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.
“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.”
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.
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.