Small Talk & Saying No
Posted on June 2, 2011
I remember standing in line at the grocery store, a couple of months after I arrived here, and idly wondering what was missing. I watched the cashier swiping a woman’s bread and cheese at breakneck speed, the woman whip out her card, sign for everything and stride out. And as a man stepped up to repeat the process, I suddenly realised how silent everything was. Nobody was talking. We were in a speedy, efficient, well oiled queue that was designed to be ploughed through as rapidly as possible. Talking was too time consuming.
I raised the issue with my flatmate that night and her response (paraphrased) was classically German – ‘of course no one talks, we want to get out of there.’ It makes sense – most things in Germany, save for its collective obsession with paperwork do. Grocery shopping isn’t one of those things most people like to necessarily revel in, and no one likes a chatterbox holding the line up, nor do I expect a full blown conversation with the cashier/sales assistant to unfold when I am out and about partaking in my retail activities. But I don’t expect silence. The art of small talk is to make it last as long as you need it to – to fill time or space or silence – then swiftly exit when the time comes. A month or so later, half an hour into a great chat with a German perfume sales assistant who had lived in America and South Africa and was bemoaning the lack of meaningless chatter from Germans in social situations, I had one of my first (and most prevailing) revelations. English is based around small talk. And, as I have learnt, German isn’t. German, like the people who speak it and the culture it informs, is direct, honest and economical. They just don’t talk small.
Since moving in together, my flatmate and I have had numerous moments where things have sort of lost their way en route from mouth to mind. Her English is exceptional (and thank God, because given my German we’d never have a decent conversation, and we’re both verbal creatures) so it’s not at all a matter of your classic language barrier. It’s more subtle than that. English and German, despite both being Teutonic languages and predominantly those of western, first world countries, possess incredibly disparate nuances and intricacies. And, so often, they really don’t understand each other at all. One thinks the other is rude, and the other thinks one is dishonest in their constant chatter.
My flatmate, for example, still gives me a look of slight confusion when I ask her if she could do me a favour and, without waiting for a response, then ask if she would mind passing me the salt. To a German, it is the most senseless waste of words to achieve a simple action. To an English speaker, it doesn’t mean a thing more than ‘can you pass the salt.’ Same outcome, two very different ways of going about achieving it. She also, whenever I start whinging about potentially being trapped in a situation I want to get out of, just looks at me and says ‘you don’t have to do it. Just say no.’ I of course say ‘but I can’t, it’s rude’ at which point she just eyeballs me in a manner that smacks of ‘English speakers … weird.’
When I teach my students ‘Manners and Politeness’ the first thing I tell them is to never say ‘what’ if they can’t hear someone. To a German, to say ‘was’ if you didn’t understand someone isn’t that big of a deal. It’s the quickest, most logical way to get someone to repeat themselves. They also say ‘bitte’ which is ‘please’ but ‘was’ isn’t an issue. To an English speaker, it is. One of the first things we learn as a tot is, ’not what, I beg your pardon’. This drilled into my students, we move onto Direct and Indirect Questions which Germans find completely mind boggling. Why be indirect when you can be direct? Because, to an English speaker, the more indirect you are, the politer it is considered. This makes absolutely no sense to the Germans. It’s a waste of time and, because we don’t actually expect a negative answer to the majority of our indirect questions (’would you mind unpacking the dishwasher’, ’what do you think about hanging out the washing’, ’can you do me a favour and make me a cup of tea’) the beating around the bush can come across as being somewhat dishonest.
My father, master of the anecdote, told an interesting story over Christmas (which my Australian family and German family enjoyed together). Once upon a time, it was considered the height of aristocratic manners when one was dining, to go about asking someone to pass you something, by engaging in this simple dialogue;
‘Henry, would you like more chicken?’
‘No, Arthur, but would you like more chicken?’
‘Yes, I would Henry.’
‘Then I shall pass it to you.’
It is the zenith of indirectness and tickled the Germans pink. It tickled us pink too, to be fair, but we weren’t particularly surprised. No one does indirect like the Brits. They invented subtext.
The simple fact is, we use our words in entirely different ways and so much can get mixed up in the delicate ins and outs.
We love subtext. Implications and inferences are a sport. We often say ‘yes!’ when we mean ‘absolutely not and I am going to slide out of that as soon as I can’. If we ask if you’d mind doing something, we absolutely don’t expect you to say ‘yes I do mind’. Our ‘how are you/how you going/how’ve you been/how is everything/how’s it/alright’ is often attached to our ‘hello’ and actually doesn’t mean ‘tell me how you are’ it just means ‘hello’. We’ll get to the real ‘how are you’ later in the conversation and that’s when you can actually tell us how you are. For the first ‘how are you’ a ‘fine’ is suffice. Do not elaborate. We’re not interested. And even though we asked, we didn’t actually ask. Most of our small talk has expected answers that keep it flowing and eventually allows us to navigate smoothly into Proper Conversational Territory, should time and desire from both parties, permit. In the same vein as the Direct/Indirect Questions, Germans find our constant need to engage in small, essentially meaningless talk, dishonest. Most of what we’re saying is inconsequential and we actually don’t overly care about the response – our small talk isn’t designed to tackle the hard questions, it’s designed to enable longer, more pleasant and engaging social interaction.
Deliberating, as I do, over this divide and all the comedy that fills it, I was thrilled to come across this article the other day. I raced into the kitchen, boiled the kettle, and read it out loud to my flatmate. Sipping tea (me) and enjoying a cigarette (her) we both vehemently agreed with every word and rather proudly admitted to feeling like a successful linguistic experiment. It’s rather spot on. And at the end of the article, I think my flatmate finally understood the English purpose of prefacing everything with ‘would you mind.’
But she still thinks I should just say no.