A large part of what drew me to Berlin was how ‘free-spirited’ the city was. People could be themselves, explore those parts of themselves they kept hidden for fear of embarrassment, and no one would bat an eye. After living here for over a year my bright-eyed wonder at all the freedoms afforded to its inhabitants has shifted to concerns about the lack out genuine relationship building.
I’ve heard countless times that ‘Americans are superficial’ from various Europeans. Accusing them of acquiring friendships fast and forgetting about them just as quickly. While it is true that Americans have mastered the art of small-talk and will invite just about anyone to our cookouts, at least there’s a sense that people care about, no matter how fleeting.
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone here who greets you when you walk into a store, smiles at you on the street, or simply asks, ‘How are you?’ throughout the day. While shopping or dining there’s no ‘standard of customer service’. Generally people don’t care what you’re looking for nor do they care to help you find it. Go in, do what you came there to do, and get out. Some people appreciate that kind of social experience: no one hovering over you, pressuring you into something you don’t want to spend money on, and no need for niceties.
But what happens when someone’s wallet gets pick-pocketed, or someone is stuck in the train doors and unable to free themselves, or passed out in the middle of a club? There’s no one to ask how they’re doing or offer any assistance. Everyone is so accustomed to keeping themselves at a distance, and become desensitized to the plight of others. I, myself, have been guilty of this while living here.
For some reason, I see a lot of women crying in public spaces while by themselves – on the train, on the street, in stores. Many times I’ve wanted to ask them if they are okay. Maybe because I’m afraid I can’t offer any real help because I’m not a fluent speaker or because I believe they just want to cry in peace, I don’t approach them. After I walk away I think about all of the people who are dealing with so much pain and stress who are literally crying out for someone to show concern.
This is not to say that there’s a lack of people willing to lend a helping hand. I’ve seen a man cut the hair of our neighborhood homeless man, I’ve seen people offer to help a mother carry her child’s stroller up a flight of stairs, I’ve seen people warned that their bag is open so it keeps them from being pick-pocketed. There are many moments were I’ve seen generosity and care amongst strangers but it’s the daily personal connections that I miss.
Most of the smiles I’ve received or help offered without asking was from those who originated from English speaking countries i.e. The US, The UK, or Ireland. My longest formed friendships here are with people from those countries. We seem to all have this shared longing for people to smile back when we smile at them on the street, or for someone, anyone to start up a conversation with us on the train or while waiting in line.
Many have said that ‘Germans are hard to get through to at first but once you do, you’ve made a lifelong friend.’ They aren’t fans of small talk, they don’t really get sarcasm, and being in-direct will fall short. When beginning relationships, in my experience, it’s built on small talk and subtle cues until you know the other person well enough to dive deeper. So how do you get to that lifelong friendship if you can’t even make it past the basics?
No city exists without its downfalls. While Berlin is a uniquely international, creative hub that offers everything from art galleries to all-weekend parties there will always be room for improvement. Having to deal with a standoffish person or less than friendly service isn’t enough to make me jump ship. However, I sure do miss being able to tell a woman that I like her bag and have her say ‘thank you’ in return instead of snarking at me and walking away without a word. So they say: a little bit of kindness goes a long way. Being carefree doesn’t mean that you have to care less about the people around you.