Small Talk, Or, What Germans Think of the US

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?”

“Genocide research.”

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….

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6 thoughts on “Small Talk, Or, What Germans Think of the US

  1. Sanan September 5, 2012 / 1:13 am

    This is kinda entertaining I have to say, because I’ve experienced the reverse here in the US…. people tell me I don’t have a very strong accent (anymore?) and it’s definitely not very German, but sometimes they catch an accent and ask and then the whole Spiel goes down… just like you described… but because every American I meet has been to Germany or wants to go or has (long lost) relatives there or, or, or… it’s the same thing. I think it just has to do with trying to make small talk. And as you know, most stereotypes are usually not true (this goes both ways), but you’ll always be able to find one person that fits the stereotype perfectly 🙂

  2. cliff1976 September 5, 2012 / 7:36 am

    That’s a toughie.

    I remember (http://slicken.it/3s) our noses getting rubbed in the death of some German hostages in Afghanistan a couple years ago at a Hausfest for all the tenants in our apartment building. Thanks a lot, dick.

    Please add the outrage of having to pay to enter the United States for tourism purposes and get fingerprinted while at it.

    This week when the Germans tried to chat me up at lunch about the political situation in the U.S. at the moment (Romney-vs.-Obama), I was quite pleased with myself for pretty much avoiding the conversation: I said “Look, Western Europe and the U.S. have a lot in common. Our leaders have infidelity scandals and yours have 4 or 5 spouses simultaneously. We have jesus freaks running for office, and you make being a card-carrying church member taxable. The big question for the populace — in the U.S. as well as Western Europe — is how much should everyone pay for the other guy? Is it fair to expect the rich to pay more, or less, or proportionally the same as the poor?” When they started in on health care, I reminded them that that’s also just a question of money. Fortunately one of our party opted for privatized health coverage, and she was all “yeah, why the hell should I pay for the health insurance of those who cannot afford their own?,” while sitting across from her two employees, whom I know are a single-income family of four and the sister of an employed single-mother milking the Kindergeld as long as she can.

    So maybe it was just luck, but I got outta there rather cleanly.

  3. Riayn September 5, 2012 / 10:44 am

    Being Australian the first reaction I get from nearly every German I met is ‘Why on earth would you move here, the weather in Australia is beautiful’. This is followed by ‘I want to go to Australia, but it is so far away’. The fact is I hate summer in Australia, it is 4 months of the most hot and humid weather ever and since I didn’t have AC there, it was 4 months of almost no sleep.
    And yes, Australia is far away, but it is not like it is on the moon or anything. You can actually travel there quite easily, it just takes more than 4 hours.
    If we get any further then our dangerous animals are usually mentioned and I actually enjoy that conversation. I love freaking people out about the true fact that everything in Australia, including some plants, are out to kill you. At this point, they understand why I might like living in Germany.

  4. CN Heidelberg September 5, 2012 / 11:59 am

    My husband gets the “you don’t LOOK like an American” (because he’s too skinny) all the time! Extra awesomely they never include ME in that assessment even if I’m standing right there.

    I just shrug off the blah-dee-blah-I-know-the-US-so-well junk anymore. It’s annoying but it never seems to be worth engaging them in anything serious. I do often wish I was from one of those countries that everyone LOVES, like Canada, Australia, New Zealand… instead, I’m stuck defending the fact that I was born in the US instead of one of those places (which would automatically make me awesome, innocent, and fascinating instead of fat, dumb, and overly conservative).

  5. Kate (@shoegirlinDE) September 11, 2012 / 10:35 am

    I always wait for the inevitable ‘but why??!’ when we explain to people we moved here from California – and even more unbelievably, we prefer it here (spending 50% of our income on housing and a serious case of keeping up with the Joneses? no thanks). I even got that when I visited North Carolina once (“It’s always been my dream to live in California!”). It seems everyone, even us Americans, has their own ideas about what it’s like to live/be from different parts of the world, mostly based on something they read or a movie they watched. You never know until you actually live there for an extended period of time, but everyone’s still going to have an opinion. I just look forward to the day when someone actually asks ‘why?’ instead of immediately dumping all of their assumptions on me.

  6. Steven September 14, 2012 / 1:04 pm

    My small talk interactions always follow the same pattern. ” What brings you to Germany?” I came here for my employer to work in our European office for a few years. “Oh? What company?”

    They always want to know what company even though almost nobody outside of my industry has ever heard of it. They still ask though.

    They also want to know why I left sunny south Florida for the climate here. Nothing objectionable, but yes, the questions get old after a certain number of repetitions.

    The only time anyone has ever commend on my accent, it was a female friend who said I had a cute accent, so I couldn’t really complain about that.

    Nobody has ever really commented on American politics to me, for which I’m grateful.

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