Sunday, June 7, 2015

The hallo code

Quiz question 1:

You are walking down the sidewalk, somewhere in Germany. Another pedestrian is walking toward you. Do you:
a) Smile and say hello (or hallo)
b) Look at your shoes and move on, frowning slightly

Quiz question 2:
You enter the waiting room at the dentist's office. Do you:
a) Quietly find a seat and pick up a magazine
b) Say a general hello (hallo) to all of our fellow patients before sitting down

If you answered a to both of these questions, you are a foreigner. You are probably from the Western Hemisphere. If you answered b or c, you are likely a German, or someone else from northern Europe.

I've mentioned before that Germans don't greet strangers, but it's not actually that simple. A German will talk to a stranger if they share something in common. It's a sort of hallo code. After 3 + years in Germany, I am just beginning to decipher how it works.

In anonymous places, there are no hallos. No one will give you more than a sneer on the street, in the grocery store, or on the bus. Usually they won't make eye contact at all. Germans must believe they have a superpower to become invisible. If you are not looking at the people around you, then they certainly cannot see you. Therefore, whatever you do, you can't be rude. If a new register opens up at the supermarket, it's ok to zoom forward from the back of the store and become the first person in line. Has your train arrived? It's ok to shove your way on before people have gotten off the train. Just don't look at anyone and your superpower is in full effect.

However, saying hello to people with some kind of shared experience is normal, and even expected.
You should say hello if you are joining a group waiting at the dentist's office or the hair salon. When an old lady greets everyone in the swimming pool locker room, you'd better smile and say good morning right back. Being naked is no excuse. A lycra-clad cyclist will always wave or nod to another lycra-clad cyclist headed in the opposite direction. But if you pedal past in khakis and a windbreaker, forget it. You might as well be invisible.

I've had Germans tell me that the only people who talk to strangers are crazy people. What must they think of Americans, then? Minnesota Nice must be some kind of mental disorder.

It's my new mission to figure out exactly when and where it's acceptable to say hello to people, then do it. Except I might pass on friendly chatter in the showers at the pool. Sometimes I wish other people really could be invisible.

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About Me

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Thanks for coming to my blog. It started as a way to keep in touch with family and friends, and now has become an ongoing project. I'm an American living in Germany and trying to travel whenever I can. I write about my experiences as an expatriate (the interesting ones and the embarrassing ones), and about my travels. There are some recurring characters in this blog, particularly my husband Brian and several of our friends. The title comes from the idea that living in a foreign country means making a lot of mistakes. So the things you used to do easily you now have to try over and over again. Hopefully, like me, you can laugh at how idiotic it feels. If you have happened upon my blog, then welcome. Knowing that people are reading what I write makes me keep going. Feel free to write comments or suggestions for future posts.