I consider myself to be a socially adept person. I am outgoing and genuinely like meeting other people – then I moved to Germany, immersed myself in German culture and it all changed.
I have now turned into one of those socially awkward people who struggles to make friends. The kind of person that when you meet them, you wonder how you they have it this far in life with so few social skills. That’s me, but I wasn’t always this way – just when I interact with locals.
In North America, when you meet someone you are eager to establish a rapport. It’s common to know the person’s job and where they work, where they live, marital status, how many kids they have, or if they are single to hear what a weirdo their last blind date turned out to be – all within the first five minutes of meeting them. Not so in Germany. If you share too much information on your first encounter with a German you are likely to be met with a bemused expression and a distance “none of your business” stare should you dare ask these questions in return. It’s simply too much information for a first encounter. Germans are more reserved than North Americans and prefer to stick to less personal topics.
“Such as what?” I asked J.P. (my German husband) after yet another awkward encounter which left do doubt that the German recipient on the other end of my over sharing and I would not become the fast friends I had hoped. “Hobbies, ask about their hobbies.” J.P. offered. “Are you kidding? I should ask someone about their hobbies? It sounds so nerdy.” I said as I dismissed J.P.’s advice.
A couple of weeks later when meeting a new German acquaintance I was determined to do better this time and after the introduction and what seemed like several minutes of silence but was really only several awkward seconds I asked my new acquaintance “What are your hobbies?” He responded with “football”. Oh crap, where was I going to go from there? I know nothing about football (soccer to my North American friends). I haven’t played it since gym class when I was seven, nor do I follow the professional leagues. I asked some basic follow-up questions, based on my limited knowledge of football, but our conversation soon pilfered out. “See, it didn’t work.” I indignantly told J.P., frustrated that despite my best efforts, the result was yet another awkward encounter. “It worked just fine. You found out you have nothing in common with each other so there was no need to continue the conversation.” J.P. triumphantly explained. I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but he was right, the guy and I had nothing in common. Still, I prodded him for a list of other “acceptable” topics and got “travel – but be careful not to sound like you’re bragging” and “are you originally from Stuttgart” out of him. It wasn’t a lot to go on, but it was better than just “hobbies”. At least I had backup topics. I don’t give up easily – making friends is key for not being lonely.
18 months later my social encounters with Germans are less awkward than they were at first, but I feel I’m stuck somewhere in-between North American and German social norms. Upon meeting an American recently she told a table of us about her abusive father and how she had triumphed over her circumstances. Inspiring, but way to much information for a first encounter. I’ve also noticed that J.P. is right, North Americans do talk a lot about the weather, making for very mundane conversation. Yet, I’m still not comfortable with long silences in conversations. Rather than fill in the gaps in conversation with meaningless chit-chat, many Germans are perfectly comfortable to sit in silence. Me? Not so much, but I am making great advances about not filling in these gaps of silence with talking about the weather so much. My “sweet-spot” for social encounters with Germans are those that have lived abroad and are used to the “American” style of chit-chat, many of which hang out at events found on Meetup or Internations. They still retain some of their German reserve and don’t ask “What do you do for a living?” in the first few minutes of meeting each other. I think I’ve now evolved from being “socially awkward” to just being “slightly socially awkward”. By this time next year, I may even have recaptured my “socially adept” status.