A while ago, I held a little speech about German culture for new members of the British Club of the Taunus. Later, at lunch, some of us chatted a bit about German culture. One of the British ladies said “You can never ask a German ‘How are you?’ because they then give you their whole health history.”
It made us all chuckle, but it’s somewhat true. I say “somewhat”, because to some extent the “How are you? – Fine. How are you? – Fine.” dialogue has gotten some hold in Germany by now, especially with younger people. But when I talk to expats about German culture, I always make a point of telling them that in Germany “How are you?” or “How do you do?” is not a greeting. It’s seen as an inquiry about one’s well-being and will be answered as such. Ask a German – especially an elder one – how he is and you will likely be informed about things you never wanted to know. Most Germans like to talk about health or lack thereof. I have one neighbour, a very old lady, who always gives me a detailed description of her current health status, even if I say nothing more than “Good morning.”
When I was about twelve, we visited my mother’s friend Mandy in the UK. She greeted me with “How do you do” and I was just starting to tell her how I was doing when she turned away from me to talk to my mother. I felt terribly insulted and wondered why she had bothered to ask me how I was if she wasn’t interested in the answer. Years later, when I worked in the US, I always felt annoyed by the “How are you?” greeting because it seemed so fake to me. I inwardly cringed when giving the required “Fine, how are you?” reply.
Why? Well, it’s simple.
Germans are direct communicators. We rarely say something out of mere politeness but to convey a message.
Germans don’t do small talk.
Those were the reasons why as a child I took the polite greeting as a literal question and why I felt uncomfortable asking or answering a question that was no real question but just posed as one. If you are British or American, you might now shake your head and mumble “What a strange person” because for you, “How are you” or “How do you do” is a normal way of greeting people. And there we are right at the core of cultural awareness. One thing many people dealing with other cultures experience is that either they are considered rude or consider others rude because they interpret actions with their own cultural background. If we use the “How do you do” example: in Germany it is rude to ask a question and not listen to the reply. In fact, that is rude everywhere. But British people know that “How do you do” is not a question as such. It’s tiny things like this that make intercultural communication so tricky sometimes.