Type, Culture, and Small Talk

Michael Mahlberg (Software Developer, ENFP, World-Traveler) and I met at the Amplifying Your Effectiveness (AYE) Conference in Phoenix, AZ in 2008. Michael is from Cologne, Germany, just a couple hundred miles South of my hometown. With his permission, I'd like to share an anecdote of what happened when we met last night for dinner. Michael is currently traveling the world to reconnect with his programming roots and you can follow his progress on his blog, http://307.mmahlberg.net/ Thanks to Twitter and Facebook we were able to stay in loose touch, and when he knew he was coming back to the States to attend this year's AYE, we arranged to meet up for dinner.

He had been driving from the West Coast for a few days now, limiting himself to four hours of driving per day. As a fellow Extravert, I agree with him and also find long drives alone quite tedious, which is why limiting the alone time to four hours seems like a great strategy to me. We have to go with our strengths and natural energy flows, and driving longer would probably make him feel more tired and depleted. Also, four hours is a nice stretch for an audio book.

I got to the restaurant just before seven and took a seat at the bar. My Spanish husband arrived a couple minutes after the hour and joined me. Michael had called ahead to say he would be five to eight minutes late. Yes, this is something we do, even if it's just 5 minutes. To me, his call meant that he respects my time and me, not wanting me to wait not knowing what's going on. I'm going to say that's a German thing, for respect, punctuality and our orientation to time, as well as an F thing, for caring how his faulty navigation system impacted me.

Michael arrived, called again to ask where I was, and I quickly stepped around the crowded corner to greet him. The receptionist grabbed the menus and moved to show us to our table, so I ducked back into the bar to get my husband. When I came back, Michael was in conversation with a waiter, who had overheard us talking in German and started telling a story of another German group that had come to the restaurant before.

This is something I noticed when I first moved to the States, and it's still true today whenever I meet someone new. Inevitably, they will know other Germans, or have German ancestry, or studied German in school, and share that information. In Germany, we don't readily give out information about ourselves, especially with complete strangers whom we will in all likelihood never see again. Conversation in Germany tends to have a purpose, so when someone tells me "oh how neat, I'm German, too!" I feel obliged to engage in the exchange and inquire where from. At which point it usually transpires they were born and grew up in the US, never visited the country, nor speak the language, but their great-grandfather came over some time ago. At first, this was very confusing to me, but I now understand that small talk and finding things in common is effective to establish trust and rapport (remember the Peach and the Coconut.)

Our Extraversion helps us get over this cultural difference and we're both quite happy to chat with anyone. Over dinner I commented on this, and Michael replied in this particular exchange it wasn't the cultural aspect that was a little stressful, it was his F preference. He simply did not want to be rude and cut off the conversation with the waiter. At the same time, we were being shown to our table, and Michael really did not want to be rude and ignore me and our dinner.

Having lived in the States for a few years now, I felt quite confident in saying the waiter will not have minded. From personal experience I know how many times I found myself in the middle of a small talk situation and the American would walk off without another glance or awaiting a response. They've said what they wanted to say and that's that. It still feels weird for me to do the same, for culture and personality reasons, but I'm practicing to stretch. Which brought Michael to articulate another important point in communication etiquette: in Germany, we like to have closure. My J preference is particularly in line with this, of course, but it is true that in addition to purpose, we prefer every conversation to have a distinct opening, middle, and end.

This post is longer than I intended, but I hope it reflects the points I tried to make accurately, although it can't properly transmit the joy I felt in figuring all this out over a nice meal in such nice company. Maybe it helps you understand the Germans you know a little better. If you've had any similar experiences, please leave a comment below. Vielen Dank!


Image by Ian_Christian, flickr, Creative Commons License