You Are Invited: How to make a German Friend
I was recently speaking to a German friend of mine who had just returned from London. They had mostly enjoyed their experience, travelling on open top buses, marvelling at the symbols of hereditary privilege and enjoying all the museums packed with other countries artefacts that the British steadfastly refuse to give back. Despite all the fun, she was quite upset by an interaction she had with a British colleague during a workshop she attended. Although she had known this colleague for a number of years, this was the first time she had actually had a chance to meet him face to face. After working closely together for a week, they were about to part company when he said “You really must come for dinner sometime, I’m sure my wife would love to meet you”. My friend was flattered that her British colleague was so welcoming and replied earnestly, “Thank you so much, I’m actually free this Saturday, I could come over for dinner then?”. Her British colleague looked taken aback and muttered something about how he would have to check with his wife and get back to her. Of course, he never did.
My friend was confused. Why offer an invitation if he did not really intend on following through with it? She is not alone in wondering this. All around the world British people and many Americans are at this very minute pretend inviting business colleagues to have dinner in their homes and in turn ruining working relationships. The phenomenon of the “pretend invite” is one I have seen many times and sadly one that I have actually done myself. It usually comes at a point where people are saying goodbye and there is no longer anything of real meaning being said. In a fit of electrifying awkwardness, one party turns to another and inexplicably asks them to dinner, with absolutely no intention of following through. It is a weird tic of politeness, like a civility after shock. It rumbles out of people involuntarily after sustained periods of niceness.
The “pretend invite” is particularly upsetting for Germans for a number of reasons. In general Germans hold the concept of honesty in a very high regard, it permeates a lot of their interactions. If you ask a German to give you an honest opinion, they will, regardless of whether it leaves you a gibbering wreck. There is a general expectation of honesty, even with politicians. A great example of this was the series of scandals a few years ago concerning plagiarism within the PHD theses of a number of high profile German politicians. While other countries discover holders of government office embezzling taxes, performing acts of gross nepotism or simply having affairs with co-workers, Germany was concerned that their professorial politicians were a little to keen on copy and paste. Tell a British person about the plagiarism scandals that rocked the German political scene and they will simply ask “What? Their politicians have doctorates?”.
In addition to honesty, Germans value friendship. Many Germans form their main friendship early, with school or university friends forming the core friendship group. Many an expat forum will consist of questions about why it is so hard to make friends in Germany. There are many reasons it can be difficult, personal hygiene is worth remembering for a start, but Germans will often want to know you well before they start inviting you to their homes. Once you have completed the exhaustive friendship vetting process, however, you will have made a loyal friend for life. You could pick a fight with a 20 stone bodybuilder and rely on the fact that should the worst happen, your German friend will be behind you, furiously planning an exit strategy, while looking for something heavy to throw at your opponent. At the very least, they will phone the ambulance, feed you Apfelmousse through your heavily wired jaw and help you through the many months of arduous physiotherapy to fix your shattered limbs.
The clear delineation of private and public life plays an important role in the building of friendships and the importance placed on invitations. An expat in Germany will know they have succeeded when they are invited into the homes and in a larger context, the personal lives of a German friend or colleague. The private sphere is sacred in a way that is profoundly different from what we are used to in the UK or the US. Private and public life are completely different worlds, it is rare that bosses will contact employees outside specific work hours and especially not on Sundays. Not only is this a soft cultural rule, but in certain sectors it is a legal obligation. I have worked with companies that monitor the workloads of their colleagues, even going as far as to intervene if they find colleagues working or sending emails outside specific working hours. Your private time is your own, especially if you have children.
Of all the issues Germans have with the concept of the “pretend invite” the most important is the basic understanding of what an invitation means. The first time I went for dinner with my management, my boss turned to me and simply said “Remember Nic, you are invited”. I was quite confused about this, I had read the email and spoke to him on the phone, I knew he had invited me, there was really no need for him to overstate it. Throughout the dinner, he would periodically remind me that he was the one who had invited me, to the point that I thought I had done something to offend him, some unknown slight. I know my table manners leave a lot to be desired, but I was sure that I had followed most of the basics, even the elbows on the table rule, which as we all know is ridiculous. It was not until the end of the meal, when I reached for my wallet to split the bill that he looked me square in the eye and said “I said you are invited, that means I’m paying”. In seconds it all became clear; he wanted me to feel free to order anything I wanted, since it was on him. I kicked myself for not picking this up earlier and also for not ordering the steak.
The German invite is a tangible thing, it is an offer to not only pay, but to a certain extent an extended hand of friendship. Hospitality is taken seriously, to the point that German birthdays will often see the inviter pay for everything or at the very least, the drinks. There is a pride taken in offering friends a nice night out or employees a reward for their work. The “pretend invite” is not seen as a friendly gesture, but as an affront to all the basic tenets of friendship. Social awkwardness can cause many problems, but the next time you feel the urge to offer the hand of pretend invitation, don’t.