Black Cat

Going not gentle into that middle age.

Friends and Acquaintances

Filed under: Expat — 4 July 2006 @ 3:21 pm

Friendship means something here in Germany. Friends are people you’ve spent a lot of time with, shared private thoughts with, people you can trust to be there when you need a listening ear, and who look forward to seeing you. Everyone else is an acquaintance. It’s not an insult here to call someone an acquaintance. It’s honest.

Americans call everyone their friend. This way you don’t have to spend a lot of time with someone. You can bask in the good feelings of just thinking about that person. That’s as good as actually making a date with them, isn’t it? And if you actually do write down a mutually agreed-upon date in your calendar, you can cancel dates repeatedly. As long as you cancel in a nice way, and come up with a plausible excuse, that’s just as good as actually following through on the date, isn’t it?

When I lived in the Bay Area of California, I couldn’t get a dinner date. I was already married by that time, so I wasn’t looking for a lifetime mate, just some company for the evening, perhaps to get to know someone to see if we could be friends. The great American phrase is, “We should get together sometime.” On the rare occasions when I could pin someone down to a specific date, couples and individuals would, time after time, call on the evening of the date and say, “I’m really tired tonight, would you mind if we met some other time?” I’d say, “OK, when would be a good time for you?” and politely not point out that I had thought that tonight was a good time. And they’d say, “We’ll call and make a date when we’re not so tired.” The only time we could get anyone to visit us at our home was when we said we were barbequeing a turkey. They wouldn’t come to visit us, but they would drag themselves out of their tiredness to visit the turkey.

My husband and I ate out at restaurants a lot. But rarely with anyone else. In the Bay Area, people do most of their socializing at lunch, during the week. That way they can say, “Hey, look at the time! Have to get back to work!” Was everybody too tired from their jobs to make a dinner date either at a restaurant or at our house? Or were they trying to tell us that we weren’t worth dragging their tired asses out of the house for? I’ll never know. I do know that they weren’t friends. We never spent enough time together to find out what common interests we shared, to create a history together, to look forward to spending time together. We were acquaintances.

Many of the Americans that I know in Germany operate on the same principle. They can say how they look forward to lunch/tea/dinner with me, and from time to time they actually make specific dates. But just because I’ve written that date down in my calendar doesn’t mean that the date will actually happen.

Person A, who lives in my small town, cancelled three dates in a row a couple of years ago. By the third date, I knew ahead of time that she wasn’t going to make it, but I was curious what excuse she was going to make. This time it was a flea market for the next day that she found out about from another of her “friends”, and she felt that going to the flea market was more important than keeping a date with me. For the third time in a row.

Person B, whom I see for lunch once every year or two, made a date 6 weeks in advance, and a week beforehand she said that she’d rather be home watching the world cup on television. Which wasn’t going to start until 4 hours after our date. But I should look at this website she thoughtfully included in her email to see the schedule of the games and tell her when I was free at a time that didn’t conflict with the games.

Person C hugs you and calls you “my dear” and makes you feel that you’re her closest and dearest friend in the world when she happens to bump into you on the street. But she only calls for a date when she needs some help with her computer. And one night when I was too tired to pretend anymore because it was 3 hours past my bedtime and she hadn’t said a word to me for the last 2 of those hours because she was busy getting computer instruction from my DH, well, I’m the one who was rude because I didn’t want to be hugged and called “my dear” by someone who was only an acquaintance and who stunk of too-strong perfume. She sent me an email afterwards saying that she couldn’t understand why there were such “negative vibes” from me on that night, and I had to make an excuse that I was too tired and up way past my bedtime, because it would be an insult to an American to point out that we’re not friends and I just didn’t want to pretend anymore. So my apology for my rudeness made everything all right and the next time we bumped into each other on the street she hugged me and called me “my dear” and spoke to me in such a “I’m SOOO glad we met up here on the street” tone of voice that you’d think we were actually friends. But I know that we’re not. She won’t call until she needs help with her computer and I won’t call because I gave up years ago trying to get an actual date with her.

But it would be insulting to call these Americans acquaintances. And it would be poor manners on my part to say that yes, I do feel angry at having to pretend that we’re the best of friends even though we hardly ever see each other because, as long as we’re nice about everything, that’s what counts, isn’t it?

I accept that person A would rather go to a flea market than spend time with me. I accept that person B would rather watch television than spend time with me. I accept that Person C would rather not spend any time at all with me unless she needs help with her computer. I accept that, for Americans, it’s ok to cancel a date when you get a better offer. We all have the right to prioritize the activities and people in our lives. My question is, why do I have to pretend that I’m friends with people who make it painfully obvious that they’d rather be doing other things than spending time with me? American rules of politeness require this pretense.

Since we’ve lived in Germany, I have made several German friends, and there are a couple of Americans that I really can call friends. We make dates with each other because we like spending time together. We make restaurant dates, we try out new recipes on each other at home, we go to concerts together, we go to flea markets together. My DH and I are invited to weddings and christenings and birthday parties and we invite them to American Thanksgiving feasts and parties in honor of our 10-year anniversary of living in Germany. On the rare occasions when one of us has to cancel a date, we apologize and reschedule. We have enough in common that it’s a pleasure to make dates.

Even our German acquaintances are a pleasure to see because they keep their commitments. It’s considered rude in Germany to cancel a date at the last minute without a really good reason, like illness. How refreshing.

Lots of people can’t understand why my DH and I hope that we can spend the rest of our lives here in Germany rather than go “back home” to America. One reason is that I was deeply lonely in America. I had no friends. Not a single one. Here I have several friends. And lots of friendly acquaintances. I’m not lonely.

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  1. Michael:

    Nice post. And true. Just this last Sunday we enjoyed a very nice time with friends in Hamburg. Actually, a mix of friends and aquaintances, it was a fine get-together. And since everyone who said they would be there were, it actually happened!
    — M

  2. Thomas:

    Yes, nice post indeed. But one question came into my mind: How much did you change, and how much changed the aquaintance-environment around you? I think it is influencing mutually, and different circumstances allow/promote different behavior. I know this from my past!
    I wish we get more sundays like this!

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