Wie Geht's? Think it's a harmless question... Think again.

Don't ask Angela how she is doing.

One of the worst cases of culture shock I have ever experienced happened shortly after I started working in Germany.  During the first few months I was doing my best to integrate.  I was speaking German and doing everything I could to fit in.  I was being the happy, polite and chatty American which are infamous in Germany.  Doing so led me to saying “Wie geht’s?” or “How’s it going?” to my work colleagues as I passed them in the hall or as I walked into their offices.  This was a fatal flaw that went on for about two months until the department Christmas dinner.

During the dinner, my colleague, one who fulfills almost all of the German stereotypes you could ever imagine without remorse, happened to be sitting across from me.  After the appetizer and a few glasses of wine I noticed that he happened to be giving me a very stern look, not uncommon in Germany.  He finally said to me, “Why do you ask me ten times a day how I am doing? You must only ask once and mean it!” 

The only way to describe my reaction is that I was in shock and embarrassed.  Everyone got quiet and turned to enjoy the converstation that had just started.  I had spent years in Germany but I was completely unprepared for this. The best I could come up with was, “I don’t know. In America it is just something you say to pass the time and minimize the awkward silence in the hallway.”

His reaction, with the same firm expression was, “There is no awkward silence. You either say hi or nothing.  If you ask me how I am doing, you need to be sincere about it.”

This was not the tone of cultural understanding. He thought I was being rude.  This scared the shit out of me as I was trying to be nice and friendly and doing everything I could to fit it. All I can say is that this was a harshly learned lesson.  From that point on I have done anything in my power to only ask how Germans are doing with utmost sincerity.

Since then a very nice relationship has developed with my colleague and this incident has become a running gag. I have been "officially instructed" to inform all foreigners, especially Amis and Brits, that they are only to ask "wie gehts?" once daily.

This situation has forced me to analyze myself and my culture.  Why is it that we are so afraid of silence and why do we ask questions and not be really interested in the answer?  And why are Germans so damn sensitive when you ask them how they are doing?