Does the Berlin tech scene have a social etiquette problem?
As a tech journalist, I go to lots of events and am often in situations where I attend a meet-up, conference or event alone. Most have “networking” featured in the itinerary and I find myself fortunate enough to meet a range of diverse, interesting and friendly group of people. I’m not the most socially extrovert person and I do suffer from bouts of social anxiety like many of us. But I am happy to chat with people and I genuinely enjoy learning about all the different parts of tech that people are involved in, even if I am not entirely au fait with all of them.
I received a slack message from my other half today:
“Once again I am at event and no one talks to me. Must be me (disappointed face).”
This is not unusual. Here in Berlin, where we have lived for a number of years, we often find ourselves attending events where literally no one talks to us.
Look, we’re pretty nice people and we generally don’t smell. We’re happy to talk tech or go completely social. We completely understand that some people would prefer to chat in Deutsch in their downtime rather than the English that seems expected at all tech events. We also appreciate that people like to talk to people they already know, friends perhaps, that they haven’t seen for a while. But gosh, we get tired of standing alone, awkwardly whilst people talk around us!
I mention this in relation to Berlin as we’ve both attended events in Australia, the UK, Europe, Scandinavia and the US and not experienced this problem. I’ve even attended a programming conferences as a journalist (and a non-programmer) and had people come up and say hi and have a chat.
I’ve heard all kinds of things that suggest that (at least some) Germans are a touch reticent. They don’t like small talk. They take a while to warm to people. They are (understandably) tired of investing time in expats who come to Berlin for a while then leave. But the other side of the experience is of course for expats, who may be nervously practising Deutsch in their head, needing a job or in the situation like ours, of moving from a city where you had established friends and social connections to somewhere where you know almost no one. But I’m not convinced that the problem is limited to Deutsch vs expats. It can be tiring continuously introducing yourself (I get tired of people asking if I am English when I’m actually Australia haha) but it comes with the territory.
So many times we find that the only way people talk to us at an event is if we go up and say hi. No one else seems to move from their clique to either let people in or want to chat to someone they don’t know. We usually look for people who are standing alone and go and say hi. Often I find they are fellow journalists or VC’s, so there could maybe be some missed opportunities there.
Are we the only ones who have had this experience? I suspect we’re not alone as I’ve been to meet-ups where the organisers have a roaming microphone and have everyone introduce themselves and they are able promote something or ask something if they like . One monthly event has a form of speed dating at the end of each event where people line up in two lines and talk to each other until the bell rings then move onto the next people. I don’t think these problems are necessarily exclusive to tech by the way, I came across this post about social struggles in christian churches for example.
For what is gained, many are lost
I can’t help wondering how many people avoid events because of the reasons (assuming that it’s not just us). It’s a shame because the organisers (often volunteers who put their time and effort in for free) finding venues, speakers and marketing events. That person you ignore might be your next employer, co-founder or investor.
If I wanted to offer a request from this article it would be, reach out to someone you don’t know. Say hi, talk about whatever you like. Sure, you won’t click or have a connection without everyone but there might be some people who you like. At worse, you’ve met someone who you might cross paths with in the future and you’ll wish you were a bit friendlier.
After writing this article and sharing it on social media, I’ve had lots of comments. The spectrum has ranged from “Omg I thought it was just me” to “Well if you stand there alone, no wonder no one will come and talk to you”. Many said that they’d had similar experiences both in Berlin and other cities, and not only in the tech scene. One mentioned the Seattle Freeze, I’d never heard of this, which kinda sounds like a hell onto itself and makes Berlin sound like the winner of a congeality contest by comparison.
Quite a few people contacted me privately to share their own experiences. It’s not cool to talk about social isolation I guess for fear of even more social rejection.
I was interested how some people (all men to my knowledge) hadn’t experienced any problems themselves and therefore that meant that the problem didn’t exist or if it did, must be due to the social inadequacies of myself or the other people who also shared their own similar experiences.
I should stress, I knew that publishing this would put me at risk of sounding anti-Berlin (I’m not, I adore the city) or socially inept. As I thought was apparent in the article, I’m a reasonably social person who has no problem talking to strangers or making small talk. I have plenty of good friends in Berlin (not only in tech). I don’t think people should have to make small talk at all times. Heck, I get tired of talking!
I guess I was trying to talk about something that’s a bit bigger than talking to someone standing on their own. It’s about how a community (if you could call it that) engages with its members. Judging by the responses I received, we could all make more effort to be friendly and welcoming to newcomers, especially in a city like Berlin where there’s a reasonably high turn over and chances could be lost without us realising.