Annoying the Germans: Small Talk
It is a universal fact that Germans hate small talk. There are thousands of websites that state it, hundreds of books written about it and every German I have ever met has mentioned it at some point. Small talk, in the eyes of Germans, is a waste of valuable time. Minutes of pointless chatter that could be used for more productive purposes. No one cares about the weather or what anyone did at the weekend, what we need to do is get our noses to the grind stone and get to work. That is Germany; a land too busy to talk.
This tends to make my life difficult, since it is part of my job to get Germans to engage at some level with the world of small talk. Though it might seem pointless and a waste of time, speaking a little about other topics before and after a meeting can do wonders for working relationships and can reduce the impression that German business people are cold, unfriendly automatons, focused solely on productivity and the most recent KPIs.
These attempts have had mixed results. Some find small talk a liberating experience, finding out that their colleagues around the world are quite interesting people and forging lifelong bonds with co-workers. Then there are the other people, who take my protestations about small talk and apply it like a firmware update. Small talk update identified, please reboot after install. What this results in is some of the strangest conversations that anyone may ever hear, such as when a manager I work with followed up a disappointing 1 to 1 employee performance evaluation with a robotic “How is the weather where you are?”. The last thing any employee needs, after having their annual performance brutally eviscerated during an hour long meeting, is to have a nice chat about the unseasonable cold snap they are currently suffering.
Unlike the Germans, the British excel at small talk. This is possibly because the British are some of the most socially awkward people in the world. Small talk is the starter menu, something small to get the juices flowing, before moving on to the main course. Small talk is verbal carpaccio. For the Germans, small talk is also a starter, except instead of being something truly tasty it’s the complimentary bread rolls; poor quality, dry and best left untouched.
By ignoring small talk, Germans have put themselves at a disadvantage. German business people frequently come off as hard nosed and aloof, unwilling to engage in the expected trivialities of the day. Some may respect the German inclination to simply get on with it, but many nations around the world see is as a lack of humour or worse personality.
This avoidance of small talk complicates the lives of Germans, but also the lives of people coming from small talk rich cultures. It is incredibly confusing to have a conversation with Germans if they ignore small talk, like someone has badly predited the conversation. If there is no small talk than by default everything must be “big talk” which is difficult to simply introduce into a discussion, especially if you happen to be meeting for the first time. For example, at the weekend I went to a birthday party. There I was introduced to a number of new people; one interaction went as follows:
My wife: This is my husband, Nic.
Me: *Shaking hands* Hi, nice to meet you.
New Person: Hi, I’m Joan. Do you have German citizenship?
This conversation was in German, which only compounded the problem. While I am concentrating on not screwing up my pronunciation, I now have to work out if I have simply misunderstood the question or whether it is likely that I have fallen into some undiscovered time vortex that has skipped the several minutes of introductory conversation and deposited me at the point in the discussion where we compare our passports.
The hazard of conversational bamboozlement is only one of the results of ignoring small talk. Without regular practice, conversational feedback can become rusty. Small talk is a dance, it can be rehearsed or it can be free form jazz tap, but everyone has to be involved for it to work. If I start a conversation with “Did you catch the match last night?” and someone replies “No, I hate football” they have effectively greased the dance floor, left a selection of vicious bear traps lying around and then leg swiped me. I have no where to go. If, however, they say something like “No, I missed it, was it any good?” They may suffer a minute of two of banal football chat, but they can quickly pirouette their way into a more interesting topic later.
Many Germans will instead not even offer an opinion about football, they might just simply say “OK” or “No” which is not so much boobytrapping the dance floor as it is driving an articulated truck through the wall, leaping out and then breaking my legs with a cricket bat, while shouting “When will the financial projections be ready!?” at the top of their lungs.
Whether Germans choose to take part in small talk or not, it is entirely up to them, in fact missing it out can have its benefits. There is something refreshing about the silence of a German office, where questions about weekend plans or what the score was in the midweek fixture are saved for the coffee break. Meetings generally finish on time, work is completed by the deadline and no one has to ask about their colleague’s family. Yet, without the buffer of small talk, non-Germans are often blindsided by larger questions that replace the amiable frivolous discussions that are the focus of small talk. Imagine being asked your opinion on Brexit every time you meet a new person or worse still how you feel about Boris Johnson. Why can’t Germans just stick to the easy stuff, like the Middle East or solving world poverty?