“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.

Grace

Advertisements