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As Brits, small talk is somewhat integral to our national identity. From the Tesco queue to the dentist’s chair, the act of making polite conversation with strangers in all manner of social situations is one we’re all partial to.
I’ve never been any different, cheerfully partaking in exchanges about the weather and whatever was on the telly last night. The urge to make conversation has always felt like the natural thing to do, and back in the UK this was always reciprocated.
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Small talk could be meaningless, yes, but it was always pleasant.
In that sense, moving to Germany was bit of a culture shock. Even before coming here, I was aware of the stereotypes: Germans would never dream of asking the cashier at Edeka if they reckoned it was “shorts and t-shirt weather” (or as we say in Scotland, “taps aff”).
After six months in Germany, my experiences were true to the stereotype. Exchanges with those in their official capacities were always brisk and minimal. Still, I recently consulted my native colleague for her opinion - just to check my claims weren’t the suspicions of a cautiously polite Brit. When I asked if Germans were really so averse to small talk, she nodded enthusiastically.
“It is so strange that you guys can talk about the weather for so long!” she replied.
“We just don’t do it. It just seems like…well, what’s the point?”
Indeed, the evidence for this aversion goes beyond anecdotes and stereotypes. A 2011 study by the University of Hamburg verified that Germans do not typically “do” small talk. Study director Professor Juliane House referred to the standard small talk topics of weather and wellbeing as “empty verbiage”.
According to the study, British people take part in “etiquette of stimulation”, which involves using small talk as a means of feigning interest in others.
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In contrast, the concept is so unfamiliar in Germany that there isn’t even an expression for it in the language. On the rare occasion that Germans do indulge in water cooler chat, they use the English phrase: “wir machen Smalltalk.”
At first, this inability to entertain a bit of idle chatter was frustrating, not least because I wasn’t feigning any interest - as a newbie in Germany, I WAS interested. I tried on numerous occasions to strike up conversations with colleagues about the weather and such things, but to no avail. Often I was given minimal responses, and was taken aback by the sheer bluntness of them.
On the third day of my new position in Berlin, and despite insisting I would never do so, I did the stereotypically British thing of attempting to chat in the lift.
“Get up to much last night?” I asked a woman I believed to be my colleague.
“No, not especially” she replied, curtly. And that was the end of it.
But how else are you supposed to make friends with German colleagues? Skip “How was your weekend?” and head straight to “Tell me about your biggest fear?”
Perhaps it was my upbringing as a chronically chattering Brit, but treating small talk as a social taboo felt like skipping the first steps in getting to know a person. Initiating that conversation was the quickest way to suss out if I was going to click with them; whether they were instantly friendly or shut off, or if we shared similar interests. A question as mundane as “how was your weekend?” could be revelatory.
But after getting nowhere with small talk, I’ve given it up entirely - and I’ve found much more success in making friends with natives in doing so. After all, unlearning the norms of what is considered acceptable in your own country is just another step in acclimatising to your new one.
Conversations with natives may not involve the usual social lubricant of small talk, but it does encourage you to get creative with chat. Instead of the usual openings, I decided to get much more direct in my pursuit of friendships; I asked about work, how they ended up in Berlin, and what they got up to in their spare time. I even became friends with the aforementioned colleague after I picked up on her love of bullet journalling, after admiring from afar.
Contrary to the stereotype, the German friends I’ve made are no less warm, courteous and filled with engaging conversation. It just involves skirting around the filler topics and making that extra bit of effort to show you are genuinely interested in getting to know them.
Plus, as an anxious person, skipping the regime of nervously finding something - anything at all - to talk about in moments of silence was strangely relieving. Whereas I once mustered conversation to fill silences I once deemed “awkward”, I no longer find this necessary. In that respect, it was positive to internalise from the Germans around me that constant conversation isn’t essential for validating friendships.
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So, while there is still a regular struggle to resist mentioning the weather (even when it’s -shock horror - hot or snowing!) I’m finally content to make like the natives and skip the chit chat. Making friends with Germans inside and out of the workplace has reinforced that this Brit is happy to leave the forced chit chat behind and to let friendships flourish organically.
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