An expat survival guide to making friends with Germans
An expat survival guide to making friends with Germans
Ever since I moved to Germany, most of the people I hang out with are expats just like me. Mostly either Scandinavian or native English speakers: Brits, Americans, Swedes, Egyptians, Norwegians and Danes. German people have only ever made up a modest proportion of my friendship group — somewhere between 0 and 5 percent, if we’re talking specifics.
Expats like expats
There is a natural reason for that: expat people tend to hoard together with other expats. You meet them at your language school, or at the meetups organised in pretty much every major city in the Bundesrepublik. At work, you will cling on to the other international people, often under the assumption that you will have a lot more in common with them than the seasoned Germans.
The language barrier is a given, but you’ll find that German people are actually very good at speaking English (at least, they are in the major cities) and they will go out of their way to show off their language skills to you, however limited they may be, particularly at social events. This should come as a pleasant surprise, particularly to those who have experienced French hospitality — when it comes to speaking English.
Being yourself in German is actually quite tricky
Despite this fact (and the fact that I already spoke very good German when I arrived), I have always wondered why, in my nineteen years in Germany, I have only managed to truly bond with a few natives. If you pressed me for an answer, I’d tell you that I put it down to two cultural differences.
The first one I tend to refer to as the ability to "take the mickey" out of (make fun of) one’s counterpart, which, as it turns out, is much more important to me than I had ever considered.
The second one is a lot less complicated: I have come to the realisation that talking German while trying to relax is a bit like doing maths in your head while trying to go to sleep. In other words, it’s like mixing oil with water (or chalk and cheese, as the British saying goes). Thus, unless German is your native tongue, speaking it will always involve that extra bit of effort on your behalf, putting you in a state of not quite being yourself, and preventing you from feeling completely at ease with your German counterparts.
That means you only have two options: the first one is to limit the amount of contact you have with German people and build your own expat circle (it sounds quite absurd, considering you live in Germany, but it is actually quite possible, if you so wish, and you’ll come across plenty of other expats who are perfectly happy to pursue their social lives in this way).
Or, the second option — and this is the one I would like to encourage you to pursue (although I can appreciate the irony of this remark, considering what I’ve already admitted to you) — is to embrace the language, culture and people of this country, and have a real go at making some German friends. In reality, going down this route is the only option you have, if you intend to successfully integrate in the German society and enjoy living in this country.
Taking the mickey
So why is it so hard for some expats to bond with the Germans, you may ask? Taking this from an English-speaking point of view, I’d like to highlight a few differences in the way people go about bonding in Anglo-American and German cultures, as follows:
Piss-taking or mocking is an essential part of male bonding in Britain (since I don’t really have any experience in "female bonding", I’ll just stick to male bonding). So, if you’re talking to your British friend just after they’ve been for a haircut, you’d ask them whether they had an accident while mowing the lawn. Another example would be asking if your mate used all his savings on his new C&A jeans, or telling him that, with a face like his, his only chance of scoring would be in the Dark Room at Berghain.
In German, the word for piss-taking is verarschen, which can loosely be translated as "arsing about". Unfortunately, the word has a very negative connotation, and anyone suspected of taking the piss will only invoke hostility, rather than smiles.
Pushing your luck
Only recently, I was at Hamburg airport going through security, and the very polite gentleman working on the x-ray scanner asked me to empty all my pockets into the tray, take my laptop out of its case, and place it in a separate tray. He had a facial expression I can only describe as that of someone who is really dying to go for a big Thomas tit (cockney rhyme slang for going for a number two), but can’t because it isn’t the end of their shift yet. He asked me if I had any liquids on me — basically the usual spiel you get at airport security that most of us have probably been through a gazillion times before.
When he asked me to take off my top and my belt, I put on my usual cheeky smirk and asked if I was allowed to keep my underwear. His reaction was quite dramatic: he looked at me with hatred and shouted, “Wollen Sie mich verarschen?” - as in, “Are you taking the piss??”
I was mortified. It made me feel as though I had really offended him, as though, instead of poking fun in a subliminal attempt to cheer him up, what I had actually asked him was, “Can I sleep with your sister?” Of course, in retrospect, he probably was just tired of hearing the same joke for the umpteenth time.
The dos and don’ts if you want to make German friends
With that in mind, I’ve compiled the 10 commandments of making friends in Germany - a list of "Dos and Don’ts". (Unfortunately I could only come up with eight, but 10 sounds more meaningful).
- Do not use wit or sarcasm; it will never be understood
- If you do tell a joke, be sure to say, “That was a joke,” immediately after. Be prepared to explain the joke if they don’t seem to get it.
- There is no friendly way of taking the piss out of Germans; just don’t do it.
- A good conversation starter is to talk about your health problems, your doctor’s appointment, or the latest insurance policy you have taken out.
- If somebody is telling you about how they had to call in sick and go to the doctor because they had a runny nose or a sore throat, do not — whatever you do — mock them. Be understanding and compassionate. Throw in words like, “Ach du armer!” (Poor you!) or “Gute Besserung” (Get well soon!)
- When another person is talking, be attentive and show empathy, for instance by mimicking their facial expressions. Paraphrase their responses when it’s your turn, and never interrupt or interject when the other person is talking.
- When asked a question, be informative, precise, elaborate, and serious. Do not offer short or wishy-washy answers like, “Could be better” or “Yeah, alright”.
- Make appointments with your friends, and be on time! I can’t stress this one enough.