“Don’t let them turn you into a cold person.”

I can still remember how shocked and somehow offended I was when my friend Betsy told me this before my move.  Being an overly sensitive liberal (minus the bleeding heart), I have never liked stereotypes.  “I have several friends from Germany and they are wonderful people, but they are colder. It’s just they way they are.  Don’t turn into one.”

OK Betsy. I will try. I guess I come from an area of the world where almost everyone smiles at each other when they make eye contact, strangers talk to each other on the bus, people who have never met think nothing of making a connection even for a few moments. San Francisco is known for free earthquakes, love, and friendliness. In fact the entire USA is known as a talkative bunch.

When I first moved to Germany in 2005 this was something that I obviously took for granted.  I assumed (as we all do) that things would be different here, but that people would generally be friendly in the same way, if I was friendly to them.  What I didn’t bank on was the difference in culture in regards to strangers.

Now don’t get me wrong.  The people of the greater Bielefeld area that I have met are friendly, funny, and loving people.  They are there for you when you need advice, or when you need someone to come with you to the Auslanderamt. They are there for you when you need someone to talk in German to your potential landlord and explain that you are reliable and they should let you take the apartment. They really truly want you to like Bielefeld and Germany.

Then why doesn’t anyone smile when they make eye contact while walking through a park?  Why do I have to say “Guten Tag” when I enter the doctor’s office but as they answer no one even looks at me? Why was I only ever approached by strangers needing directions?  Was there really no contact between strangers here?  I needed more data.

I started with my smile experiment.  I would smile at random strangers who made eye contact with me and keep track.  On a good day my return smile rate was somewhere around 20% (Almost all return smilers were male over 60. Women, especially middle-aged women, looked at me as if I were mentally ill.).  I then moved on to small interactions.  I would try to ask people at markets or in town easy small questions that would maybe start a conversation (things like I really like your hair/tattoo/shoes/produce etc., did you get it here?).  My response rate was 100% positive.  My questions were always answered, but usually in one word or very short answers (yes, no) and with no offer of additional information, just the basics.  My conclusion was maybe that these questions were not viewed as engaging, rather they were just for information for this strange lady (me) in the orange wool coat speaking German with the funny accent. Okay intriguing.

Armed with this data, I started asking my Bielefeld friends what was going on.  Doesn’t Bielefeld realize I am lonely? That in place of actual friendships, I would happily take a little stranger interaction to fight the feeling of isolation? Don’t they know that I want to meet new people and learn new things?  One of them gave me the following joke as an answer:

“A Bielefelder walked into a small bar for a drink after work.  The bar was empty except for the bartender and two people, one seated at one end of the bar, and the other near the front. Upon seeing this he turned around and walked out of the bar.  Do you want to know why? Because there was no where to sit!”

Everyone I was talking to (all native to the area) began laughing at this joke!  They are completely aware that in general they are a bit closed off to strangers.  Friends and people you interact with are the people in your local club, VHS class, at work, or parents of your children’s friends, and not the stranger at the farmer’s market or in the coffee shop. They know that in the rest of the world it is not always that way, but somehow the social culture here pushes this behaviour.  And the best part is that they are able to laugh at it.  Somehow, that made me feel better.  Anyone that can laugh at their faults earns a little notch of respect in my book and it gave me a little more courage.

So fast forward a few years later and I realized that my friend Betsy’s advice was maybe not so far off. I went back for a visit in 2010 and was out for a jog by my parent’s house in California.  It was early morning (don’t ask why but this cures my jet lag) and there were a lot of dog walkers out and about. I realized that I found myself struggling to say good morning to everyone.  I was actually a little annoyed that I had to say it to everyone even though I didn’t know these people!  I was just trying to have my morning jog and I kept having to smile and wave… and nod… and say hello even when I wasn’t making eye contact!  The fact that we were sharing sidewalk was reason enough.  The nerve of these overly-friendly people!

I have often heard that this friendliness we Americans show strangers seems fake.  I once had a man spew for 10 minutes about how “nice to meet you” was a lie.  How could we know it was nice if we didn’t even know the person?  Now cultural sayings and norms aside, I see his point.  To a culture that often takes everything we say literally when translated, this idea of kindness to strangers seems to many wasted and fake.

I get it now. Really. I have even adapted. However, I still like to share smiles with strangers. I still really think it is “nice to meet you” because I like meeting new people.  I relish the small conversations at the market I have experienced and have found that the more I try, the more people open up.  I just have to work harder. In fact, with a little effort it seems many want to have a conversation with a stranger. It turns out they just are not that good at our English small talk in German. And that’s OK.  As long as they smile while they are talking to this strange lady in the orange coat with the funny accent, I will keep smiling too.


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. cathmarshall
    Aug 03, 2012 @ 08:13:18

    I love your post, Grace. I agree that you can get used to it, and when I go home to London it takes a while to adjust to friendliness and train staff calling me “love” which I can’t imagine here! Conversely, strangers in Germany (older ladies usually) have no problem approaching me to tell me what I am doing wrong with my kids. These usually start with ” an experienced mother would know better than….” Gets me every time. Talk about none of their business. Otherwise i too enjoy my own sort of smile /chat experiments and often discover the serious mask soon fades away.


  2. gracefulturtles
    Aug 12, 2012 @ 12:33:14

    Ah Thanks Catherine! Once I was able to really step into the other’s shoes and recognize the difference it was easier to adapt. Funny how I have to do it again for my own culutre when I go back to visit šŸ™‚


  3. Sam
    Aug 16, 2012 @ 00:26:44

    I’ve been back in the U.S. for a few weeks now, and I’m still a little overwhelmed when waitresses are overly-attentive and strangers say hi when we pass on a hiking path šŸ™‚


  4. Mahshid Mayar
    Aug 24, 2012 @ 07:30:59

    When I first read this piece, Grace, I laughed a lot! I even read out parts of it to my husband. It felt as if I had written it myself, but had forgotten about it altogether. I read it again this morning; now that I know you, it made me laugh even harder šŸ˜‰
    AND, your Mexico joke last night was just the type of ibuprofen I needed šŸ˜€


  5. Denise Keats
    Oct 19, 2012 @ 09:14:49

    What a great story you wrote that should be shared with the world!! The Europeans should realize how they affect other cultures who come and live in their country so with all the goodness and hard work on your end to show unconditional random kindness and not receiving it back it should be Posted on CNN and any international publication where it can be read! I live in small town Holland and it’s the same behavior here as it is in Germany and Belgium is worse. Nobody randomly smiles and they all publicly appear to be either angry or just depressed while shopping around town


    • gracefulturtles
      Oct 19, 2012 @ 17:01:36

      Thanks for your support Denise! My main point of writing this article was to express how truly freeing it was for me to realize that it was not about me personally, but that it was a cultural phenomena that I noticed here (and I guess for you too in NL). I am sorry to hear that you have a grumpy small town too! But now that my attitude has adjusted, it doesn’t bother me as much. I just keep talking to everybody and consider every random conversation with a stranger a victory!


  6. D.
    Oct 26, 2012 @ 12:21:16

    To be honest, when I first travelled to USA I was really puzzled by the “How do you do’s?” and gave a quick description of my actual situation. You see, I’m a typical German šŸ˜‰

    Bielefeld is in addition a special case: It SEEMS to be a town but in fact it’s a fusion of villages which were forced together in the great Gebietsreform in the early 70s. So the people from Bielefeld are like typical villagers: sceptical of all who where not breed in the same area.


  7. denny
    Oct 26, 2012 @ 21:22:40

    yeah that’s the problem with speaking German , it’s a to the point language as when your in the English language you can use words differently and there doesn’t have to be a one fit answer when you speak it. A phrase can be used differently in different circumstances. A general greeting is a kindness between strangers without any cost. I don’t see what is wrong with that. šŸ™‚


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