To Greet or Not to Greet

In my lifetime thus far, I have come to know two Germans who currently reside in Colorado. One, though not of Jewish decent, was able to escape the war as a little girl. The other lived through the pre, during, and post-war period. The former holds a generally positive disposition regarding life and her personal interactions, something I attribute to her ability to flee the terrors of the war. The latter is a much harder woman, perhaps what I would consider to be a more stereotypical German, at least from what I’ve come to think of Germans from American culture’s take on them. I acknowledge the potential danger of pre-conceived notions about people, but have come to note a few cultural differences and similarities between Germans and Americans on the most basic, least intimate scale: daily interactions.

I asked Christian and Mollie if people here in Germany greet others on the street as they pass each other. In America, and perhaps Texas specifically, I would say that people are generally open to a casual “Howdy” or “Hello” if they happen to make eye contact with someone walking down the street. In Germany and America, both populations seem to walk with their eyes to themselves, but I have tried to intentionally notice how Germans interact with each other and with us.

I happened to make eye contact with a businessman strolling down the street. I attempted to greet him with a standard Guten Tag (“Good day” or “Hello” with proper pronunciation, as far as I know! And it was, in fact, daytime), but was met with a caught-off-guard “Hallo” and a bit of a confused look. Christian and Mollie laughed.

The people I have met in Germany have been kind (I try not to look too much like an American college kid), but casual verbal exchanges do not seem to be the norm here. 

I struggle to find the historical root of this in American or Southern society, or why it is absent in European society. The strange thing is that Europe is a much more immigration-friendly place with a high amount of international travel between countries (a result of the European Union) with many diverse nations all bordering each other. The United States, what some call a nation of immigrants, can appear more homogenous. So why is it that Europeans, who are generally exposed to more types of strangers, are less likely to casually reach out to them in passing? Perhaps it is because a stranger in America is still very much like you, so there is an inherent commonality that allows you to be open to greeting them in passing. Or is it because we’re all in the “American dream” together? Or perhaps because our shared American nationalism borders on jingoism? 

This whole concept of friend and stranger, capitalist and communist, and East vs. West traces back throughout history, beyond the Berlin Wall, to the early days of human civilization. We fear that which we do not understand. We all love “new:” a new car, a new laptop, a new article of clothing. Yet, we also fear “new:” a new person, a new accent, a new tongue. We fear new strangers, but love a new friend. We greet our American neighbors, but what if it was a foreign tourist? Would we greet them? I think there is a cultural difference in the openness of casual greeting, but there is also a commonality in our skepticism of strangers. Who is my neighbor? 

I met one of these distant neighbors in my favorite interaction with a German thus far. It was with one of our waiters at a restaurant that serves a German perspective on American food. I asked this man for a picture because he looks strikingly similar to a friend of mine from TCU. Nielz (that’s my best spelling of his name) had a welcoming disposition. We conversed and laughed together; I understand what it’s like to work on a Friday night. Perhaps, we got along because we’re both young. (He told us about some of the German nightlife as he was getting off work late on a Friday night. However, I didn’t see massive packs of young adults roaming the streets on a Friday night as you might see around Fort Worth.) Nielz and I are both about 19 years old, he speaks German ft. English, and I speak English ft. some random German phrases and accents, and though there are many differences between our peoples, I believe there is an innate human desire to love and be friendly to one another. Nielz may not be like all Germans, but he showed that we have cultural similarities amidst our differences.

The best part of the story is that I got to hug my first German. It took me three days, but Nielz and I embraced in our farewell. I stepped back and asked if Germans hug or touch regularly, he said “No, only with good friends.” I asked, “Are we good friends?” He said “Ja” which warranted a second hug. Turn that volume up and enjoy as German-American relations have never been better.