Small Talk with Germans: a Pain in the …?

Small talk with germans
Last month, my 13-year-old stepson started boxing. He enjoys it a lot, and so do I for another reason: the carpool that a friend of mine introduced me to! JB now goes to boxing classes a couple of times a week, but I just have to pick-up all the carpool kids on Thursday evenings. Eventually, I met all of the other moms last week when Christina, my German friend whose daughter boxes too, invited us for a morning coffee. Long story short, I got them all laughing when I apologized for being a blunt German mother.

I’ve often heard that Germans don’t really like small talk the way Americans and French people do. However, it would be an enormous cultural misunderstanding to think that Germans are callous and rude just because they don’t engage in small talk like you do.

Germans suit their conversation to the situation.

Remember, everything has its place and time in German culture. When business people meet with Germans, it’s for a business purpose, right? Then, in the German mind, small talk has nothing to do with business. I talked at length in my post “Seriously, do Germans have a sense of humor?” about the separation of private from professional life in Germany. In many ways, the same idea also applies to small talk:

“If you have never lived in Germany, and the extent of your contact with this country involves working with German partners, you have never had and will probably never get a chance to spend any personal time with them . . . Germans spend hours working in the office, and the German word “Arbeitszeit” literally translates as “time to work”/“work time.” They “live” at night, on the weekends, and during their vacations. Even then, the German word “Feierabend” is revealing. Although its connotations are virtually untranslatable, it literally means “evening to party.”

This Reddit thread (“Small talk mit Deutschen”) speaks volumes about German small talk. Two years ago, an American asked for advice how to do small talk with Germans. Among many answers, I picked up two that explained German bluntness.

“Be prepared that if you ask the question of ‘How are you?’ to get an actual answer . . . Given the German fondness of complaining, they might also explain [to] you just how miserable their life is at the moment. Stress, broken relationships, being sick, unruly children, bad weather . . . might all come up if you ask the wrong German at the wrong time about how he is.”

German communication is direct and accurate.

It’s all about exchanging information, and they will try to give the most objective answers to your questions. However, they also expect the same from you.

Put in a business context, many Germans consider small talk unnecessary. This is particularly true when Americans greet Germans with pleasantries like “How are you?”. According to Scanianmoose in the same Reddit thread, “I do not ask people very often how they are because it does not interest me”.

Certainly, this doesn’t mean that you can’t attempt to make small talk with Germans. It just has to be at the right time and in the right place. In private, Germans do engage in small talk, of course, and if you’ve met more than a few times, they’re willing to share memories of their last vacation or even talk about their sick dog.

What are the best small-talk topics with Germans?

I lived and worked for over 20 years in Germany, and I would say that I’m an expert in making small talk with Germans! The right time for small talk is before the meeting starts, even before you sit in the meeting room. The window is short, but if you do business with Germans, respect their habits and don’t expect much chitchat outside of it. They are all business and appreciate coming straight to the point.

Even during lunch, small talk may be limited.

One topic that always gets a response is cars, particularly German cars. This even works with many German women! Ask your counterpart which car brands the company uses, and soon an animated conversation will be rolling. Impress them with your knowledge of or at least your love (faked or not!) for BMW, Mercedes, and Porsche.

Do some research before the meeting and talk about the Volkswagen factory in Tennessee or the BMW manufacturing plant in South Carolina. Talk about the cars you see on the roads where you live or about the people who drive them. Are they old and wealthy? Younger and trendy? You have many ways to engage in the conversation, which will be highly appreciated.

Let me know if these strategies have worked for you or which small talk topics are received well by your German business partners. Here’s another for good measure: Bayern München, the most famous German soccer team. Loved or loathed, a conversation about the “Bayern” can be as heated as politics—without the downsides!

Foto credit by Fotolia


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