My weekly German lessons follow a textbook, the current chapter of which is “Nebenan und Nachbarschaft”, or “Next Door and Neighbourhood”. Truth be told, much of my German lesson time is spent just chatting with my teacher and hearing a lot about life in the DDR (German Democratic Republic, or East Germany). I get a lot of practice listening, and learn about German society and history in the process. Last week, however, a discussion prompt in the textbook led to a discussion of German attitudes towards neighbours in comparison to American attitudes. Two points in particular were striking.
In Germany, people usually stay relatively close to where they grew up. My friends here live in the towns where they were raised, or a short drive (we’re talking minutes, not hours) away. When people move, they make a home for themselves in the new place, but are often already familiar with the area and have networks of people around, either in the new place or close by. This is quite different to the situation in the US, where the touted cultural expectation is often that young people will leave and start their own lives somewhere else, somewhere far away. (Interestingly, though the data do not bear this out, the cultural interest remains.)
Perhaps, my German teacher suggested during our discussion of an audio recording we heard during the lesson, it is this movement between places that has led to connections among neighbours. In my experiences living in the US, people make an effort to get to know each other, they have regular social gatherings, and it is not uncommon to knock on a new neighbour’s door to drop off baked goods and introduce oneself. Whenever I visit my parents, I am stunned by the number of people my mum greets by name when out walking the dog. (A brief anecdote about who they are in the neighbourhood usually follows.)
Although greeting a new neighbour with baked goods is utterly unheard of in Germany, I have found my neighbours to be quite friendly. I know a few names and greet the others around town when I see them. It is common for German neighbours to collect deliveries for each other, and I gave my neighbours the keys once to let in a repair person during the day, another perfectly common interaction. People water each other’s plants, but a social gathering would likely be out of the question, and possibly seen as an affront on much-desired privacy.
Perhaps a different environment is borne from being new to a place, from the need to learn more about the local school district, for example, and find a mechanic as soon as one settles in. German neighbours live side-by-side and are respectful of one another’s space; American neighbours might be looking for community, which Germans already have elsewhere.
Levels of relationships
The search (or not) for community upon arriving in a place might help create different levels of relationships among people. When you’re alone in a place, you need people, whether for social contact, general assistance moving house, or getting to know the area. Perhaps this creates closer bonds from the outset than in environments where people already have social networks, and perhaps cultural expectations about the relationships people have with their neighbours make it easier (or more difficult) to get to know them in some places rather than others.
For example, a friend in Denver has sent me photos of his neighbourhood spaghetti dinners, and a Canadian born-and-raised friend whose mother tongue is Swiss-German lamented how hard it was to make friends during a decade in Switzerland as an adult because people moved in the same circles they had since grade school. Many of the people I’ve met in Germany have known each other since their own school time, and even if they’re no longer close, they greet each other in the street. Perhaps when people have so many connections that stretch back so far, they don’t have the same need to look for new ones.
A phenomenon that I really like here in Germany is that of Mehrgenerationenhäuser, or “multiple generation houses”. This is the idea that people of all ages live in the same house (apartment building) with the intention of interacting with and helping each other. Older residents might provide childcare for the children of working residents, while those working-age residents might help older residents with household tasks. This is a commitment to knowing one’s neighbours in a society where people already have strong social bonds, perhaps indicating that strong relationships between neighbours would not otherwise evolve.
It was an interesting conversation to have during my German lesson, an interesting look into societal differences that tell us something about culture and attitudes. These are differences that might not be obvious from the beginning, but become increasingly so the more one looks around. And like many aspects of society, this demonstrates that there are many ways of being, and that one way is not better or worse than another. Rather, these ways of being create the culture and environment of a place, and it is to this that people adapt when moving across borders.