Encounters with German Bureaucracy, Episode 2: Banking

Today’s episode: Banking in Berlin – or – Realizing that while people are helpful they are not overly nice about it.

Day 1: Opening a bank account. First we were turned away from two banks because we didn’t have the municipal registration papers. But the bank staff directed us to the town hall where we could get ourselves municipally registered. We got on the u-bahn, stopped for a quick snack for the kids, and found that the office had closed an hour before we arrived at 2pm on a Thursday.

Day 2: Back to the town hall during opening hours and we were met by a friendly woman who did not speak English but was gracious enough to speak German very slowly so we could understand the steps we had to take. We would have to return with the completed forms and take them to another section of the station the next day.

Day 3: K. went back to the town hall with the required papers, was given our municipal registration papers, and promptly opened a bank account. Progress!

Several days later we went back to the bank to accomplish a few things. We had to pay a bill, get a second bank card for me to use, and withdraw some cash. We sat down with the person K. had met to open the account, told him what we wanted to do, and he set to work. He looked away from us at his screen and typed things. He printed papers and then typed more things. We were silent.

“Where is the bill?” he asked. We handed it over. More typing. “How much do you want to withdraw?” We told him.

After a few minutes he looked up and seemed confused about why we were still sitting there, staring blankly. “Ok,” he said, “You pick up your cash over there.”

“And the bills?” I ventured. “Have they been paid? Is there a receipt?” They had. There was. He printed it out.

“And the second bank card? Can we do that?”

“It’s already ordered,” he said. “It will come to you by post.” But he never even asked for my name, I thought.

We stood up and went to collect our cash. I felt unsettled. He was very polite and certainly very efficient. He did each of the three things we came in to do. So why did it feel incomplete? I realized it was because there had been no pleasantries; no small talk and no reassurances as he was carrying out our requests. I wanted to be pulled along as he worked – I wanted to be involved, somehow, in these banking tasks carried out on my behalf. I imagined that in Toronto that exchange might have gone more like this:

“Hi there folks, what can I do for you today?”

“We’d like a second bank card and to pay these bills and withdraw some cash.”

“Great! Let’s start with the card. Same account? Same address? Ok so I’ve ordered it and it will arrive in the mail in a few days. Then you’ll get your PIN in a separate letter. So once you have both if those you can go ahead and use your card. If you need to get cash before then just come on in and see me and I’ll sort you out. Now what’s next? Paying bills? Sure, let me see those please…ok so these are now paid. Here are your receipts. The funds should clear today so those are all set. The cash machine is over there. You can use your card to withdraw whatever you need. Is there anything else I can help you with today? Nice weather we’re having, eh? Hot enough for you?”

Do I really need all that chit chat? Am I so steeped in North American customer service norms that efficient, polite service alone seems insufficient? Upon reflection there’s something very refreshing about not filling every silence with (nearly) meaningless pleasantries but I sure did notice their absence.

The cash machine worked. The bills were not late. The bank card arrived in the post. And I started to learn to stop needing every bank teller, shopkeeper and service worker I encountered to demonstratively like me.

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2 responses to “Encounters with German Bureaucracy, Episode 2: Banking

  1. I can’t believe they can bank in Germany without talking about the weather even once.

  2. I know, right? It’s shocking.

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