I don’t find this statement to be true in every situation. For the number of times I have gone into our local Subway which is staffed with students, not always do I find someone who knows English. Or maybe they are just scared to use it?
On the flip side, I was pleasantly surprised going into our local grocery store and the checker (probably in her early to mid-50’s) said to me, “Have a good weekend,” as clear as day before I left.
I tell myself that I try to be as open-minded as possible and not to prejudge people and/or their situation.
And yet, sadly I must admit that about a year ago, I did just that.
While walking passed a newly built house, I saw a couple taking pictures and walking through. I presumed these were the new owners, which was an accurate presumption, and then proceeded to introduce myself.
My German definitely was nowhere near where it is today and since there were a good number of couples I had previously met where the husbands had no problem speaking English and the wives either didn’t know English or weren’t interested in speaking English, I just assumed that I should begin speaking to the husband.
I didn’t really notice what I was doing at the time; I was just trying to be polite by introducing myself to our new neighbors. Both the wife and I happened to be pregnant at the time.
I know now that the wife had spent time working in the UK while the husband doesn’t really care to speak English at all.
And that’s what I get for presuming that one situation was true for all similar situations.
The wife and I are now good friends and I told her the other night that I always felt bad that I had assumed I should be speaking to her husband since it was in English.
She hadn’t noticed, but laughed because she felt bad that when I wished her well with the birth of her children (yes, twins) that she didn’t say it back to me.
It’s funny the things we remember because I don’t remember that at all.
And since then, I have found quite a few couples where the wife prefers to speak English more than the husband… lesson learned.
Presumptions that can be made regarding greetings in Germany?
I can safely say that not everyone outside of my neighborhood wants to greet passersby. Although I would estimate that 4 out of 5 people do. Saying hello may prove to be useless, but I continue to do it anyway.
For older people (those with greying hair), it is best and the safest to be a bit more formal with “Guten Morgen/Tag/Abend” (depending on the time of day) as opposed to using the informal, “Hello.” This doesn’t always ensure a return greeting… But I continue to do it anyway.
It is also true that Germans don’t just go around asking, “How are you?” for rhetorical reasons. When they ask it, they mean it and they won’t just ask an acquaintance.
For me, saying hello to everyone, and asking “How are you?” is a habit I have a really hard time breaking. As well as not getting my feelings hurt if someone doesn’t ask it back.
I guess the only safe presumption I can make is that I can’t make presumptions that are accurate 100% of the time when it comes to culture. However, I am highly fond of manners, so I continue to greet passersby anyway, but I now refrain from always asking people how they are doing. I consider this a good compromise.
And I have stopped presuming that men will always know or want to speak English and that the women won’t speak English at all. Now I just try speaking horrible German until the person is moved to pity and starts speaking English. This seems to work 9 times out of 10.