Translation: There is really no translation that best fits without sounding awkward…
“Affable Unrelatedness” is the best translation I could come up as a last resort. This phrase was originally coined by Max Frisch, a Swiss novelist and playwright. When I heard it at first, I was very intrigued by it because I think these two words perfectly sums up how Germans view the “American way” of interaction upon meeting. I’ve heard the English word “superficial” mentioned very often here when I survey Germans to describe the American approach to friendship. “Superficial,” however, conveys a hint of bitterness in a way that perhaps the Germans do not realize when they are using this word. But of course, what you truly want to convey cannot always be perfectly translated into another language.
But I want to highlight this German passage that explored how Max Frisch described “Leutselige Beziehungslosigkeit:”
“Die Freunde setzten keine Erwartungen in einen, alles blieb “kameradschaftlich” und trotzdem: “nach zwanzig Minuten ist man mit diesen Menschen so weit wie nach einem halben Jahr […] es kommt nichts mehr hinzu”. Man ist eben befreundet, nett zueinander, so wird kritisch kommentiert, für Probleme gibt es ja die Psychiater, die “Garagisten für Innenleben” (Hinderer 249).
Rough translation: Friends don’t set any expectations in one person, all remains “companionable” and yet: “After twenty minutes [of interaction], one knows as much about them as if one spends half a year. There is no development.” They [Americans] are friendly, nice with others, but for problems, you can go to a psychologist.
I’m horrible at German so please don’t take this translation word by word. But I think the main point to take from this is that Germans may feel this way about Americans because they take friendship seriously. They are very careful on who they select to be friends with, but I think once you’ve become friends with a German, you’ve got a friend for life.
This frustration with “leutselige Beziehungslosigkeit” is very often encountered when Germans go abroad to America, either for work, study, or leisure. As I listen to Germans complain about this, I always conjure up this image in my mind: Compared to the German, I imagine the American being overly friendly and interacting upon the first meeting as if they are both best friends. Then the next day, the American doesn’t bother saying hi as he/she runs into the German. I can’t blame the Germans since they probably feel like they’ve been left hanging.
On the other hand, Americans that come to Germany sometimes feel that Germans are cold, emotionally distant, and therefore, struggle to make friends. Let me offer you my personal experience when I first arrived in Berlin and had my first week of work in a German company. I like to think of myself as a very friendly and sometimes bold person–always curious in getting to know new people. Usually nothing stops in my way from talking to anyone, even I’m in a new, foreign environment. But my first week in the office was met with more silence than I had anticipated. Thus, my first impression of Germans, on a very broad level, was that they are a bit cold, introverted, or even shy. If I greet someone hello, then I receive a hello. I must proceed in asking them about what they’re doing, what they’re planning, etc. But the response is usually short so the conversation never really gets any chance to develop unless I persevere and push the Germans to talk. That’s a lot of work sometimes. This is not to say that this is not the case with every German! Because of course, it always, always, always depends on the individual. But here in Germany, I’ve had more occurrences like these more than usual.
My theory is that the Germans have this very straight forward way of thinking–maybe even a bit rigid sometimes. If they don’t have anything important to tell you, or if they don’t need anything from you, then they will never consider the idea of just coming up to someone and striking a conversation out of the blue on their own free will. Maybe it’s my weird upbringing, but I find this strange. If I have the sudden urge to talk to someone, I don’t think really consider the “rules of engagement” in any society. I think that if you miss the chance to talk to someone you think is cool, then you will miss the chance to make some cool friends!
However, making superficial conversation just to fill in the empty, awkward silence is also stupid and a waste of time in my opinion. What is it with Americans and their fear of awkward silence? Sometimes it’s very tiring to continue thinking up more discussion questions so you can avoid “awkward silence” from the person you just met. Just chill out and only talk about something if you have something real to offer. Even if you use filler questions to “make the atmosphere smooth and comfortable” for the person, trust me, they can see right through you. At least, the Germans are. 😀
As you can see, both sides just have different ways of making friendships. There is no right or wrong way. Adjustments are always tough in a foreign country. I highlight these differences to provide you a bi-faceted look at these two cultural differences. Instead of channeling our personal sensitivities against others who don’t share our way of life, we should be more sensitive and aware of their way of life. That way, we can bridge a better understanding on a local level.
Hinderer, Walter. Arbeit an der Gegenwart: zur deutschen Literatur nach 1945. Würzberg: Königshausen und Neumann, 1994. Print.