German Culture: My Awkward Social Encounters with Germans

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.

meeting German friends has become part of my expat life

Proof that even the socially inadept can make friends 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.

Laurel Robbins is the founder of Monkeys and Mountains, an adventure travel blog and company that helps people plan their active holidays in a sustainable way. Although Canadian, she lives in Germany. You can find her in the mountains on most weekends.
2017-09-24T20:54:16+00:00

27 Comments

  1. Mette Christensen December 12, 2011 at 12:52 pm - Reply

    Very astute and accurate observations that go for Denmark as well. A lot of us don’t talk unless spoken to and then only in single syllables – to hide our own social awkwardness, I guess.

  2. Laurel December 12, 2011 at 1:21 pm - Reply

    @Mette – Interesting, I’ve always found Danes so friendly, I didn’t realize they were reserved as well. Interesting observations about hiding social awkwardness. I actually like the more reserved attitude in theory, but find it a bit awkward in practice – but I’m learning 🙂

  3. Andrew December 12, 2011 at 7:28 pm - Reply

    Great story, Laural. I like the line about J.P being happy that his advice worked, in that you found out that you have nothing in common with someone else. This almost above the fear of silence underlines some of the social character in the US (can’t speak for Canada). Everyone is equal somehow so there must be SOMETHING to talk about. Weather, movies, sports all of that seems to be there to have something in common. We ALL have the weather in common. Though maybe it is all an effort to reduce silence. It is a bit odd that the Germans are ok to leave a conversation like that. I think I would feel, like you, that the conversation was a failure.

    I noticed back in the US how often the question “How are you?” comes up. 4 times between the door at the table in one restaurant. I understand they don’t care, really. But the German habit is to answer. There is a point where too much info is still too much info. That thing about someone’s abusive father. Even in the US, too much info for a first meeting. Maybe they(we?) are all starved for contact in an automated world where the Germans are around people continuously so don’t need more friends? Dunno.

  4. Tiffany @ No Ordinary Homestead December 12, 2011 at 7:32 pm - Reply

    Americans are definitely way more chatty and open when first meeting someone. We were at a birthday party for a friend’s daughter this weekend and there were several other Americans. The conversation just flowed and we never seemed to run out of things to talk about…without getting overly personal lol.

    But I’ve noticed that I’m not nearly as animated and chatty when surrounded by Germans, and I guess it’s really the fact that they are ok with the silence. Sometimes it’s a language thing but I find it totally uncomfortable to sit next to someone and say nothing — but it’s also a good reason to go find someone more engaging to talk to. I think there are far more Germans that prefer to sit in silence than Americans 🙂

  5. Suze December 12, 2011 at 7:48 pm - Reply

    I’m not so sure. I’ve lived here for 10 years and used to think the same but my opinion has altered over the years. I think that in the UK and probably in Canada, people form an opinion on you far too quickly depending upon your job, where you live, what car you drive etc. Germans are less class conscious and more likely to warm to you for the person you are not what job you do. I find it quite refreshing actually. Takes a while to get used to though!

  6. Zhu December 14, 2011 at 12:48 am - Reply

    “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 love that! 😆 Great German logic, isn’t it?

    I found it hard to meet people in Canada at first and yes, finding topics of conversation was an issue. Ottawa can be a bit conservative, people don’t leave the city much and I don’t enjoy talking about home renovation or pets. It took me a while to master more Canadian topics… but at least here, you can always comment the weather!

  7. Turkey's For Life December 14, 2011 at 7:24 am - Reply

    Sounds as though you’re doing a good job to me. Give it another 18 months and you might be just about there. 😉 So different here in Turkey. Turks like to know your life story within 5 minutes of meeting.
    Julia

  8. Stephanie - The Travel Chica December 16, 2011 at 8:59 am - Reply

    The words “awkward” and “German” are practically synonyms.

  9. fotoeins December 16, 2011 at 5:09 pm - Reply

    As I’m a product of Chinese immigrants to Canada, my bringing up the topic of Turkish-German Gästarbeiter relations is always good for a “heated” argument. Or better yet, get others truly riled up about the Stuttgart 21 project. (In truth, however, a “Kopfbahnhof” is generally not a good idea for traffic flow; see also München Hbf.)

    I guess that’s what I’ve got left to discuss after I reveal that in the 1. Bundesliga (German Football Premier Division), I’ll sing in Kölsch and cheer for 1. FC Köln, or anybody who is playing against Bayern. 😉

  10. Christina (Jandal Road) December 17, 2011 at 9:03 am - Reply

    Hi Laurel,

    I love your observations. And they are so true. Being German I have always felt that talking about your personal life within the first five minutes of meeting an American is very uncomfortable, such as being asked about whether you’re married and have kids, or they tell you they just got a divorce… over-sharing alarm from a German perspective!! It all boils down to what we feel is at our core, the topics that we feel are very personal and private. While for Americans these topics of divorce, kids, etc. may be more on the “surface”, for Germans they are not; surface topics would be what’s happening in politics right now, what’s in the paper, etc.
    In intercultural communication this phenomenon is called the “peach vs coconut” as it relates to Americans vs Germans (guess who’s which fruit…).

    I have to say, being a German expat in the UK, I have experienced similar social awkwardness many times over. But this has changed over the years to the extent that when I now visit Germany and people don’t say sorry when they almost bumped into me in the supermarket aisle, I find them incredibly rude 🙂

  11. Sabrina December 18, 2011 at 11:05 am - Reply

    How interesting! I never thought about Germans as being comfortable with silence – probably because I am German and grew up with that. I guess it’s true though – mostly. I’m perfectly content walking by someone in passing without saying a word or standing together in an elevator without saying anything. At a table with other people? Not so much. Long silence there would probably make me uncomfortable and/or feel bored. That was the case though even before I started moving around the world. I wonder if that’s maybe more of a Southern German thing… When I lived there for a while I had the hardest time meeting locals and hanging out with them. In fact, I felt much more like an outsider there than I ever felt in Texas.

  12. Traveling Ted December 20, 2011 at 2:05 am - Reply

    This is good information to have for people coming to Germany. I will know not to ask too many probing questions. I will stick with hobbies and beer.

  13. eileen ludwig December 22, 2011 at 4:28 pm - Reply

    Interesting – I am social awkward even at home. I either am silent or share too much – using the filter of others to figure out how to be in their world is hard since it isn’t really one big broad brush stroke. Sounds like you are finding good ways to know whether to go further or not in a friendship.

    I have these great conversations with others and think I have made a friend only to find out it fizzles – It is hard to know what works and what does not

  14. amandapoverseas January 8, 2012 at 2:10 pm - Reply

    I haven’t met too many Germans outside of transactional interactions such as at a store or restaurant, but even in those interactions I tend to feel inept. In part, it’s because I either can’t carry a conversation in German, or I feel awkward about asking if they speak English. Of course when I tried to say “Est tut mir leid. Mein Deustch ist nicht sehr gut. Sprechen Sie Englisch?” the girl looked at me kind of blankly until I said the last line, and I wondered if I should have gone to that straightaway. In any case, most people have been very friendly and understanding.

    It’s interesting you mention topics. We had a little more chit chat than I have found to be usual with one of the waitresses at our first restaurant, and she started off asking about what had brought us there which lead to telling her how we’d just moved from America, which lead to her telling us about her favorite candy. I don’t think that’s something I’d have ever learned about someone right off in America. I think I’d rather know what someone enjoys doing or eating than what they think of the weather outside lol.

    Someone mentioned Turks wanting to know your life story within five minutes of meeting. We have had several Turkish taxi drivers and they always talk about things I don’t think we’d end up discussing with a German or even American. Since they are always taking us to Patrick Henry Village they know we’re with the military so a lot want to talk about that. One gave a perspective about our involvement in Iraq (he has been several times and found the country much improved since the US has been over there), which was interesting to know.

  15. Marigold April 17, 2012 at 3:57 pm - Reply

    I have lived overseas, in a German-speaking country, for nearly ten years. I am American. I have come to deeply appreciate the sense of reserve and composed air of the Europeans I know. When I talk to Americans, I am alarmed at personal questions that come too quickly, too aggressively.

    However, the author’s approach was a bit silly. If living in Germany and you do not know what to ask a person outside of hobbies in which you take no interest, you need to rethink that approach. There are such things as Literature, Politics, Philosophy, History, Science, Medicine, Industry, Personalities etc etc etc. Conversation in new surroundings should never be trying–

  16. serafino February 24, 2013 at 9:56 pm - Reply

    I totally know what you mean! I’m Swiss, like a 100%. So based on common stereotypes that means that I’m introverted and reserved. It might be true sometimes.
    The interesting fact is that after having spent over 7 months in Canada, I came back much more laid back and “open minded” when it comes to meeting new people. Also dating. It’s just so easy to strike up a conversation with a stranger in North America. So I came back and became socially awkward and shy again. 3 Weeks ago I said to myself “F*** it, I want to overcome my social fears”, so I started cold approaching random people and having casual conversations. The people I approached were kind of shocked and didn’t know what the hell was going on, so I always acknowledged the awkwardness with a remark like “this is really awkward isn’t it” or “this is probably the most awkward conversations you have ever had”…. I now LOVE awkward situations because I think their hilarious. I learned how to use the awkwardness to my advantage to make the interactions funny, and most of the time it works. After doing it a lot I’m not afraid of anything, and it really increases my level of confidence (and talking to girls in general).
    But yeah, I guess Germans are pretty similar to the Swiss in these things.

  17. Mariella March 7, 2013 at 2:54 pm - Reply

    I love this post!! It was the other way around for me when I came to the States first 🙂 So, how do you feel by now, any better?

    • Laurel March 12, 2013 at 2:14 pm - Reply

      @Maria – Thanks so much. I feel better, but I’m still socially awkward, especially when it comes to jokes. How long did it take you to feel comfortable in the U.S?

  18. A Germany travel guide for budget travelers : Budget Travel Adventures March 8, 2013 at 6:26 pm - Reply

    […] misunderstanding. Germans are social and friendly, though quite “efficient” about picking who to be social with. Instead of starting in with small talk, they often go right into looking for common interests. […]

  19. Alex July 1, 2013 at 6:00 am - Reply

    Hello, I like your blog.

    I’m Canadian like the blog author, but even then, I’m more Euro-style where I don’t agree with asking right from the start about what you do for a living (“What do you do?”). Goodness, there’s just something odd about that if you really think about it. It just shows that North Americans (especially Americans) are groomed to just work all their life and be workers and that the “new world” like Canada, the USA are just lands made for work and making a few groups rich.
    But on the other hand, I’m of latin culture descent and mode as well, so there’s this sunny/closeness angle in me combined with the general Euro-style such as the asking about hobbies, person’s character rather than job, personal subjects, etc. Latin culture and style would be more like Southern European/Mediterranean – so we’re getting more specified now, almost regional. But overall, the general Euro mode (without getting regional) is wanting to get to the person through questions of hobbies, character, philosophy, art, etc. It makes complete sense as this IS what is about a person and who they are. Living. Not so much their work.

    • Laurel July 1, 2013 at 9:21 am - Reply

      @Alex – Agreed that it’s odd, but I didn’t realize how odd it was until I moved to Europe – goes to show how ingrained it was in me. I agree, I much prefer getting to know someone by finding out how they spend their time and what’s important to them, rather than what they do for a living.

  20. tunde May 5, 2014 at 1:51 pm - Reply

    I also did not realize how odd it is until I relocated to Europe

  21. CT September 9, 2016 at 6:11 pm - Reply

    Hmm, the thing about the advice working and the fact that you had nothing in common is crap if you ask me. Just because I don’t have something in common with someone doesn’t mean I don’t want to have a conversation, I love conversing with people that have hobbies and interests other than my own – How else would I learn new things.

    I’m in Germany at the moment, I’m a New Zealander and i’m finding it really awkward. I’ve met a few people that are more interested in a good conversation but i’ve found that they’re the ones that have a little more world travel experience and they’re a little more outgoing. Others are blunt and despite my trying to have a conversation and asking questions, they tend not to respond with much interest at all.
    Conversely I’ve travelled through the US on my own on multiple occasions and found meeting people, conversing and finding people to do things with easy enough. Conversations would arise from as little as someone hearing my accent and being intrigued, asking questions and so conversation and the night would lead from there – Can’t see that happening in cold (not temperature), quiet, reserved, disinterested Germany!

    • Laurel September 10, 2016 at 7:35 pm - Reply

      @CT Thanks for sharing your perspective. I find that Germans are very interested in good conversation, but not in small talk, so for visitors it can be difficult, but once you’ve put the time in, you’ve got long lasting friendships.

      • CT September 10, 2016 at 7:50 pm - Reply

        I’m not sure my idea of sharing ideas and opinions and hobbies (which may well be different to my own) constitutes small-talk. Just because you haven’t gotten to know someone in-depth doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to have a good conversation straight off.

        • Mina September 13, 2016 at 9:07 pm - Reply

          I feel the need to explain a few things here about the Germans. For us, a good conversation isn’t small talk. In fact if you ever tried to look up a german translation for that word you will notice it doesn’t exist. How come? I think because we don’t really need small talk. We are very direct people. If I ask you how you are doing, it’s because I care and really want to know. I don’t feel the need to ask that a stranger or someone I don’t like.
          Also those “awkward silences” everyone keeps talking about. I think they’re only awkward if one feels insecure. Rambling is a sign of insecurity. So we think this person is actually the social awkward one since they’re so nervous for nothing.

          • Laurel September 26, 2016 at 10:38 am

            Mina – Thanks for sharing, I appreciate your perspective. I find it fascinating how different cultures view small talk and silences. After living in Germany for 6 years, I still find myself somewhere in the middle and sometimes struggling to make small talk, which I used to do so easily.

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