If you’re learning German, you probably plan ahead for important conversations. You look up vocabulary before calling your doctor, asking for help in a supermarket, or going to the mechanic.
But what about those unplanned moments you can’t prepare for? What about the moment you step into a near-empty elevator, make eye contact with the only other person inside, and awkwardly reach past them to hit your floor’s button? You’re in the box with this person for 60 seconds. Are you really going to say nothing?
Feeling anxious yet? Fear not! In this guide, we’re going to plan for the unplanned. We’re going to learn some basic phrases and questions to survive the seeming eternity of an elevator ride with a stranger in Germany. We’ve broken it down into 6 easy steps
Step 1. Why are we even talking?
First, we should ask an important question: is small talk really that important in Germany? Though the stereotype of Germans is that they NEVER make small talk, that’s not true. While small talk is not essential, and many opt not to chit-chat in public, plenty of people in Germany have mundane conversations every day in buses, hallways, office kitchens, and yes, elevators. Even if most Germans think small talk is a waste of time, it turns out that breaking the awkward silence is a universal pressure.
That said, you don’t have to do it. And if someone doesn’t seem open to it, let them be!
Another important point is that being too friendly or excited can come across as disingenuous. If you are going to take a swing at elevator small talk, we recommend trying to sound relaxed, and to avoid using superlatives like ‘amazing’ and ‘absolutely crazy’ to describe your day. A genuine, honest interaction can get you far in Germany. Be yourself!
Step 2. The greeting, the floor #
You’ll want to say hello. We assume you already know “Hallo”, so let’s jump straight to the proper way to ask someone how they are. You may have learned “Wie geht es dir?” in German class, but remember: this is a total stranger! Using “dir” is too informal. You’ll want to use “Ihnen”, the formal version. So the full version would look like this:
“Hallo. Wie geht es Ihnen?” (“Hello. How are you?”)
Keep in mind that if they ask you how you’re doing, you should NOT answer with, “unheimlich toll!” (“amazingly great!”). That’s over the top. Try something simple like, “Es geht mir gut. Danke” (“I’m fine. Thanks.”).
If you were in the elevator first, you might offer to push the floor button for your riding companion.
“In welche Etage müssen Sie?” (“What floor do you need?”)
That was the easy part, but there are clouds rolling in!
Step 3. The weather
At the start of a conversation, nothing beats the weather. In fact, before delivering his famous line, “Ich bin ein Berliner”, John F. Kennedy warmed up the Berlin crowd with comments on the partly-cloudy forecast…Ok, not really!
The point is that talking about the weather will never do you wrong. In fact, it’s a great way to see if the other person is even receptive to a short chat.
Rather than learn all the ways to describe the weather, why don’t we let the other person do it for us? We can ask “Isn’t this weather nice?” or “Isn’t this weather lousy?” and they can fill in the rest!
“Ist es nicht schön Heute?” (“Isn’t it nice today?”)
“Was für ein Wetter!” (direct translation: “What weather!” meaning: “Isn’t this weather bad?” )
If you want to be really fancy, you might say:
“So ein Sauwetter!” (“Such lousy weather!”) Check out our Word of the Week for an explanation.
Just don’t go too over the top with this one. Remember, simplicity and sincerity 🙂
Step 4. Sports
A pretty simple rule for breaking the ice in any country is to avoid religion and politics. That’s also true in Germany. So what other subjects besides the weather can we mention? Sports, of course!
Again, rather than learn all the names of all sports, we can simply ask the other person if they saw “the game”, and let them fill in the rest!
“Haben Sie Gestern das Spiel gesehen?” (“Did you see the game yesterday?”)
Hopefully you had a specific match in mind. If they ask, “Welches Spiel?”, just say the team name!
If they start to ramble about the referees or players, just nod your head and agree. You’ve earned their trust, congrats!
Step 5. The weekend
This is perfect for Mondays and Tuesdays. After a polite greeting, ask:
“Wie war das Wochenende?” (“How was your weekend?”)
If they ask you about yours, just look down and press the elevator button repeatedly. Just kidding! “Sehr schön, danke.” will suffice.
Step 6. Complain about the elevator
If you’re in a slow elevator, you may need this phrase as a last resort. If all other conversation fails, you might talk about the elevator itself. If you find yourself in this situation, please tweet us @GermanyinUSA . We can’t help, but we want to hear the story and laugh with you!
Here’s the emergency phrase!
Use it sparingly!
“Meine Güte, wie langsam!” (“My gosh, could this thing be any slower!?”)
Well friends, if you made it this far, you’re certainly prepared for any elevator ride in Germany.
…This might be the first time that sentence has been written, and we’re proud of it. Tweet us @GermanyinUSA if you have any other German elevator small talk survival tips!
By William Fox, German Embassy