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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

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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.

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MOVING TO GERMANY

Reader question: How can I get an official German ID without a residence permit?

It can be useful to have some form of ID for day-to-day life in Germany. But what do you do as a foreigner if you don't have a residence permit to use, and you don't want to risk carrying your passport around? Here's what you need to know.

A man presents his German ID card
A man presents his German ID card. Photo: picture alliance / Sebastian Willnow/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa | Sebastian Willnow

According to the Ministry of Interior, all German citizens must own some form of official identification from the age of 16 onwards. There’s also a very prevalent myth which states that people in Germany must carry this official ID on them wherever they go.

The first thing to ask is whether this rule is actually true, and whether foreigners in particular are obliged to own, or carry, official ID?

Contrary to what many people are told, neither foreigners nor Germans are legally required to carry a form of ID with them when out and about – unless, of course, they’re crossing the German border. 

“Section 48 of the Residence Act does not contain any obligation to carry a passport,” states legal website Juraforum.de. “The Dessau-Roßlau Regional Court (Case No.: 13 OWI 329/11) determined that a foreigner does not have to carry an identity document at all times.

“An identity document must only be presented after a reasonable period of time upon request.”

In other words, though it can make it easier if you have ID with you if you’re stopped by the authorities for any reason, experts say you aren’t obligated to present ID straight away, but rather “after a reasonable period of time”. 

That technically means that you can leave your passport at home and only present it as proof of identity once you’re able to.

But what if you’re keen to have some form of ID that you can carry with you for day-to-day things like using vending machines or proving your age in a supermarket?

Or, more commonly, to show that your vaccine passport or recovery certificate belongs to you under Germany’s 3G/2G or 2G-plus Covid health pass restrictions?

That all depends on your citizenship and residency situation.

For German nationals, getting hold of an official ID card is a simple as going to your local Bürgeramt. For non-EU nationals, your residence permit card will have an electronic ID function and can be used to prove your identity within Germany.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to prove you’re a resident in Germany

For EU citizens who aren’t German, things can feel a little bit trickier, as you don’t need a residence permit and are not entitled to a German ID card.

So what are your options?

Well, since January 1st, 2021, non-German EU and EEA citizens have been able to apply for an electronic ID (eID) card under German law. To do this, you’ll need to be at least 16 years old and have another form of valid official ID, such as a passport, in your possession.

The eID cards cost €37 and are issued for a period of 10 years. 

While these aren’t considered valid travel documents, they can be used to prove your ID within Germany, for example at vending machines or self-service terminals in local public offices. 

General information about the eID card for EU/EEA citizens can be found here. If you’d like to know more about the digital function and how to use it, see our recent explainer here:

What is Germany’s electronic ID card and how do you use it?

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