Small Talk: Why Germans Won't Tell You How They Feel

Avoid Awkward Situations With Germans

two men's hands each holding a cocktail in one hand, gesturing
German efficiency does not allow for small talk. CSA Images/ Color Printstock Collection @getty-images

One of the many clichés about Germany and the Germans says that they act in a not very friendly or even rude manner towards strangers. You might get that impression when you first come to Germany and try to get to know somebody else on a train, a bar or at work. Especially as an American, you might be used to get in contact with strangers really quickly. In Germany, you probably won't. And it is a scientifically proven fact that German people simply don't chat in public places when they don't know each other.

But what is often interpreted as rude manners, is more like a basic inability of Germans to small talk - they simply are not used to it.

For Most Germans Small Talk is a Waste of Time

So, if you get the impression that Germans are not willing to talk to you, it isn't a result of their grumpy mood. In fact, it comes more from another behavior often observed on Germans: They are said to be very direct and trying to be effective in what they are doing - that's why most of them don't think it is necessary to small talk as it costs time without producing measurable results. For them, it's simply a waste of time.

That doesn't mean that Germans never talk to strangers. That would make them very lonely people very soon. It is more about the kind of small talk that is very common in the USA like e.g. asking your opposite about how she feels and she will answer that she's feeling fine whether it is true or not.

You will rarely come across that kind of conversation here in Germany.

Yet, as soon as you get to know someone a little better and ask him how he feels, he will probably tell you that he's feeling basically fine but that he's got a lot of stress at work, doesn't sleep well and has come over a little cold lately.

In other words: He'll be more honest with you and share his feelings.

It's said that it's not too easy to make German friends, but once you've managed to befriend one, he or she will be a "real" and loyal friend. I don't need to tell you that not all Germans are the same and especially young people are very open towards foreigners. It might be due to the fact that they are able to communicate better in English than the older Germans. It is more a basic cultural difference that becomes obvious in daily situations with strangers.

The Case of Walmart

In the opinion of many Germans, Americans talk a lot without saying anything. It leads to the stereotype that the US-culture is superficial. A good example of what can happen if you ignore this difference in public friendliness towards others is the failure of Walmart in Germany about ten years ago. Besides the big competition in the German food-discounter market, Walmart's problems to deal with German labor-union culture and other economic reasons distressed the German employees and customers. While it is common in the US that you are welcomed by a greeter smiling at you when you enter the store, Germans are rather confused by this kind of unexpected friendliness.

"A stranger wishing me a pleasant shopping and even asking me how I feel? Let me just do my shopping and leave me alone." Even the discreet smile of the cashiers at Wall Mart didn't fit into the German culture of dealing with strangers with a "healthy" professional distance. 

Not Rude but Effective

On the other hand, Germans in comparison to many Americans are rather direct when offering criticism or appreciation. Also in service places like a post office, a pharmacy or even at the hairdresser's, Germans come in, say what they want, take it and leave again without extending their stay more than necessary to get the job done. For Americans, this must feel like someone  "fällt mit der Tür ins Haus" and downright rude.

This behavior is also linked to the German language. Just think about compound words: It gives you all the information that you need as precisely as possible in just one word.

Punkt. A Fußbodenschleifmaschinenverleih is a rental shop for floor grinding machines - one word in German vs. six words in English. A while ago I even found a study that actually claims to proof such a connection. 

Perhaps some stereotypes have their "Daseinsberechtigung". Next time you are trying to small talk with a German just say to yourself: They're not rude, they're just effective.

And just in case you are interested in avoiding the many traps of intercultural differences I strongly recommend the book "Doing Business with Germans" by Schroll-Machl. I gift this to all my clients for good reasons.