Auslaenderin in Berlin: Chattiness
Expatica presents the second in an occasional series ruminating about life as an American transplant in Berlin.
A week ago, I went to a neighborhood in southwest Berlin to get vaccinated for an upcoming trip to Kenya. The young doctor at the institute chatted to me about her desire to travel. A pharmacist next door spontaneously told me about her friend working in the slums of Nairobi. A cashier spoke to me about the weather, how busy life was, her Christmas plans.
I couldn’t believe it: People chatting – to me – in Berlin.
If you have ever lived in the U.S., you know that this is nothing special, an everyday occurrence, an imperative to make the time go by. People chat and chat and chat, in stores, at the post office, waiting in line, even on the streets. But in Berlin, this is as rare as seeing a white Rhino.
In fact, as an American living in Germany, you invariably encounter statements from your German friends that go something like this: “Americans talk so easily but they don’t mean what they say. It’s superficial.” And that is definitely not kosher here. Germans, locals will tell you, are reserved and mean what they say.
The classic example brought up is: “Let’s do lunch sometime.” Germans want that pinned down – when?
Well, I have drawn my own conclusions on the issue.
First of all, German is a very literal language and Germans in general are very straightforward, something quite admirable. However, that also leaves room for mistaking codes in a language, namely English, that can be more nuanced and flexible.
Ergo “Let’s do lunch sometime” (American translation: “I don’t want to leave you without a gesture of possibly meeting up in the future because that would be rude but I don’t want to necessarily have lunch with you either”) does not equal “Let’s have lunch” (German version) which actually translates in American as “When do you want to grab lunch together?”
Small-talk is another no-no. A German friend who has lived in the U.S. told me that his compatriots like their conversations to be meaty and meaningful: He said that it wasn’t very much fun talking to Americans at parties because they don’t express opinions on things that matter (read: politics).
But it can get strange at Berlin parties for Americans: People sometimes stand around silently without breaking the ice, an unthinkable situation across the Atlantic: We would be too uncomfortable to not offer some tidbit to get a conversation going.
I have noticed the chattiness-affliction in myself over the years I have lived here. It feels awkward to have my hair cut or go to the dentist and not shoot the breeze. It feels rude, actually. It took awhile but now my hair stylist and I have become quite chatty together, finally.
What feels even odder is when I go to the U.S. and am bombarded by friendly chatter. It can get overwhelming because I am not used to it anymore.
Here is an example of a day this past June running errands:
• A postman telling me about his time serving in Germany after seeing the postmark on the letter I was sending. People waiting behind me didn’t seem to mind waiting a bit longer for him to finish his story.
• A group of women in line at a department store exclaiming over my bargain finds and congratulating me on my nimble shopping skills while examining my new acquisitions.
• A cute little boy in the bank regaling the women waiting in the lobby with tales of himself as the class clown. His favorite flavor of ice cream was vanilla and his name was Ricardo.
• A woman named Dawn at the local drug store telling me of her long career as a buyer for cosmetics at the company then lecturing me to get serious about skin care before it was too late.
It was exhausting. I am just not used to that much verbal stimulation while doing my errands.
But it was fun, too. And I found myself smiling as I went about my business then.
Because the truth is, I don’t like shopping much and no one particularly likes waiting in line. So a few jokes, stories and shared smiles goes a long way to make the time pass by more quickly and pleasantly.
And so I found myself smiling on my way home from southwestern Berlin last week, too. It was grey and ugly outside and I was stressed and tired. But after a few pleasant chats, I didn’t notice anymore.
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