Franko looked a bit rough today.
I had arrived at his office five minutes early and was walking around the block, utilizing the extra time, as I always do, for further Berlin exploration.
My first time here I discovered the Berlin Wall ran down the street, and I was excited to look around some more.
Alas, upon reaching the first corner my phone rang.
Either he was cancelling, or he had seen me walk past as he was parking.
Of course, business folk rarely cancelled so late.
“Andrew, here I am,” the voice on the phone said.
“See you in a second,” I hung up the phone. Exploration interrupted.
Unshaven, his shirt pressed but disheveled, he leaned heavily to one side against the weight of his breifcase.
“Hello, Franko. How are you?”
“Yes, Hello, Andrew,” he said with his dry smile, shaking my hand, but then he was thinking about something, his brow jammed together. We began walking towards the door.
“What is the correct response to that? Do I say this, how I am feeling, or must I say, “how are you?”
“Depends on the situation….if the speaker really means it as a question or not,” I said. “In less personal…larger settings, we might not expect an answer. In more personal, one on one, situation we usually anwer. For example, just now, you might have said “I’m well, and you?” or the stock, “Fine, thanks, and you?” but even so, you don’t expect the real answer. It’s a formality really. Politeness.”
“Ok,” said Franko, a little unsure.
Yes. Greetings. Chapter one.
One of the most stereotypical differences between German-speakers and English-speakers is how direct and to the point we are when speaking. The English, stereotypically, are very polite, and talkative, and have a problem with beating around the bush when approaching a topic. It is often, in fact, quite rude to ‘cut to the chase,’ and it speaks to the person’s character how one remains eloquent in the face of adversity.
The German, on the other hand, values efficiency. Any verbosity is suspicious if it’s not being used to more exactly describe an object.
Now, these “German” and “English” traits are similar to the differences between Urban and Rural, slow paced and face paced cultures, North and South perceptions. In Podunk, Texas, if you walk by a person on the road, They’re libel to greet you, for no other reason that you are standing in their town. The cashier at the gas station might ask “Howdy. How you doin’ today?” and even “Where you from?” Whereas in New York city if you speak to a stranger on the street the person might very well suspect you of having alterior motives and call for help.
And really it comes right down to people’s personalities. My Grandfather didn’t care much for “all the nicities and holding each other’s hands.” My uncle on the other hand, if a complete stranger said ‘hello’ to him, in nothing flat, he would have the stranger laughing and enthralled in some ten minute tale about something that happened the other day.
It depends on personality, but also on culture. My Grandpa was the lone FBI agent in a enormous region of mountainous and desert terrain. He worked alone mostly, or with local authorities in a no nonsense, “just the facts, ma’am” manner. Being direct was his job. Bullshit got in the way.
My uncle’s rural farming culture valued his ability to weave a tale while talking with the neighbors over a pickup truck or with the waitress over biscuits and gravy at the local diner. ‘Bullshitting’ was the cement holding together the community.
So how does this relate to the German understanding of Greetings?
When Germans greet, in most settings unless personal, they say “good day” or “hello,” look each other in the eye, and shake hands. If first introductions, they state their last name, if you’r e lucky first and last name.
A handshake and eyecontact and Zack. “Let’s get down to business” doesn’t need to be said. Both understand the unspoken.
Notice there was no ‘how are you’ or ‘what going on’ or ‘how’ya doin?” No “nice weather we’re having,” no “and how’s business?”
When the English or Americans meet we actually like to use full sentences…even if half of it is rhetorical and meaningless.
“Hello. How do you do?”
“How do you do?”
If that be “what’s up” or “how are you” it pretty much goes the same. But some people do like to answer.
“Fine thanks, and you.”
But it’s all purely rhetorical.
Germans do not understand rhetorical.
Rhetorical is a waist of time.
“But why?” is the question they ask about rhetorical. “Why would you waist time talking about the weather?”
Because we don’t come from frozen, rainy barbarian territory…that’s why.
We have time to talk.
Just ask the Italians, the Spanish, the Greeks, Mid-Easterners, Africans…just about everyone on the planet…except Germans.
Talking can be nice.
Talking not good for being punctual, for banking, for getting your trains to run on time, for a lot of practical things…but it’s nice.
A smile helps too.