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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

What tourists visiting Germany need to know about the €9 ticket

Public transport in Germany is about to get a lot cheaper with the introduction of the €9 ticket this summer. We looked at whether you have to be a resident in Germany to get it.

What tourists visiting Germany need to know about the €9 ticket

What’s all this about cheaper transport?

You may have read on The Local (yes, we’ve been writing about it a lot!), that Germany is bringing in a reduced price travel ticket. For the months of June, July and August, people will be able to purchase a €9 monthly ticket which they can use on public transport all over the country. 

The ticket is valid on buses, trains, U-Bahn services, trams and regional trains. People will be able to use it in all local networks – whether it’s Hamburg, Bavaria, Berlin, North Rhine-Westphalia or anywhere else.

It’s not valid on long-distance transport – that includes ICE and IC trains, as well as Flixbus and Flixtrain services. So you need a separate ticket for these services. 

READ ALSO: How to explore Germany by train with the €9 ticket

Is it available to tourists?

Definitely. Anyone in Germany can buy it. That includes tourists or anyone else visiting the country, as well as residents who live in Germany. 

How can I get it?

It’s not available quite yet, but you should be able to get your hands on it in the second half of May. All going well, it is set to be approved by the German parliament and states on May 19th and 20th (although they are bickering about the funding of it right now). 

Local transport providers are already updating their ticket machines. 

How does it work?

The ticket is being implemented by local transport organisations across the country so there are slight differences depending on where you get it. But the general idea is that people will be able to buy it at ticket machines, customer service centres and even via the transport provider’s app. 

The ticket will cost €9 per calendar month, or €27 in total if you buy three separate tickets. It will always be valid from the 1st of the month. So even if you buy the ticket on June 14th it will still cost €9 and it will only last until the end of that month (not into the next month). 

You can’t buy a three month version of the ticket – you’ll have to buy a separate ticket each month. 

The ticket will have your first and last name on it, so you can’t give the ticket to someone else. 

Two women take a photo in central Frankfurt. Tourists and residents can use the €9 travel ticket this summer. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Boris Roessler

Can I bring children with me?

Usually, local transport providers allow children under the age of six to travel for free with an adult who has a ticket. But check the terms and conditions of the area you are in. 

Can I bring a bike with me?

No. You’ll need to buy a special ticket to bring your bike on board. You can bring luggage on board without an extra ticket. 

Is it worth tourists buying the €9 ticket?

If you plan to take public transport in Germany, it’s definitely worth getting it. A single day ticket in Munich for example costs €8.20 normally (and even more depending on the zone). In Berlin, a single day ticket costs €8.80. 

Are there any downsides?

Expect services to be busy during these three months as more people turn to local transport. Rail operators have also urged people to watch out for building work on the lines. Since most people normally travel in summer, the warmer months are used to upgrade service and lines. 

READ ALSO: What is Sylt and why is it terrified of the €9 holidaymakers?

Why is the ticket being brought in?

It’s part of the German government’s energy relief measures, which include a €300 payout to German taxpayers and a fuel tax cut. The aim of the transport ticket is also to encourage people to leave their cars at home which protects the climate. If successful, it may lead to price reductions of local transport in future. 

Are there still Covid measures in Germany?

Yes – on public and long-distance transport, people in Germany still have to wear a face mask. You also have to isolate for at least five days (or a maximum of 10 days) if you get a positive Covid test, and there are still restrictions on entering the country

READ ALSO: Five things to know about the Covid pandemic in Germany right now

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