The difference between South African and German conversations


Photo credit: Harry Cunningham

Germans like to get to the point. This can cause friction. In South Africa for instance, immediately asking the person with whom you are speaking for directions is not simply direct, it is actually impolite. Here a lot of time is spent greeting, smiling and laughing. Before you start any conversation, there is one important question to ask, and it’s something that may not seem obvious if you grew up in Germany.

In South Africa (and many other Anglophone countries), it is commonplace to ask how someone is doing. Depending on who you are speaking to, the conversation will start with “How are you?”, “Hoe gaan dit?” (Afrikaans), “Kunjani?” (Xhosa) or “Howzit?” (surfer dude). Forgetting to ask is a major faux pas.

I grew up in Hamburg with a South African mother. So I thought that I understood how to converse with South Africans when I accepted a job in Cape Town back in 2009. Picking up a snack before work, I stood before the vendor and said: “Hi, one doughnut, please.” The response was an angry “I’m fine, thank you!” No doughnut.

I clearly had a lesson to learn. The cleaner at the office did not let me get away with my short greeting on my way to the coffee machine either. And what’s more, I had to learn how to start the conversation in Xhosa. “Ndiphilile enkosi, unjani wena?” was not easy to get my tongue around at first, but it managed to put a smile on the lady’s face each morning. The purpose of this whole exercise became slowly apparent to me.

As German city dwellers, we usually want to get to the point quickly. Conversations are usually reserved for our free time and friends; we often avoid strangers in the course of our day-to-day lives. So I found it odd to be asked how I was doing by complete strangers. On the one hand, I felt it was not at all their concern, and on the other, I was sure that they were not really interested in how I was doing. But the meaning of this interaction is deeper.

Welcome, come right in!

I now think of it this way: when you receive guests at home, you want to be a good host. You greet your guests, perhaps offer them something to drink, take their coat and maybe ask about their journey. In South Africa, this attitude extends to meeting people in everyday life. You welcome people into the conversation: the baker, your colleagues at the office, the bartender; everyone. It is a sign of friendliness and good intentions as well as respect and empathy. For many people daily life is hard, making it so much more important that interactions with others are at least off to a pleasant start. Not being asked how you are by the person with whom you are speaking is like me throwing open the door to my visitor and saying: “Drinks are in the fridge.”

So do people actually want to know how I am? That depends. They certainly aren’t inviting you to start venting about the weather, your back pain or your spouse. As a guest, you certainly wouldn’t raid the fridge or fall asleep on the couch. It would be more appropriate to present a small gift to your host to thank them for their hospitality. Everything that follows then happens in a positive atmosphere.

Nowadays I look forward to landing in South Africa since, even at passport control, I will be greeted with a smile and asked how I am doing. In South Africa, social interactions already come with a built-in ice-breaker, as nobody here enjoys awkwardness. This will generally make people smile, which is definitely worth the ten seconds that the exchange takes.

It costs nothing to ask

Occasionally I also ask people in Hamburg how they are doing. This can easily cause even a true northerner to break character. Here, inquiring after somebody’s well-being bears a seriousness and gravity that makes a quick answer seem impossible.

At one of my earlier jobs I made a habit of asking the boss how he was doing when he called. “Hmm…I went swimming today…and they had a new kind of Danish at the baker’s…actually, today has been a good day!” I never experienced my boss being grumpy on the phone, which I had often heard my colleagues complain about.

Note: Anyone looking to learn more about communication between different cultures can do so at one of our seminars on intercultural skills.

All that remains is to simply ask: How are you doing?

Robert Rothe
Marketing and Partner Manager

Robert grew up in Hamburg, but has strong South African roots. At EnglishBusiness he is the German translation editor, manages our pool of external translators and creates our marketing content. In his free time you’ll find him running around the Alster. In this blog he writes about the German language, South Africa, sports and our beautiful port city.

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