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.