German etiquette: Greet each other in the coldest voice imaginable, and then say absolutely nothing to each other ever again as long as you both shall live.
Have you guys noticed, how, whenever you enter a German doctor’s waiting room, you have to say “Guten Tag!” to everyone in the unfriendliest, coldest voice ever, do a small clicky nod of your chin, keep your mouth shut tight like they are your mortal enemies, avoid eye contact, and then sit down in ABSOLUTE SILENCE?
This is known in Germany as Grüßen – greeting people – and apparently it’s a very, very, very, very important tradition. “Guten Tag!” Bark it out like as if you’re a Kontrolleur on the U8 on a Saturday night. Avoid eye contact. You don’t want any actual contact with these people. Make sure, whatever you do, you don’t smile. DO NOT SMILE. Please, please, please for the love of God, don’t smile. And then sit down in ABSOLUTE silence. Grüßen has nothing to do with wanting to actually speak to people or smile at them or spark up conversation or be friendly with them in any way. It’s just this inexplicable thing you do, which inexplicably, is incredibly important.
When my son was little, another mum at the nursery came up to me and said: “Can I ask you a question?” I don’t want to poke fun at her for doing this, it was obvious to me that something was really bothering her, that this conversation was really important to her, that this was something that had laid heavy on her heart. “Yeah?” I said. “Why don’t you greet me?” She asked, flushing. “Have I offended you in some way?” I stared at her. It was the first time in my life that I realized, that in some ways, English speakers can seem rude to Germans. It was a kind of epiphany moment, I guess. I almost felt guilty, and I definitely felt kind of touched that she had confronted me for this perceived slight.
“Erm?” I said, as politely as possible. “Because I don’t know you?”
She gulped at that, and I really did feel guilty for a moment.
“I think if our kids attend the same nursery, the least we can do is say hello to each other in the cloakroom!”
“Okay,” I said. And from that day on, I’ve been grüß-ing like a fucking pro. I only got in trouble one other time for it, years and years later, at a kind of like BnB/cheapo hotel in Mecklenburg-Vorpommen. A kind of scary-looking white guy, not scary-looking enough to be an actual Nazi, but still a tough guy, barked at me at breakfast:
“In Germany we greet each other at breakfast!”
“Not in hotels?” I exclaimed back. “Das wäre echt übertrieben!”
I have lived here, as I always annoyingly say, for one million, zillion, SQUILLION years but to be honest I’ve never really understood the whole Grüßen thing. Why do we greet each other at the doctor’s, but not in the tram? Why do we greet each other and then sit there in silence, what’s the point? Why do we greet each other but not smile and joke like we’re glad to be alive? People in England will not greet each other for hours or days or weeks or months before anyone gets offended – but once you do greet each other you have this weird crazy totally strange thing called AN ACTUAL CONVERSATION afterwards?
It’s also kinda weird to realize that Germans find us rude. We’re so used to finding them rude – “You look much older recently, Jacinta, when I met you, you looked young for your age, now you look about seven years older than you really are, what do you think it is? Your thyroid problems?” – that we completely forget that they might find us rude. But they do. Talking loudly on the bus, tram or train. This is, I think, as rude in Germany as fucking on the train would be in English-speaking countries. Facebook-Video chatting on the Deutsche Bahn. I once was scrolling on my phone and my auntie Facebook-rang me and I answered and whispered: “I can’t talk, I am on the train, you’re not supposed to Facebook call on German trains, it’s really rude here!” And when I looked up the whole carriage was grinning away, glowing with approval. They were proud of me, they were proud of what they had turned me into. Eating on the train. Eating stinky kebabs on the train. Laughing loudly on the train. Germans like their trains to be silent and odourless. They are, I will admit, a tiny bit hypocritical about this – a group of male football fans gets on, drinking load of beer, munching down on smelly fast food and chanting football songs, and the train just bristles slightly, if you’re not speaking German or, heaven forbid, unterwegs with kids they’ll be delighted to show you their disapproval. But still. There are things we find kind of okay that they find rude, and it’s surprising to discover that the rudest people in THE UNIVERSE can find you rude.
The thing I really will never, ever, ever understand about the greeting thing though is this: if someone doesn’t greet you, instead of getting offended, why wouldn’t you just greet them first instead of confronting them about it? Nobody has ever said hello to anyone and not got a hello back, not even Donald Trump and people like that. I don’t get it. I literally have never understood this. And to be honest, I kind of suspect I never will.