A recent article on the BBC News website uses an iconic British children’s book (A Bear Called Paddington) to compare how English speakers and German speakers differ not only in terms of the words they use, but also the subject matter of their conversation.
Specifically, ‘smalltalk’ or ‘phatic conversation’ is the focal point. Americans and Brits almost always begin a conversation with a couple of pleasantries – for example asking the other person how they’ve been or what they’ve been up to, or talking about the weather. This lightweight chatter serves little purpose other than to ease both speakers into the conversation, or make each other feel good. What is interesting, however, is that this practice is pretty much non-existent in German – in fact, the German language has no word for ‘smalltalk’.
In the German translation of the book A Bear Called Paddington, one particular exchange of pleasantries from the English original is completely omitted rather than translated – “‘Hello Mrs Bird,’ said Judy. ‘It’s nice to see you again. How’s the rheumatism?’ ‘Worse than it’s ever been’ began Mrs. Bird.”
Professor Juliane House, of the University of Hamburg, has studied groups of people interacting in controlled situations, watching with academic rigour how they behave as human guinea-pigs.
She found (or verified) that Germans really don’t do small talk, those little phrases so familiar to the British about the weather or a person’s general well-being, but which she describes as “empty verbiage”.
While this might explain how many English speakers perceive Germans to be somewhat direct and abrupt (and perhaps might contribute to the stereotype of Germans as a very efficient people), it also highlights the important of learning the culture of a language as well as the language itself. If you had learned German and had become fluent, yet still engaged in smalltalk with native German speakers, it would still mark you as something of an outsider.
Of course, it’s important not to confuse this kind of phatic conversation with politeness – Americans and Brits are no more or less polite than Germans, it is simply the way the cultures and languages have evolved and how much emphasis the people place on smalltalk. I myself have worked with many Germans travelled around Germany, and found the vast majority of people I met to be very friendly and polite, just in a different way.
For their part, the British have what House calls the “etiquette of simulation”. The British feign an interest in someone. They pretend to want to meet again when they don’t really. They simulate concern.
Saying things like “It’s nice to meet you” are rarely meant the way they are said, she says. “It’s just words. It’s simulating interest in the other person.”
From a German perspective, this is uncomfortably close to deceit.
“Some people say that the British and Americans lie when they say things like that. It’s not a lie. It’s lubricating social life. It’s always nice to say things like that even if you don’t mean them,” says House.
The German language contains far fewer flattering or euphemistic mannerisms than English – for example when asking somebody to do something, German doesn’t bother to preface questions with equivalents of “would you mind…” or “could you please…”. To English speakers this sounds like they are barking commands, but in fact they don’t mean to be any less polite.