May 26, 2011

Straight Talking

According to Stephen Evans, my peer of some renown in Berlin, the Germans don’t do small talk. There’s not even a word for it. How much of your day is spent congenially warming the air with idle nothings? For many people, at work, at school, or with friends, that’s all there is. Imagine taking it away from them for a day. How would it feel for them to be left with the emptiness of their heads?

It takes some time to realise that there’s a good reason why your German interlocutor is knitting his brow over your insistence that it’s fairer weather today than yesterday, and looks to be changeable tomorrow. He wonders why you think he can comment on meteorological matters, or why you are particularly preoccupied by them. The conversation doesn’t go anywhere because he doesn’t understand ‘ice breakers’. There is no ice in Germany, so why not sail straight to the point? The Anglophone’s tendency to prevaricate comes from his own self-consciousness, rather than any interpersonal hurdles in reality. The trouble is, a  German’s tendency towards plain sailing only thickens the ice for the Anglo. And the thicker the ice, the more our German friend will think us strange and disingenuous. Of course, all this disappears once you’ve managed to get to know one another, but the route to friendship in this case bears a resemblance to a Victorian wedding night. With no prior knowledge about how things work, it takes a deal of fumbling and apologising before a beautiful union can be made.

In truth, both these cultures represent a thing lost. Conversation used to be an art. Small talk was a failure in artistry. The true conversationalist would engage seriously, but without emotional investment, with sensitivity to political and social taboos. A conversation would flow naturally from topic to topic, without passion, but with subtle betrayals of character that would allow for the slow appreciation of personality. The essential ingredient in this engagement of the courtois was French, and that is the missing link in Anglo-German relations at present. The lingua franca is now English, but no two peoples speak English in the same way, or are united by a common purpose. We are lost in incommensurate idioms. The monarchies and the courts of the eighteenth century were, if not directly related, then at least of a political piece. French was the order of the day from St. Petersburg to London, and it bound the courts in common.

 Click to enlarge

Last time I looked, France still lay between England and Germany. There aren’t any courts any more, but we’re constantly told that we, the common people, are all of a piece these days. Maybe we should meet in the middle?


  1. Hello:
    Having a wide circle of friends from many countries both within and outside Europe, we should never be able to draw definite conclusions about how people in different countries behave. We cannot recall who said that England and America were 'divided by a common language' [if indeed we have quoted that correctly], but would say that this sums us perfectly the opinions we hold that cultural differences between nations are the biggest barriers to a fully shared understanding on most if not all matters.

    The Anglo-EU translation guide was most amusing and we certainly recognised some common traits in our own language and its intention, if not its meaning. However, living as we do in Eastern Europe, we find that the gulf is perhaps in many ways even wider. And so, we often wonder what is made of it all in Brussels?!!

  2. Thank you Hattatts. I think Brussels would be an excellent place to be an anthropologist, or a comedian. It must be a daily hell of misunderstanding.

    Incidentally, Mrs. VB, being Canadian, has at least fifteen different meanings for the word 'sorry', only one of which means 'sorry'. Multicultural marriage is a glorious adventure.

  3. I love the comparison to a Victorian wedding night! I dealt with similar "culture training" a few years ago when my company was purchased by a German company. We were told that there is no small talk, you do not discuss anything on a personal level, Germans value their time away from the office, therefore do NOT mix business and pleasure, etc. But, when we had German "ex-pats" work in our American offices for short or long-term assignments, we found quite the opposite to be true. Perhaps they were quickly adjusting to life in America, having been told we are overly friendly or will ask personal questions (hopefully that's not what they were told, but I'm aware of the perceptions). Anyway, of the German colleagues I met over the years, many of them were very pleasant and a couple I still keep in touch with. It's so funny how we can all break through the "stuff" and get to know one another.

  4. In a couple of WWII histories, that same type situation was pointed out: the Brit would suggest moving some troops to a location as a decent idea, then wonder why the Yank didn't do it. The Yank wondered when he was going to get an actual order, instead of some reference to a "goodish idea". Luckily they got it sorted out, but I understand it took awhile

  5. A most amusing post, and one I reread for the pleasure of it. I am still recovering from having lived in England for a year as a schoolboy. As a consequence of the vivid impression it made upon me I can't spell correctly, frequently confusing the "correct" British spelling with the American, and I am often somewhat confused by what people mean when they say something. A most bothersome predicament, I am afraid. Reggie

  6. Thanks all. The transition of British English into provincial-dialect status is indeed most awkward.

  7. VB,

    Found some time this morning to check on some of my favorite writers, and came across this post. Figured I'd leave a comment.

    My wife and I are summering (if you'd dare even call it that) in the middle of North Dakota. All of our friends from the US South thought we were insane. We probably were. And the locals in this small town, despite how good we are at breaking ice, still refuse to budge on conversation with strangers. They think we're equally insane for coming to their town, despite our good intentions of seeing a new, unfamiliar place, meeting new people, and getting lots of work done in our down-time.

    There seems to be a fair amount of Swedish heritage around here (although not much to do with the culture) and I'd figured (wrongly) that because my wife and I are both half-Swedes, it would be some kind of benefit. My other half is Sicilian, and raised this way, I've always been good at meeting friends, making them feel welcome and finding fun, but I'm at a loss.

    This is the first time in my life where I've almost given up on making small talk with people because it just doesn't happen. I'm just left with a glazed look from a stranger, and lots of questions in my head.

    Cheers, and keep up the good work.
    Sonny Ortolano

  8. Thanks for the comment Sonny. I think you should persevere. American ice is never too thick.

    Mrs. VB and I are heading to Finland for our vacation in a couple of weeks, which I think could be as challenging as North Dakota, but we'll see. In any case, that State is on my list of places to go to. It's probably an enigma to most Americans, which makes me want to find out.


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