An expat’s efforts to expand her network of German friends and deepen her friendships remain frustrated by the slow progression she is making with the German language, but with a little help from her children, she is getting there.
Because I work from home, I don’t speak German as well as I would like to after two years here. I can get by in stores and restaurants, sure. But when it comes to a conversation in German about art, politics, literature, and so on, that’s beyond my abilities. Last week my sister sent me a large box of English books. It’s a great but guilty treat for me, as I should be studying German every night!
My husband works for a German company, but his contract expires in November; he’s madly looking for other work in Germany. Our family just rented a wonderful house in a small village outside Bamberg. We didn’t intend to move twice within two years, but rental houses are sparse here. We chose a very expensive one when we arrived, which left us little money to travel.
Making friends speaking little German
Although we have met so many wonderful people, I still feel at a loss because of my broken German. Our children, aged 10 and 12, have been fluent for a while now. My husband and I exchange glances when they talk German, as they do it effortlessly! Of course, they need to speak German all day long in school.
Once a friend, always a friend
Germans have a reputation for being cold and standoffish, but we have learned that one must merely work a bit harder to get to the warm and generous German heart. For example, I was initially dismayed to be ignored on the street when passing by another person, but I have discovered that if I say hello first, I always get a warm (and sometimes surprised) hello back.
And once a German is your friend, he or she is loyal and available. In America, we tend to use money as the only currency, but when we tried to pay a neighbor to feed our cat while we took vacation, they would not accept it period! That is just something a neighbor does for another neighbor.
With a little help from our kids
We were recently invited to join a few families (through our children, of course) for a Friday evening get-together at the local beer garden. As I sat around the large table of happy, laughing adults—the kids had their own space upstairs—I couldn’t help but feel somewhat envious of their obviously easy and long-time friendships. When we first left America, before moving to Germany, my husband and I both longed to make more friends (and avoid losing our friends back home). We tried to develop friendships with people wherever we lived, but everyone always seemed so busy. Here, time with family and friends is a large part of the culture. I find that my new German friends are very patient with me as I struggle with the language. Plus, our kids love correcting us!
A big plus point to living in Germany is that the people spend a lot of time outdoors, hiking and bike-riding, both of which are beloved activities here. Although it is still hard to get the kids away from their electronics, even here!
Whatever happens, these two years have been a wonderful addition to my life, and they have enriched our children in ways that they cannot yet start to appreciate.
Respect their privacy
The Germans are very private people; they are not going to talk about their entire lives the first time you meet. It takes time – a lot of time – until they feel comfortable doing this. You should avoid asking private questions at first, and instead let them take the first step towards sharing intimate information with you.
Here are some examples of questions you should normally avoid:
- How much do you make at work?
- How much do you pay for rent?
- What is your religion?
- Which political party do you prefer?
And of course… avoid the topic war, unless brought up.
Always accept an invitation
Did you get invited for a party, coffee or beer by a German? Say yes, even though you don’t feel like going or don’t like any of them. Getting an invitation means you have reached a very important step to making a German friend, so do your best to accept.
Inviting them is also a very important step; it means to them that you are interested in their company and to get to know them better. The chances of getting no for an answer will be very rare – they like to be invited – so take your chance and do it. You have nothing to lose, because you can’t lose what you don’t have.
Keep your word
That is a very important point. You should keep your word in every circumstance, whether for a meeting set up or something you promised to do for the person. Germans take your word very serious, and they don’t like when you don’t keep it or change your mind at the last minute.
Avoid at all costs cancelling an invitation you have accepted, especially in the beginning when you are still trying to get to know them better. Unless something very bad happened to you – and I am not talking about a headache or a cold – don’t cancel at the last minute.
Be proactive and helpful
Really! The Germans are a very proactive and helpful people, and they likewise expect this from their friends. So don’t be lazy to offer help if they are moving or to offer cleaning up after the party. The same goes to your co-workers in case they need help with solving a problem or something similar. This is when you get them to trust and respect you.
Know and respect their rules
As you might quickly realise, the Germans love rules and have rules for everything. Even if it is frustrating, it is important to respect their specific rules. By doing this you will get their respect in return, and this is a vital step in the integration process.
Learn to respect the cultural differences
This rule does not only apply to Germans; in any country you are going to live, you need to accept and understand that their culture is different from yours. It is not wrong, right, better or worse than yours, but different. Keep in mind that you are not going to change them but you will need to change yourself to adapt, and complaining will definitely not help you.
Speak the language
I am not saying that you need to speak perfect German to interact. It took me more than one year to start having a normal conversation with the Germans without switching to English by the end of the talk.
What I am saying is, show that you are interested in learning their language. They know that German is very hard, but leaning how to say the basics, such as hi, how are you, cheers and bye, is already a big step and they will appreciate that. If you are in the learning process try speaking to them – they don’t bite, so no need to be afraid of making mistakes.
Avoid hanging out with people who only speak your language
Imagine that you are at university and see a group of foreigners (who happen to attend the same class as you) talking, laughing and hugging each other. Would you stop by to say hi? This situation would make most people feel intimidated to approach this group. Wouldn’t it?
So now put yourself in the Germans’ shoes; you could not expect them to try to be your friend if you already have your group and hang out with them all the time. You need to give them the opportunity to talk to you. Remember that it takes a while and the beginning is crucial.
Be patient and try harder
Not everyone was born with the virtue of being patient – God knows I wasn’t – but I had to find the little patience in me to give time to the Germans until I conquered their friendship. So be patient and give them time.
Not working? No patience to wait? Sorry, you will have to try harder. It took me more than one year to get some of my German friends to share very private things with me. Of course, with some friends it can take less time and with others it can take years! Remember: they are private people.
Worth the while
Going through all the integration process really does require your effort, but the best part is that it is worth it. Once you have a German friend, you have a friend forever. He/she will do anything for you, they will support you, help you, listen to you and stand up for you… for the rest of your life.
If you managed to go through all the process above without giving up, congratulations; you made it and you deserve their friendship. The Germans tend to think that what matters is not the quantity of friends that you have, but how many of them are true friends.