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ASK A GERMAN

Ask a German: Do you ever make small talk?

Compared to some other cultures, Germany is not known for enjoying small talk. So we asked a German: is informal chit chat ever used? And if so, what topics are acceptable?

People enjoy the spring weather in Hamburg in April.
People enjoy the spring weather in Hamburg in April. Weather is a safe small talk subject in Germany - but be aware that strangers might think you're chatting them up if you take part in small talk. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marcus Brandt

In some countries – like the USA – you often find yourself having frequent informal chats that mean absolutely nothing with complete strangers.

But in Germany, small talk just isn’t a big part of society. In fact if you asked someone at the bus stop or a supermarket cashier how their day was going, there’s a high chance you would receive some strange looks. 

In our latest series where we find answers to questions that foreigners want to know, we asked a German: Do you ever make small talk?

Angelina Scheb, 28, a project manager specialising in communications, told The Local that small talk does exist in Germany but it may be a little different than what you’re used to depending on your home country. The 28-year-old who lives in Berlin, said it depends on the context. 

“I think it’s different when you compare business with personal experience,” she said.

READ ALSO: German words you need to know – Der Smalltalk

“For example in business when you start a meeting there’s always some small talk like, ‘how you doing, did you go on vacation, how’s the weather?’ So there are some basic questions.

“I think in personal life it’s less about small talk. People (in Germany) are a bit more awkward about opening up with strangers. Basically you only talk to strangers if you have a question. For example: ‘where is this or that, can you show me the way?’

“If they help you with some kind of service, like at the bakery, you would be friendly but not go too deep into small talk.”

So if you’re at the bus stop or waiting for a train, would it be weird to have informal chit chat with a stranger?

“I think so,” said Scheb. “I have friends who wouldn’t say so because they’re very chatty and interested in people in general, especially when they are a bit tipsy. But I think it would be strange to be talked to. Most people might think they are being hit on if it’s the same age group… I think it would be a bit weird.”

People get on and off a tram at Kassel, Hesse.

People get on and off a tram at Kassel, Hesse. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Swen Pförtner

We asked Scheb, who is originally from a village near Würzburg in Bavaria, if there’s a difference between small talk culture in rural and urban settings.

“I think it’s always different between city and rural,” she said, but added: “In smaller villages you just already know a lot of people. So it’s still not really about small talk with strangers; you’re talking about where you know them from.”

Scheb added that it’s a “bit less stiff” in the countryside or small places compared to cities. 

What is it about Germany that makes its population so against a bit of light conversation? 

According to an opinion article by author Julia Friese published a few years ago in the German newspaper Welt, it could be a language thing.

Friese said that the English language has a “handy set of a few phrases, which are really very easy to learn” for small talk and with them “you can have a conversation while your brain goes on autopilot. It enables a conversation in which one gives the impression of active interaction, but in reality you only react passively.”

Friese added: “The German language lacks the necessary set of phrases and consistently calm, questioning intonation. Therefore, in moments when you have little social energy, you usually keeps your mouth shut.”

What counts as good small talk in Germany?

If you’re going to try out some informal chit chat in Germany, there are some topics that will work better than others. 

“If it’s a colleagues you might be talking about their children or team events, especially if you’re in a younger environment,” said Scheb.

“With my clients we stick to the weather, how they’re feeling – so health – occasions, and if they had a great weekend.” 

At a party with acquaintances it might be worth brushing up on some local topics (the housing market is always a good one) or general news (keep up to date with The Local for that!). And remember that Germans love solid facts and figures. So if you’re talking about renting, be sure to remember the square footage of your flat. 

READ ALSO: Six confusing things about renting a flat in Germany

It’s safe to say that Germans do make small talk, and the weather is probably your safest subject. But be aware that the context matters. And if you chat to a complete stranger, they may think you fancy them.

Whether it’s about bureaucracy, language, culture or something else entirely – do you have a question that you’d like to ask a German? Let us know by emailing: [email protected] or leave a comment below.

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READER QUESTIONS

Reader question: Is it ever too hot to work from home in Germany?

Germany has regulations on working during a heatwave - but does that also apply to people who work remotely? We take a look.

Reader question: Is it ever too hot to work from home in Germany?

The number of people working from home shot up during the Covid pandemic, and though employees no longer have the right to work remotely by law, many have chosen to stick with more flexible arrangements and set up a home office at least part of the week.

This is great news for people who enjoy a lie-in more than a long commute, but there are some downsides. One major issue is that it’s not always clear how Germany’s strict employee protection rules actually apply in a home setting. The rules for working during a heatwave are a good example of this.

How does Germany regulate working in extreme heat? 

By law in Germany, employers are responsible for creating a safe environment for their workers. This means that they should try and keep the temperature below 26C at all times and are legally obliged to take action if the temperature goes above 30C. 

That could include putting blinds on the windows to prevent the glare of the sun, installing air conditioning systems or purchasing fans. In some cases – such as outdoor manual labour – it could also involve starting and finishing earlier in the day. 

And in really high temperatures, employers may simply decide to call the whole thing off and give their employees a ‘hitzefrei’ day – basically a heat-induced day off – to go and cool down in a lake. However, business owners are generally given free rein to decide how hot is too hot in this instance (except in the case of vulnerable workers). 

READ ALSO: Hitzefrei: Is it ever legally too hot to go to work or school in Germany?

Do the heat rules apply to ‘home office?’

Unfortunately not. In most cases in Germany, the company isn’t directly involved in setting up the workspace for an employee that works from home, aside from possibly providing a laptop or phone for remote use. 

“The occupational health and safety regulations regarding room temperature do not apply in this case,” labour law expert Meike Brecklinghaus told German business publication T3N. “This is because the employer does not have direct access to the employee’s workplace and in this respect cannot take remedial action.”

That means that on hot days, it’s the employee’s own responsibility to make sure the environment is suitable for working in. 

woman works from home in Germany

A woman works in her living room at home. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Naupold

One duty employers do have, however, is to instruct their workers about the best way to set up a healthy work environment at home, for example by giving guidance on how to regulate the temperature. 

“In the end, it is the employee’s responsibility to maintain his or her workplace in a condition in which he or she can perform his or her work without the threat of health impairments,” Brecklinghaus explained.

What can home office workers do in hot weather?

There are plenty of ways to keep flats cooler in the summer months, including purchasing your own fan, keeping curtains or blinds drawn and ventilating the rooms in the evening or early morning when the weather is cooler.

However, if heat is really becoming a problem, it’s a good idea to communicate this to your employer. This is especially important if you have a health condition that makes it more dangerous to work in hot weather. 

In some cases, you might be able to negotiate for the employer to pay for the purchase of a fan or mobile air conditioner as goodwill gesture. If possible, you could also arrange to travel to the office where the temperature should be better regulated.

Another option for early birds or night owls is to arrange more flexible working hours so you can avoid sweltering at your desk in the midday sun, although this of course depends on operational factors. 

READ ASO: Jobs in Germany: Should foreign workers join a union?

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