When it comes to small talk with strangers, the presumption of innocence disappears. We quickly check what his political position is.

Bench in front of a hedge.

First, check who you are talking to at this bank. Photo: imago

Recently, on a sunlit park bench in front of the town hall of a Black Forest village, a woman sits. His knees hurt. In reality, she has to have surgery, but she doesn't want to, she would have to lose weight and she is no longer the youngest. I ask her what year she is. 1954. “Then you will be seventy.” Her: “Yes, April 20.” Me immediately: “Hitler's birthday.” Her: “Leave me alone, I have nothing to do with him.” relaxed. “More and more people want to have something to do with this again.” “It's bad,” she says, “but I can't do anything about the day I was born.”

Everyday conversations are actually spontaneous and non-hierarchical. But not anymore

I intentionally used his date of birth to prove his political position. Only then will I be able to talk to her freely. I am often in town and will probably meet her again.

If five people join, statistically one will vote for the AfD, and in Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt, according to polls, even one in three will vote. That is the starting point. When I talk to strangers, I want to know who I'm dealing with. Because that influences the progress of the conversation. And that's where the crux of the matter is, because everyday conversations are actually spontaneous and non-hierarchical. However, lately not anymore. Because if you first want (or have to) find out what the other person's political position is, you're breaking the unspoken rules of small talk.

Another situation: While walking with my girlfriend, we started talking to a man who is tying tree trunks to his tractor and pulling them out of the forest. Was it storm damage? “No, the bark beetle,” he says. “They look pretty healthy,” he interrupted. He points to the trunks of the fir trees that are still standing: “Look, bark is missing everywhere” and after a pause in which he looks at us: “It's climate change.”

Too long pauses are a crossroads in everyday conversations, say communication researchers. This creates a situation of imbalance. It was immediately clear to us: the man was watching us. But we agree. Don't deny that it's hotter.

How would the conversation have gone, I ask my friend as we continue walking, if we had responded: “The bark beetle also existed, what does that have to do with climate change?” “Climate change is a Green lie”?

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Both sides of radicalized society

These two episodes are not the only ones in which I, but also the colleagues with whom I spoke about them, noticed that a conversation with strangers sometimes turns to topics in which the two sides of a radicalized society are manifested. Because you want to know where the other person stands so you can adapt your conversation strategies.

If an indicator is needed to show that society is changing, that it is fragmenting into camps between which communication is disrupted, if not poisoned, and that gaps are opening up between the camps that cannot be bridged, here is one.

But this changes the way we treat each other. As if the presumption of innocence disappeared when meeting strangers. And with it lightness, impartiality, simplicity.

Something has changed, it has infiltrated our daily behavior without us realizing it, like a thief who breaks in at night. And the loss that threatens is already looming. Like recently at a demonstration against the right in Neuruppin: a friend we accompanied handed out stickers with quotes from Erich Kästner, who warned that dictatorships can only be fought while they are not in power. “Can I give you this?” my friend asks a spectator. “Oh, leave me alone about your democracy,” he replies. Waltraud Schwab

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