If, like me, you were socialised in a culture whose modes of verbal and non-verbal communication differ from those in the foreign country you reside in, you are not alone. Be it chatting with new acquaintances, good friends or with a civil servant in an office, I have had several fish-out-of-water moments and my fair share of being ‘lost in translation’ despite my near-native command of good old Deutsch. As is the case with every new environment, mastery of conversational etiquette is helpful if you want to reduce those fish-out-of-water moments. These are the 5 things most prominent things I have learnt about German conversational etiquette:
Keeping eye contact is not disrespectful, it's an acknowledgement of interest
I was recently chatting with two friends (from the U.S. and South Africa) and one of them said something that had been on the tip of my tongue for a long time, “Germany is a staring society!” Not to say that people will always gape at you (although, they do sometimes, but this is a different story for another blogpost) or that this is the norm. I have found out that making eye contact in crowded places, like the bus stop is not frowned upon, it is encouraged. Eyes are the windows to the soul, as the saying goes. Strangers may initiate eye contact in order to acknowledge interest in you. Making eye contact with strangers in such impersonal situations makes you appear approachable.
You will be asked to give your (honest) opinion
Do you sometimes recall those moments you’d rather remain silent at table with new acquaintances and quietly enjoy your meal without contributing much to the conversation? Or when its just in your nature to initially opt for passivity because you normally take some time to warm up to a bunch of new people? During interactions at house parties or at the dinner table with my au pair family, the same question has often popped up, “So Mariam, do you agree? What’s your opinion?” And then follows the all eyes on you moment of silence. Kind of like that awkward moment a teacher picks you out without you having raised your hand. But I have been told that it is a virtue of conversational politeness to proactively engage a newbie in a conversation. People are genuinely interested in getting to know you and include you in the conversation.
Being a tad polemic is the cue for an engaging conversation
If you are the non-controversial, non-confrontational or non-dominant type, this can be quite challenging. A pinch of controversy is always a welcome spice for an interesting conversation. The ability to state your opinion and vehemently defend it (while, of course, listening to what others have to say) is a desirable virtue. The let’s-agree-to-disagree conclusions round up many such conversations and this is perfectly O.K. We all don’t have to agree on everything after all. This is initially exhausting and can even be intimidating if you are from a society where everyone pretends to agree on everything for the sake of saving (everyone’s) face.
Small talk is a very rare commodity
I have often heard some of my German friends complain about the superficiality of small talk in other countries. “Going on and on about the weather can be exhausting,” they say. So when you go to a public office in Germany chances are you will be met with a “Guten Tag” and a “What can I do for you today” immediately after. The conversation will be matter-of-factly and will not be sprinkled with small talk or a dose of humour. Especially not when your conversation partner is a police officer.
A smile is the new "Hello"
Having grown up in Uganda, greeting strangers is a thing you learn to do as a child. It is a sign of courtesy and respect. Saying a casual “hello” to your stranger-neighbour on the bus or in a taxi is nothing out of the ordinary, it is the norm. What greeting is to my Ugandan counterparts, smiling is to my German counterparts.
What lessons in conversational etiquette have you learnt from your trips/stays abroad?