Dear Carly, on the first time I arrived at Cape Town (my dream city!), the passengers were shuttled from the plane to the terminal. I was tired and anxious after the long flight and behaved like one would on a Berlin subway: avoiding eye contact , squeezing in a corner between seat and window. That was when an older ZA man turned his head and said to me:
“There’s no point in social distance!”.

I never forgot that. But whenever I tried to act more friendly and open in Berlin (I live here since 1992) there is only discouragement. Because  – you know it well already – there hardly ever is a response to friendliness. Last year I visited West Coast USA – and again was stricken by the way people are meeting you in the street – a look, a wave, a smile perhaps, why not. It’s a totally different feeling… of everyday life.

Well. Again I tried to save some of that spirit on returning to Berlin, with the usual outcome that after three days the old patterns of grumpiness came back.

But this time, since six months, I really feel totally paranoid about it. And sad. My question is: am I taking this all too seriously? “Nehme ich es mir zu sehr zu Herzen?”… Or is all this distanced behavior just a sign of insecurity on all sides?

 

Having spoken to friends about this and other topics related to being a foreigner in Berlin, I have come to the following conclusions that I think answer your question (at least in part).

You are not the first person to feel isolated, alienated and lonely in this city. Berlin has a particular way of making its inhabitants feel unwelcome and unwanted. It also has the opposite effect but that’s not what this post is about.

For all the magical Berlin moments, there are probably an equal number of “I can’t live here another second” moments.

These moments are predominantly caused by interactions with other people, most likely Germans, who most likely work in bureaucratic institutions. But it can also happen in an u-Bahn station or at a store.

Your question is why? Why do people choose to be unfriendly? Why is there no willingness to be open? Why do we keep our distance?

Well I think there are many reasons. I don’t know if any of these reasons have a causal link with the problem but these are some of my observations and perhaps you’d like to give me feedback and tell me whether you think I’m on the right track.

  1. The effects of war

I don’t really know the full history of Germany but I know that being in the centre of Europe has meant that they have to endure and therefore protect themselves from many invasions. There is something to be said for a nation’s “geo-consciousness”.

The Germans’ psyche has therefore been constructed out of a need to keep people out. They are guarded, slow to warm, hard to penetrate (on an emotional level).

I also believe that World War I and II radically altered Germany’s collective psyche. There have been countless psychological studies proving the devastation of war on human beings. It literally strips people of their humanity. Subjectively, post war veterans tend to feel numb and isolated, they struggle to re-enter civilian life and they feel like something in them is lost.

I think Germans have collectively been damaged by war. I think in particular there has been this loss of humanity. I felt it from the minute I arrived. There is a great respect for machines in this land. The German people are excellent engineers. But people don’t work as logically or as mechanically as machines and so these more chaotic and flexible aspects of humanity get denied, or denigrated.

This might also just be the German way. Perhaps this is  just something specific to German culture? If the stereotypes are true then we might believe that Germans are just intrinsically rigid, uptight, rule-bound, and efficiency-obsessed.

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  1. Self protection is a strategy of the emotionally vulnerable

If we think more generally about why people are unfriendly and closed rather than open and warm then I think we need to talk about attachment styles and relational/emotional protective strategies.

People who are guarded and closed off from connection are most likely trying to protect themselves. If you have experienced cold and distant parenting or if you have been wounded emotionally, you are likely to develop the belief that expressing emotions and being emotionally transparent is something to be avoided. The reasons for this avoidance are numerous and idiosyncratic but the behaviours are uniform.

Avoidant people don’t make a lot of eye contact, are less likely to express themselves using physical touch, are less likely to talk about feelings, and are less likely to share personal information. From the outside, avoidant people may appear rude, cold, hard, or uncaring.

Avoidant people can be found throughout the world but certain cultures promote avoidance more than others. Generally speaking Northern European countries are more avoidant than Southern European, South American, and African countries. There is a disclaimer here because these are huge generalizations. Generalizations are not necessarily untrue. They are just incomplete. So for the sake of simplicity please allow me this short cut.

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  1. The nature of a transient city

I think another one of the major reasons why people choose to be slightly distant in Berlin is because of the very specific transient nature of the city. Berlin is a Mecca for traveler types – people who don’t necessarily come to stay but whose migratory nature is a fundamental aspect of their identity.

Whether it’s just for the summer, for a two-year stint, or for the longer 4 year cycle, people tend to come to Berlin with the intention of leaving at some point. This mindset leads some people to live a kind of a superficial existence here. Without the mindset of putting down roots, there is no reason to make especially meaningful connections and even when one does there is always this resistance in the back of one’s mind to fully surrender to the relationship because it may come to an end.

Of course the same is true but in the opposite direction. I imagine the a lot of people are weary of forming close friendships or extending themselves to people they meet along the way because of the assumption that those people could up and leave at any time. There is an instability here, a restless energy that doesn’t always lend itself to meaningful, long-term engagement.

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These are just a few of the ideas I’ve had. What do you think? Are there any more that you would like to add?