Thursday, February 3, 2011

You want the truth?

Having known many Germans and now being married to one, one thing I’ve learned is: never ask for one’s opinion if you’re not prepared for an honest and possibly blunt answer. 

It’s not that they’re being rude; actually it’s quite the opposite. You ask a question (e.g. What do you think of this outfit I just spend two hours putting together?) to which your German conversation partner will assume you’d like to hear the truth. Anything else would be illogical. So imagine your partner’s surprise when his honesty prompts a response of several indignant words, a couple of dismayed gestures and a good door slamming (of which Thomas may or may not have been the recent recipient of).

As weird as it sounds, this honesty thing took me a little while to get used to. But I’m finally learning to appreciate it (most of the time, that is). After all, who wants to be told they look awesome when they actually look like a color-blind hippo that got dressed in the dark? Which reminds me, never tell a German you like something or that something looks good if you don’t mean it. If your true feelings came out later, the damage caused by your little white lie would far out-weigh any good intentions you had.

On a related note, Germans also tend not to ask questions unless they care about the answer. But who asks questions for the sake of asking, you…um…ask? I submit for your review Exhibit A:


Wait that wasn’t exhibit A. That was just an incredibly awkward picture of a plush Penguin frolicking in the forest. Here’s Exhibit A:
A hastily and poorly drawn Exhibit A

 That's right...the supermarket.

When you hit the checkout counter in the U.S., the cashier will generally initiate a series of routine questions. How are you doing today? Did you find everything okay? Any plans for the weekend? You are of course expected to respond with something like: Good, and you? Yes. Nothing special. She doesn’t want to hear about the colonoscopy you just had, that you in fact do need help finding something, or a long-winded account of your weekend gardening strategy.

In Germany, on the other hand, the cashier will acknowledge your existence with a simple Hallo or Grüß Gott (depending on the region). After that, the only sound you hear for awhile is beep, beep, beep as your items pass over the scanner. Then cashier’s voice resumes: €32.85 bitte. You hand over the money, she mutters how much change you get back, and then throws in a hasty Schönen Tag or Tschüß. And that’s it. No superficial small-talk, no fake smiles. Just another efficient transaction of food acquisition.

The story repeats in German clothing stores, book stores, postal offices, banks, etc. It’s no wonder many Americans perceive German salespeople as a bit cold. They just don’t share in our mentality that pseudo-friendless equals an improved customer experience (which is debatable conclusion in itself, I might add). On the other side, it’s no wonder that many Germans are turned off by chatterbox salespeople in the U.S. They’re just not used to someone “pestering” them as soon as they step foot in a store.


  1. I've had total strangers at tram stops tell me the hem to my blazer was hanging down, without even asking. Germans can be quite direct, which can have its good points. For example, after waiting for a bookstore clerk at the airport to come to the cash register so I could buy my book (a xenophobic's guide to germans, by the way!), some other customer snuck in ahead of me to buy a lottery ticket. I sighed in a passive aggressive response. The clerk asked me if something was wrong. I told her I'd been there first. She retorted in German, "Why didn't I just say so?" My conclusion was that it is perfectly fine to be blunt and sound even impolite, as long as you had the right to be. Yay! Or perhaps she just wanted to blame me for her failure to see me there...Hmmm...Any thoughts?

  2. I could so relate to this post. J.P. and I have had a few door slamming incidents as well for his honest opinion. We get around this now by me saying "please give me a Canadian version of your opinion" which works much better for both of us.

    Regarding the service in the stores, I've come to like this and don't miss all the small talk. Although I've learned not to ask a Sales Clerk for her opinion when trying on clothes :)

  3. Last summer, two friends and I spent two weeks in Texas. It was our first trip to the US and we were absolutely amazed at how friendly, caring and interested all the clerks and waitresses were.
    Well, that was until after some days we figured that they actually didn't mean anything of it. From that day on, we were annoyed everytime one of those people "wanted to know" how we were doing.
    It was such a bitter betrayal.. and we were so naive ;)

  4. Um, no joke! I can't stand it, and being from Texas, a very friendly state, I hate not 'small talking' with the cashier, people in line, and whatnot. Great point!

  5. Funnily enough I just had a conversation on this subject with the American in my German class. I'd mentioned that I had met a neighbour who had asked how the kids were settling in to Kita, and I replied that it had been difficult at first and "there had been a lot of wailing and crying in the night (mostly from me) ha! ha!" and then said light-heartedly, "you've probably heard" to which she responded completely straight-forwardly "Yes, I have.". In the UK we'd def. lie and say "oh, no, of course not!" and then just have a good bitch about it behind closed doors.

    My American friend said that she's met Germans who find it very odd that we ask ALL THE TIME "How are you?" but yet don't care about the answer, sometimes not even enough to wait around to hear the answer!

    My German teacher also finds it odd that we Brits, Canadians, & Americans when shown a new baby all remark enthusiastically on how gorgeous it is, etc, etc, and then as soon as we're in private we say "Oh my god, that was the ugliest baby I have ever seen!". Apparently it's very difficult to know when to trust what we say. She wanted to know how we ever made friends if we lied about how nice everything/one/etc was. I have to admit, I struggled with an answer!!!

  6. Hmmm, I find German cashiers not much different from those in the US, including those in Texas. Maybe it depends on what part of the country you're in.

  7. @yozhuk - I know exactly what you mean. I've never been one to enjoy direct confrontation, but I think it's much more of a norm here in Germany. So I think the clerk was maybe surprised you didn't say anything. Just my two cents though. :)

    @Laurel - Haha, I've had to tell Thomas something similar before. But it is kind of nice knowing you can get an honest opinion (when you want it, that is).

    @Stefan - I've heard similar stories from German friends and from Thomas (my German husband). I think the U.S. restaurant scene is even more extreme because waiters make their living from tips so they're often especially good at "turning on the charm."

    @TexaGermaNadian - I've been here for about two months now, and I still find myself surprised by the lack of smalltalk. But, like Laurel (above), I think I'm starting to like it... ;)

    @fiona - The directness can definately be a bit jarring at times. I sometime have to remind myself that that's just the way people are here and try not to take it personally. But that can be a little, um, challenging at time, haha. Your comment about complimenting babies made me almost made me spew coffee on my keyboard, lol! It's soooo true!

    @german-gems - That could be true. People in Arizona are usually pretty chipper and sometimes a bit overly-friendly. But I also lived in cold-as-crap Wisconsin for awhile and people there were a little more like here. Maybe that was the heavy German influence in the region...or maybe it was just too cold to expend precious heat with unnecessary words. ;)