The German "Hallo"
Most days I head to my local gym to work out. I have always found gyms intimidating places, with pristine looking people in expensive workout gear or hulking brutes lifting twice their body weight, leaves me feeling somewhat inadequate. Luckily for me, I found a gym that meets my personal requirements in that it is rarely filled with muscular men flexing in mirrors or model types preening at every opportunity. Sure, there are people exhaling loudly as they bench press the equivalent of a small car, but since I wear headphones, that rarely distracts me. What I enjoy most is it looks like the kind of gym that the underdog hero might workout in, with paint peeling from the walls, the tangy smell of stale sweat hanging in the air and equipment that appears to have been salvaged from the DDR. Yet, despite feeling comfortable with the surroundings, I have begun to experience a more worrying trend that I can only describe as “The German Hallo”.
The first time I came across “The German Hallo” I was living in a village. Having never lived outside of large towns and cities, I assumed it was simply a rural anomaly. As my wife and I walked through the streets, people would cheerily cry “Grüß Gott” a typical Bavarian greeting which translates as “Bless you” or essentially “Hello”. The longer we lived there and the more people got used to the Swabian and the Geordie within their midsts, they might even declare “Servus” which is also a typical and more friendly German way of saying “Hello”. As I became more used to it, I would begin to say “Servus” to lots of people, even when I had no idea who they were, much to my wife’s annoyance. More than once she would chastise me for being too friendly, which only made me want to do it more. It’s amazing she has put up with me so long.
Then we moved back to the city and although I missed saying “Servus” to random people, I could still cheerily say it to the Turkish men who congregate outside the Türkische Kulturverein at the end of the street. After a few months of living as an anonymous city dweller, I had almost forgotten about saying hello all the time, until my wife finally dragged me to the doctors. All was normal, until we entered the waiting room and my wife politely said “Hallo” to everyone. Before I could remind her we no longer lived in a village, everyone in the room looked up and polity replied with a unified “Hallo” in return. Following this troubling act of politeness, I began to notice how often “The German Hallo” was used. Walking into shops my wife would say “Hallo” and employees and anyone in ear shot would say “Hallo” back. It occurred in bars, restaurants, one time while waiting at a bakery and even at a bus stop.
The reason for my confusion is that in the UK, saying “Hello” to people you have never met, especially while living in a city, is liable to confirm that you are some kind of weirdo. Public transport is especially off limits. Sure, we might greet and thank a bus driver, but I would not dream of engaging anyone else. Buses and trains are for quiet reflection, staring at phones or for reading. It is bad enough that we have to sit next to other people, let alone engage them in what might become a conversation, no one wants that. Moreover, cheerily saying hello to people in a pub might be the beginning of some kind of drunken altercation, not that the UK is some kind of terrifying hell-scape of incivility, but I can easily imagine someone growling “What did you say to me?” before I had even finished the “Hel..”.
There are times where strangers will converse with each other, but generally these are at moments of collective annoyance, such as in long queues or when there is a delay in public transport, but that will simply be an exclamation of “bloody hell” or “This is typical” rather than a nice greeting. I would also argue that the reason the British drink so much alcohol is that it gets us quickly passed the uncomfortable silences with strangers and directly to the uncomfortable drunken conversations.
Returning to my gym problem, what I have found is that “The German Hallo” is also applied in this situation too. This is not a massive problem when the gym is quiet, but if I go at peak times I am often forced to say hello to literally everyone before I can do my workout. Not a massive problem, I know, but when someone new arrives at the gym and I am concentrating on something or do not hear them say “Hallo” because I am listening to some over the top, bombastic workout music, they might begin to realise that I am actually an anti-social British person and stop saying hello at all, which is a problem due to my pathological desire for everyone to like me. Also, I used to think that wearing headphones might suggest I cannot hear people saying hello, but that would not be the case. Apparently not being able to hear is no reason not to say hello, my wife even suggested I was rude because I did not hear people. I really cannot win.
Whether it is accurate to describe it as “The German Hallo” or whether it is only a “Bavarian Hallo” I have yet to confirm. It has occurred in other German cities we have visited, but I am hoping that should I travel to Berlin or Hamburg, I will find that people are equally anti-social and thus confirm that I am less weird than I already think I am. There are bigger problems in the world than people greeting each other, but I come from a long line of socially awkward British people, and I feel I am letting the side down if I decide to change now. Then again, I have adapted to greeting people in the gym, the fear of some giant German body builder using me as a punch bag is a strong motivation to accept the peculiarities of German greetings.