Everyday this past week as I walked back to my apartment building for the evening, I returned completely exhausted. As of September 7th, I now go to a German course everyday from 9:00am to 3:30pm. This course, START-Kurs, is a three-week intensive German program for international students coming to Tübingen to study at the university. The course covers German language and culture as well as the acceptance and understanding of cultural differences. There are about 60 of us in my course and we represent 21 different countries from around the world.
The first day of the course, the teachers gave us a placement test, which would later be used to divide us into 4 groups based on our German skills. Not only is Tübingen the top university in Deutschland for German Studies, but it is also an elite university especially know for its medicine, law, and theology faculties. So it makes sense that our writing and speaking skills are so diverse considering some students are here for faculties outside of German language studies.
We received our placements the following day and started immediately with proper lessons. I was surprised by how practical our lessons are. I had expected my teacher to start drilling us with grammar tenses and vocab lists, but instead we spoke about friendship. We compared and contrasted, across nations, the concept of friendship and whom you call a friend. Our teacher, Janine (who was born and raised in Germany), explained to us the general German thoughts on friendship and how their views on the subject might be the reason why Germans are often labeled as cold or reserved by other cultures. She said Germans are not quick to speak first to a stranger. When we go to lectures at the university, we shouldn’t expect our neighbors to introduce themselves. When we pass others on the sidewalk, we probably won’t receive a smile or “Hallo!” Janine explained that this might be from the respect of one’s private sphere the Germans give to others, which is expected in return. We should not be offended by a stranger’s reluctance to have small talk with us because Germans have a clear line drawn between work and private life. School is for learning, the office is for working.
But Janine went on to explain the strength of a German friendship. She said that most Germans have about 4 or 5 people that they would call their Freund (friend) and these are strong relationships built to last. Germans are not quick to throw around the word “Freund.” It is reserved for the best of the best. It’s for relationships with deep roots that have been developing for years and have great value and trust. Other people that you know are described as acquaintances, colleagues, housemates, etc.
I think the concept of friendship is thought of differently in the US. I started to think about how often I use the term “friend” to describe people I only really know as an acquaintance. Back home, I find myself getting into conversations of forced pleasantries with people who I don’t even wish to talk to. But it feels like the polite thing to do. If I meet someone in class and spend the next semester sitting next to them making little conversations, it’s likely I will describe them in later conversation as “my friend from class” without really knowing any deeper, more personal information about each others’ lives. For Germans, there is no unspoken societal rule that you have to go out of your way to make small talk with every acquaintance you meet on the street.
That being said, it’s important to know that all lovely and close friends start out as acquaintances. And I think that goes across cultures. As you reach out to others in your host country, it might be intimidating the first couple of times you try to strike up a conversation with a new face. You can’t expect them to know your life story after a few hangouts, but with patience and care, you might be able to create a beautiful friendship. Being the new kid in town gives me so many chances to create new friendships and I am not going to let cultural generalizations and stereotypes keep me from trying.