German Small Talk: NO NAMES

This isn’t bad. Other acceptable topics for German small talk include insurance, heating and energy costs, insurance, restaurants that have opened or closed nearby, insurance, local crime, insurance, insurance, the most recent episode of Tatort, insurance, sales and discounts, insurance, and insurance.

But there’s one pitfall I must warn you about.

Let’s say you’re trying to fit in with your German colleagues, and you begin with this gambit: “I was talking to Ulrike, my insurance agent, the other day, and she told me I could get a better rate on my retirement insurance by switching to Rate Group Norm Cluster 25/A4/36, which will entitle me to a matching government subsidy of €-.00032 on every Euro I contribute. That will really add up over 25 years!”

Congratulations, you’ve done four things right:

First, you’ve steered the conversation to insurance, a subject on which every German, from a captain of industry to the most humble currywurst chef, can chunter on about for hours. Literally hours — I have the scars to prove it.

Second, you mentioned a bargain. Germans love bargains. Among the high points of German lives are childbirth and finding a “perfectly good” vacuum cleaner for “only €24.99” at a local discounter which is “just as good as the big name-brands” but “costs half as much because they [i.e. the Golden Miracle Light Manufactures Corp., 23 山羊肛門 Road, Shantian] don’t bother with advertisements or in-store displays or celebrity endorsements or any of that fooferaw and just focus on making a solid product. If only our German firms would… [insert 4 minutes of general bitching here]”.

Third, you mentioned retirement. The specter of retirement haunts the average middle-class German like Nemesis. I have met Germans who switched from jobs they liked to a jobs they hated solely because the retirement bennies were better. Combining insurance and retirement is like injecting a speedball directly into the conversational centers of the middle-class German brain.

Fourth, you’re using a state subsidy. Germany packs tiny little subsidies from Father State state into every nook and cranny of society. You already played the role of savvy citizen in voting for these perks; now it’s time to play the role of savvy consumer in taking advantage of them.

So you did much right. But you made one mistake, which every German you talked to will note. You used a name. Now you might think this is a courteous thing to do — you’re trying to humanize an insurance agent, as difficult as that may seem. She’s not just another cog in the juggernaut that is the German insurance industry, she’s a person. She’s Ulrike.

But to a German, what you have just done is a faux pas. Ever read 19th or 18th century novels in which one of the main characters is identified only as the Baron of W_____, and all the letters are dated March 19, 18__? That is a trace of a long-standing cultural pattern of discretion. You don’t just casually identify absent third parties in conversation without their permission. What it Ulrike is ashamed of being an insurance agent? What if she’s never told her parents about her choice? What if Ulrike’s marriage is hanging by a thread because of her insurance-selling addiction, and it gets back to her husband that she sneaked into an insurance company’s office to fuel her shameful obsession?

Congratulations! You just ruined Ulrike’s life. I hope you’re happy.

One trick that helps foreigners maintain a proper level of conversational discretion is to imagine that it’s East Germany, and you’re talking about your dissident friends in an apartment you know is bugged. Now, this will make conversations pretty hard to follow. At some point, you may have to say things like: “While I was talking to my insurance agent, another insurance agent came in an introduced himself, and my insurance agent talked to that insurance agent until their boss came in, and invited us all to lunch. So I had lunch with my insurance agent, another insurance agent, and their boss.” This would have been a lot easier and less bureaucratic-sounding if you’d actually given these humans names. But this stilted syntax is, to most Germans, a reasonable price to pay to preserve everyone’s plausible deniability.

So, I have taken the video made by Rache — this human female and added some extra depth to it. You’re welcome!