The greeting game

Away on our recent summer travels in South Tyrol (Süd Tirol) we sat down at an alpine Hütte for an afternoon snack. The waitress brought us our dish, a selection of regional cheeses, breads and fruit and exclaimed a hearty ‘Mahlzeit!’ , before slipping away.

Normally an ‘enjoy your meal’, ‘Bon appetit’ or ‘Guten Appetit’ would be pleasantly received, the abrupt ‘Mahlzeit!!’ however caught me a little by surprise. But that was only the beginning. Over the next four days this phrase was belled in multiple instances before or during a meal – including walking towards a restaurant, in a hotel lobby and before every course that was served at a restaurant.

Upon returning to Munich it happened again. Having returned from lunch with colleagues, we passed by another colleague on the street about to head for a lunch break. While working towards her, my colleague shouted out ‘Mahlzeit!’ and continued walking. I was again a little shocked.

Personally it comes across a little strong but perhaps this is because I am considering it through the direct translation of the phrase, ‘meal’ or ‘meal time’. When said, it is often exclaimed, or hollered – rendering it somewhat commanding. Yes I am about to eat, there is no need to repeat the obvious.

After some light research and some friendly ‘prompting’ of my Germans the phrase is understood as ‘Enjoy your meal’, or even a ‘hello’ if said while passing someone by and is now often said in the office, university or factory environments across Germany and Austria. Originating from the longer greeting ‘gesegnete Mahlzeit’, (blessed meal time), it is believed to have been a form of announcement to guests when official or royal banquets were served. The phrase now shortened, appears to be backed with good intention, however when said with sarcasm it can be taken to imply something of disgust or irony.

I am not convinced. Its the tone of the greeting that gets me. Another (German) colleague agreed and also sees it a bit rough or barbaric. Perhaps I feel this way because I notice that other greetings are just too pleasant.

That gets me to my next point – Germans are greeters, the Bavarians perhaps even moreso. Greetings are exchanged in elevators, along residential streets, in waiting rooms (yes, even at the doctors surgery), in any part of the office building and the most over-greeted location – the hiking trail. The greetings range from a slight head nod (rarely the case), a smile or to phrases such as ‘Servus’, ‘Guten Tag,’ ‘Moi’ (northern Germany) and ‘Gruß Gott’ (southern Germany). Greeting your neighbours, all colleagues (even unknown), the post man and the office cleaner are a must.

This mildly-intense greeting protocol is new for me, and sometimes a little challenging. I could go through a whole day in Sydney only speaking to those I knew or would be required to make contact with. Many coffees were made in the communal office kitchen without even a glance between unfamiliar colleagues. And to other patients in the local medical practice? Forget it!

While definitely friendly, I still find often slightly unnecessary. Yes it provides a brief connection of warmth to those people we would normally let pass us by, but this is just as easily lost and forgotten in moments when the same person steals the parking space you had been waiting for or not picking up behind the belongings of their pet on the streets. A friend recently reminded me that I should have greeted the older lady that crossed our path on a residential street near her house – no joke. That was just a little too much.

But honestly, do I need to join in on this greeting behaviour? Does being aware of this cultural trait make me feel obliged to participate in order to ‘live with the locals?, or can I simply hold up the ignorant-foreigner card and smile politely when appropriate? So far my strategy has been to roll with it – where needed, I greet. What is for sure is that there will definitely be no need to command a ‘Mahlzeit!’ to anyone anytime soon.

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