On Greetings

One of the things I didn’t expect to have difficulty with is greetings. You say “Guten Morgen” or “Guten Tag” at the same time you do in English, right? Well, yes and no. You don’t greet people on the street unless you know them – street etiquette is more New York than Texas – no smiles, no greetings, just do your thing. However, when you enter confined spaces, greetings are a little different. In a waiting room, for example, when you enter, you say “Guten Tag” or “Guten Morgen” to the room, and the people in the room respond. Then you wait in silence. When you leave, you say “Tschuss” or “Schönen Tag” to the room, and they respond. It’s the same in an elevator. I find it a little weird, because these greetings are in no way expected to proceed to conversation, but they’re what you do. I made a non-greeting related comment in the elevator at the Volkshochschule (German community college) yesterday, and it was startling to the other “drivers” (you use the verb for “to drive” in an elevator in German). It did, however, lead to yet another conversation about how I have a weird accent because I come from the USA. Apparently our vowels and Rs are distinct enough that usually German speakers think we’re Dutch, or are just confused.

I’ve been pondering greetings because we have a garage in the courtyard behind our apartment. This courtyard has eight garages, shared with the inhabitants of other buildings. I pulled in my bike after a ride last Sunday, and one of the other garage tenants was putting his bike in the garage. I put my bike in the garage, and after I closed it and was walking out, he said to me “Sprechen Sie nicht?” (“Do you not speak?”) I can only assume he decided this because I did not greet him, but I’m not sure. I stammered out my usual “Ich spreche nur ein bisschen Deutsch” (“I speak only a little German”), which apparently satisified his curiosity. I’m still thinking, though. What did he mean? Was he trying to ask if I was mute, or if I spoke German?

Mysteries of expat life, I guess.

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