The No-Go Rule of French and German Small Talk

The No-Go Rule of French and German Small Talk

Remember last week’s post about reverse culture shock in Germany? I complained about unfriendly Germans who are unwilling to make an effort to socialize and reach out to strangers. Christoph, a Bavarian reader living in the US, noted that Germans “don’t have big smiles in their faces like in the US, but they aren’t unfriendly—at least not in Bavarian beer gardens and mountain huts.”

In my post, “Small Talk with Germans: A Pain in the…,” I talked at length about German communication. In another, I covered the importance of contextual communication in France. In both cases, small talk lies at the center of each interaction. But, there are some unspoken rules of engaging in small talk with either French or German people.

The no-go rule of small talk with the French

Americans tend to start a conversation with strangers by asking, “What do you do for a living?” To a French person, that sounds weird, as French life is not centered around work. According to a 2016 PEW Research Center survey, 73% of Americans say that working hard is an essential part of having a successful life. On the other hand, the French newspaper L’Express stated that 95% of French individuals prefer family life over work.

During the summer, I had a blast reading The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed. The authors decoded French conversation in many ways. Even if I couldn’t find the same traits in myself every time, the book was entertaining and made me think about my cultural preferences. In short, work and money are relatively boring conversation topics for the French.

Work is not a boring topic to me, but I’m not a typical French person. I left France for Germany soon after college, and 20 years later I moved to the States. As a result, my work ethic and small-talk habits illustrate how much I adapted to German life. At the same time, my face is like an open book, which is very un-German!

In this book, author Julie Barlow explains that French people don’t like to be put in a box (I agree!), and they just don’t think that working for a living is interesting. In her words, “There are other things they’d much rather talk about.” Topics like food and geography are more likely to untie French tongues than work-related discussions.

Dos and don’ts of small talk with Germans

Germans are not interested in small talk, and they are also incredibly private. Asking them about their jobs could be perceived as rude. Moreover, they dislike the American way of overselling everything, probably because they take each statement seriously. When Americans say something is good or very good, the fact-loving Germans understand that everything is alright. But, since Germans don’t use words like outstanding or excellent, they often fail to realize that their American colleague was simply trying to describe the task or situation as average.

In business, try reducing small talk with Germans to a minimum as soon as you’re about to start a meeting. However, I would consider engaging in thoughtful small talk with German colleagues since, of course, they are still human being who enjoy being noticed. Casual conversations at the copy machine or in the elevator are valuable, even in the factual German world.

Personally, I never felt comfortable in an elevator not talking to my fellow riders, even if I didn’t know them. I soon found out that sharing a compliment always opened the conversation—even in Germany.

Have you tried any of these strategies in your cross-cultural experiences? Let me know if they worked for you!

More about conversation with the French:

Photo credit: Fotolia


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