One of the things I hate most about meeting new people is the small talk that inevitably ensues once we get beyond formal introductions. I hated it when I lived in the States but I hate it even more in Germany because it always goes something like this:
“Where are you from?”
“Big City, Germany.”
“No, no, I mean where are you from?”
And depending on my mood and the likelihood of my seeing this person again, I either continue to be a bitch and say “I live around the corner” or I lie “Denmark” (always, always works, thank God, though the Ami trying to pick me up in Pennsyltucky really showed his worth by replying “I’ve always wanted to go to Amsterdam”) or I suck it up and prepare for the bombardment.
When people see me suck it up, and I always make my impatience known by taking extra long to answer, some actually apologize by way of saying, “Because you know, your accent. It’s cute, but you know, you’ve got an accent.”
Yes I know I have a fucking accent! I want to scream.
I am not an idiot, even if I make grammar mistakes that make me sound like a second-grader. We’re not speaking English, though, now are we? And if we were, I would never be so impolite as to tell you you had an accent, though we all know you sound like Dr. Evil from Austin Powers. So stop with the fucking accent thing already.
But then we have to move on, get the full download on what said person thinks of America. Because Germans, it seems, always know soooo much about the US. Either they were there this one time when they were thirteen on an exchange program and had a host family that tried to convert them to fundamental Christianity or they went shopping in New York City once or they absolutely positively have dreamed their whole life of how awesome Miami’s beaches are and so they read all about it in the Reisefuehrer they bought for reading during their retirement. When I say I’m from the middle-of-nowhere but somewhere near Chicago, eyes glaze over. A few have actually asked if that’s closer to New York or Los Angeles. So yeah, no give-and-take conversation possible here. I love New York. I hated Los Angeles. I lived in Florida for a white hot second. Can we move on?
We continue on with other person repeating his or her thoughts on the US. It’s gotten better since George W is no longer president — that was a fun time to learn all sorts of *facts* about American foreign policy from readers of Der Spiegel — but now we’re reduced to mundane conversations about how enormous grocery stores in the US are or how ridiculously fat everyone is (accompanied by the most backhanded compliment ever, “You don’t look very big for an American”. Yeah, um, thanks?). It’s nice to know that it’s not just Germans who have these impressions of Americans, as the Atlantic recently pointed out in their survey piece, “The Land of Big Groceries, Big God, and Smooth Traffic.”
Among other interesting things pointed out as being “American” in nature: Christmas lights, “public displays of affection, high obesity rates, families shipping their elderly parents off to nursing homes, dog-owners kissing their pets, and widespread gun ownership.”
Yeah, talking about the twelve guns my dad owns is always a great starter. As is the fact that I am part Native American. But these are conversations I’d rather not have, and the longer they go on, the less my interest in volleying questions back at the other person becomes.
I know I’m not the only one with this problem. My (German) friend who’s a math teacher said something similar happens to her when people ask about her job. “Math, huh? I was never very good at math.” …
But if we switch to career questions, I get screwed even more.
“What brought you here, work or love?”
And there’s that whole verbotene topic that we *both* don’t want to talk casually about over a glass of wine-with-sparkling water. Conversation over.
So here’s my question to all of you expats out there: short of faking that you speaka-no-Denglish (got busted doing that one too many times), how do you handle these inevitably awful introductions? What’s your sure-fire trick to steer this conversation in a new direction. What’s your small talk masterpiece? Do you bring up the German reputation for too-tight Speedos and/or sandals-with-socks? Try and explain Dieter and his monkey? Say, “How about that Tatort, ay?”
Inquiring minds want to know….