As a native Iowan, I am no stranger to friendly interactions with strangers. I grew up smiling at passersby on the sidewalk, chatting with cashiers at the store, and waving at everyone I saw while driving. (I picked up this last one from my dad, who grew up in rural Iowa. Apparently everyone else thinks this is very odd behavior. I love it.)
I didn’t think I would ever get weirded out by friendliness … until I arrived in Germany. A friend warned me that everyone greets each other here. She said that a friendly nod isn’t enough; you have to actually say hello (or, rather, “Hallo”). I am glad she pointed this out, because I am the master of the friendly smile and nod. However, I quickly got used to a quick “Hallo” or “Guten Tag” when walking into a store, and a lilting “Tchuss” when leaving.
Well, kind of used to it. I went to a German laundromat for the first time recently. (We stayed for a while at a guesthouse with its own laundry facilities, but we haven’t bought a washer or dryer for our new apartment yet.) I walked in, found a couple empty washers, stuffed my clothes in, and grabbed a seat. A few minutes later, a young man left with his freshly dried clothes, throwing a quick “Tchuss!” over his shoulder.
What? Greetings apply to strangers in laundromats? Sure enough, a bit later a woman walked in and greeted the room with a friendly “Guten Tag.” There were no other interactions while we watched the clothes spinning in the machines, aside from some quiet requests to use the clothes bins (“Darf ich …?”). I sat there, imagining what would happen if I walked into a laundromat in the US and belted out a “Hello!” to everyone. I giggled to myself, but I managed to throw in my own greeting when the next person came in.
I thought I had it all figured out, until I went to the bakery the next morning. I walked in, the only customer in the store, and saw the woman behind the counter bent over, arranging pastries in the glass case. I stood for a moment, waiting for her to finish so I could make my order. A moment later another woman walked into the bakery and announced, “Guten Morgen!” I was a bit taken aback (how bold to interrupt her work!), but sure enough the woman behind the counter stood up straight and asked to take her order. The woman kindly gestured to me, and I stammered out my request for bread and croissants. I never thought something as simple as a polite greeting would trip me up here.
I did, of course, sing out a “Tchuss!” as I walked out the door.