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.
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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?