirt weather” (or as we say in Scotland, “taps aff”).

After six months in Germany, my experiences were true to the stereotype. Exchanges with those in their official capacities were always brisk and minimal. Still, I recently consulted my native colleague for her opinion – just to check my claims weren’t the suspicions of a cautiously polite Brit. When I asked if Germans were really so averse to small talk, she nodded enthusiastically.

“It is so strange that you guys can talk about the weather for so long!” she replied.

“We just don’t do it. It just seems like…well, what’s the point?”

Indeed, the evidence for this aversion goes beyond anecdotes and stereotypes. A 2011 study by the University of Hamburg verified that Germans do not typically “do” small talk. Study director Professor Juliane House referred to the standard small talk topics of weather and wellbeing as “empty verbiage”.

According to the study, British people take part in “etiquette of stimulation”, which involves using small talk as a means of feigning interest in others.

READ MORE: I arrived in Berlin expecting a giddy European adventure. Instead I got depression

In contrast, the concept is so unfamiliar in Germany that there isn’t even an expression for it in the language. On the rare occasion that Germans do indulge in water cooler chat, they use the English phrase: “wir machen Smalltalk.”

At first, this inability to entertain a bit of idle chatter was frustrating, not least because I wasn’t feigning any interest – as a newbie in Germany, I WAS interested. I tried on numerous occasions to strike up conversations with colleagues about the weather and such things, but to no avail. Often I was given minimal responses, and was taken aback by the sheer bluntness of them.

On the third day of my new position in Berlin, and despite insisting I would never do so, I did the stereotypically British thing of attempting to chat in the lift.

“Get up to much last night?” I asked a woman I believed to be my colleague.

“No, not especially” she replied, curtly. And that was the end of it.

But how else are you supposed to make friends with German colleagues? Skip “How was your weekend?” and head straight to “Tell me about your biggest fear?”

Photo: DPA

Perhaps it was my upbringing as a chronically chattering Brit, but treating small talk as a social taboo felt like skipping the first steps in getting to know a person. Initiating that conversation was the quickest way to suss out if I was going to click with them; whether they were instantly friendly or shut off, or if we shared similar interests. A question as mundane as “how was your weekend?” could be revelatory.

But after getting nowhere with small talk, I’ve given it up entirely – and I’ve found much more success in making friends with natives in doing so. After all, unlearning the norms of what is considered acceptable in your own country is just another step in acclimatising to your new one.

Conversations with natives may not involve the usual social lubricant of small talk, but it does encourage you to get creative with chat. Instead of the usual openings, I decided to get much more direct in my pursuit of friendships; I asked about work, how they ended up in Berlin, and what they got up to in their spare time. I even became friends with the aforementioned colleague after I picked up on her love of bullet journalling, after admiring from afar.

Contrary to the stereotype, the German friends I’ve made are no less warm, courteous and filled with engaging conversation. It just involves skirting around the filler topics and making that extra bit of effort to show you are genuinely interested in getting to know them.

Plus, as an anxious person, skipping the regime of nervously finding something – anything at all – to talk about in moments of silence was strangely relieving. Whereas I once mustered conversation to fill silences I once deemed “awkward”, I no longer find this necessary. In that respect, it was positive to internalise from the Germans around me that constant conversation isn’t essential for validating friendships.

So, while there is still a regular struggle to resist mentioning the weather (even when it’s -shock horror – hot or snowing!) I’m finally content to make like the natives and skip the chit chat. Making friends with Germans inside and out of the workplace has reinforced that this Brit is happy to leave the forced chit chat behind and to let friendships flourish organically.

SEE ALSO: How moving to Germany as a couple put a big strain on our relationship

Member comments

  1. Just today witnessed two German people meeting in the morning and discussing the weather. Something is changing, perhaps? 🙂

  2. Great article. This is something I really appreciate about Germans – they do not tolerate superficiality in human interactions. Having lived here for a number of years, I now really notice the way in which we Brits (and the Americans are even worse) spend so much time ‘feigning interest in others’. It really is a wasted opportunity. If you don’t have the time or energy for a genuine interaction, why bother? But if you do, then why talk about the weather? Or even worse… football!

  3. This has always interested me. Family on my vaters side are always direct and to the point. My mom’s family’s British heritage is always on display with chatting. It’s always a treat to sit back and watch the interactions at the family reunions.

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

IMMIGRATION

What you need to know about Germany’s points-based immigration plans

Germany wants to make it easier for non-EU citizens to enter the country to help combat the shortage of skilled workers with the so-called "opportunity card". Here’s what you need to know.

What you need to know about Germany's points-based immigration plans

As The Local has been reporting, Germany is currently facing a huge gap in its labour force, with the Labour Ministry predicting a shortfall of 240,000 skilled workers by 2026.

This week, Federal Labour Minister Hubertus Heil presented the initial details of a new points-based immigration system, which is designed to make it easier for people to come to Germany to work. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The German industries ‘most affected’ by skilled worker shortage

The new Chancenkarte (“opportunity card”) presented by the SPD politician is broadly similar to the Canadian points system, and will offer foreign nationals the chance to come to Germany to look for work even without a job offer, as long as they fulfil at least three of the following criteria:

1) A university degree or professional qualification

2) Professional experience of at least three years

3) Language skill or previous residence in Germany

4) Aged under 35 

Holders of this opportunity card would then have one year to look for a job and would have to finance themselves during that period. 

According to the Labour Minister, the German government will set a yearly quota for the number of people who will be able to come to Germany with an opportunity card, based on the needs of the labour market.

“It is about qualified immigration, about a non-bureaucratic procedure,” Heil told WDR radio. “That is why it is important that those who have received the opportunity card can make a living when they are here.”

Speaking about the proposals, Professor Panu Poutvaara, Director of the ifo Center for International Institutional Comparisons and Migration Research told the Local: “I welcome the government proposal. Germany needs more workers at different skill levels. What is important is that this should complement the current opportunities to come to Germany also from outside the European Union with an existing job offer, not replace these. I assume that the proposal is meant only to extend the current options, but the precise proposal is not yet circulated.”

READ ALSO:

According to a survey by the Munich-based Ifo Institute, the vast majority of companies in Germany are currently struggling with the issue of a shortage of skilled workers. The survey showed that 87 percent are facing worker shortages and more than a third of respondents see it as a threat to competitiveness. 

“The shortage of qualified employees, and meanwhile of employees in general, is the third threat to Germany as a business location, alongside shortages of raw materials and energy,” Rainer Kirchdörfer, CEO of the Family Business Foundation told die Welt. 

Changes to immigration and citizenship laws ‘high priority’

The proposed measure is part of a package of reforms to immigration law which will be presented later in autumn.

The government also wants to make it easier for people to hold multiple nationalities and make naturalisation of foreigners easier. In future, naturalisation will be possible after five years instead of eight years currently, and as little as three years in cases where people are deemed to have integrated particularly well.

“We need more immigration,” Heil told Bild am Sonntag. “To this end, the traffic light will present a modern immigration law in autumn. We are introducing an opportunity card with a transparent points system so that people our country needs can come to us more easily.”

READ ALSO: INTERVIEW: ‘Changing German citizenship laws is a priority’

A spokesperson from the Interior Ministry recently told The Local that the changes are a “high priority” but they could take time. 

They said: “The modernisation of citizenship law agreed in the coalition agreement of the governing parties is a high priority for the federal government. There are also plans to make dual and multiple citizenships generally possible.

“The careful preparation and implementation of this important reform project is underway, but will take some time because fundamental amendments to the Citizenship Act must be prepared for this purpose.”

SHOW COMMENTS