An expat’s guide to subtle German cultural differences
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It’s the little subtleties and idiosyncrasies which make life abroad both interesting and a challenge at the same time. This article started out as 15 German cultural differences, and somehow they just kept coming! I may or may not have been in a bar when I wrote it, that shall remain a mystery.
Some may be a bit contentious but hey, it’s all in the name of cultural enrichment and better understanding your host nation. Don’t forget to comment below or on our Facebook page if you can think of more!
So without further delay, here are 30 subtle German cultural differences which you should be aware of!
1. Stand-up comedy and live music nights are not that popular here. They tend to go more for satirical cabaret and bigger music concerts here, as opposed to a comedian on stage doing a stand-up set, or a gig in a more intimate bar or live music venue setting.
2. Extreme sensitivity to any kind of noise. Whether that be babies crying, any kind of home improvement activity, washing machines, vacuum cleaners or aircraft noise, Germans love their Ruhe. Especially on Sundays and after 22:00 at night, which is actually enshrined in law.
3. People don’t tend to dress up that much for nights out. I notice it even more since I recently started to regularly spend time in Spain, where style and looking good is a much higher priority.
4. Extreme sensitivity to any kind of draught. Germans walk around wearing scarves in June. Open windows in offices and on public transport are often frowned upon. There seems to be an old wives’ tale widely believed here that you can get sick by not protecting your neck from cold draughts.
5. Germans like to lecture you and point out if you are doing something wrong or if you are breaking a specific rule. There is a whole lot of truth in the saying “in jeder Deutsche steckt sich ein Polizist”, which roughly translates as “there’s a policeman hiding inside of every German”.
6. Lack of spontaneity. The concept of everything having to be planned and someone being in charge and coordinating proceedings, usually with some or other title to that effect.
7. A love of cleanliness and order. On the positive side, this manifests itself in a much greater sense of civic pride, spotless market squares, painted facades of buildings and very little litter on the street. On the more pedantic side, expect to be moaned at if you leave a dirty teaspoon in the kitchen at work.
8. A matter-of-fact directness and a disdain for false politeness, which to a German comes across as being fake or two-faced. People who you don’t know particularly well are happy to speak their mind and point out your faults. It’s a breath of fresh air in many ways. To newcomers it could come across as curt and obnoxious though, especially people who are from cultures where causing offence is frowned upon.
9. Smoking is more common, especially among younger people. And respecting the “no smoking” sign and is sadly the one rule which frequently seems to be flagrantly disregarded, as anyone can attest to who has spent time on a train platform in Germany.
10. Buying rounds of drinks is not really common here. Splitting the bill based on what everyone has individually consumed is normal.
11. Failure has a real stigma attached to it. This is linked to the psyche of German Angst and can often come across as overly negative. Instead of viewing what needs to be done to make something a success (for example a work project, new business, music band), people will instead tend to focus on aspects which could cause it to fail. If you’re a positive thinker, Germany can drive you crazy sometimes.
12. Germans don’t have many casual mates or “drinking buddies”. They typically have a much smaller and closer circle of friends, many of whom they have probably known since school or university. Superficial contacts are not really a thing here, as people tend to see them as a waste of effort.
13. Letters, sent by mail, seemingly every week, for some or other thing. And all written in a very sternly formulated, verbiose German which I swear is done to bring out foreigners in a cold sweat.
14. Fun usually has to be planned and organised, as can be evidenced in the complete carnage which is Oktoberfest or Fastnacht in Germany. It’s almost as if people have to be told that it’s okay to let their hair down and have a crazy night out. I’ve met many Germans who are usually very reserved and only drink 1 or 2 beers on a night out, but during a wine festival or Oktoberfest or the Fastnacht parade, they go crazy.
15. Debt is a dirty word. Germans are renowned for living frugally and within their means. Credit card debt and overdrafts are rarely used as a means to finance the latest gadget they want. Instead they are seen as a means to cover an unexpected bill; a last resort to fall back on for emergencies.
16. Being on time. Don’t be late if you want to keep your German hosts happy!
17. Waiting for the little green man at a pedestrian crossing. Even when it’s the middle of the night or there is absolutely no traffic. It’s a rule, so clearly it must be followed, as opposed to logically evaluating the situation and using your initiative. It’s worth noting that Great Britain has fewer pedestrian road fatalities than Germany does…
18. Much less open criticism of their government or leaders, and a much narrower spectrum of opinions and political ideology in the press. The mainstream German media doesn’t hold the government to account to the same extent that other democratic nations do. Politics in general is very consensual.
19. Dogs in bars and restaurants. It’s quite normal in Germany for your well-behaved four legged friend to be allowed into your favourite drinking or eating establishment. Petting a random stranger’s dog on a night out is good for the soul!
20. Flip flops at the gym or public swimming pool changing rooms. I get looked at weirdly in the gym or my local public swimming pool because I walk around the changing room barefoot. One of the less well-known German cultural differences is that they all seem to wear flip flops when changing. I assume this is out of fear of verrucae or athlete’s foot.
21. Compulsory nudity at the spa / sauna. Being British, we don’t really like getting naked in front of our friends. The first time in a German sauna was therefore something of a shock after seeing the sign that swimwear was not permitted.
22. Public transport is clean and modern and people don’t really talk to each other much. Deutsche Bahn toilets can be pretty grim though. More on how the transport system works here. Another quick tip, ticket inspectors on local buses and trains are in plain clothes and can issue on-the-spot fines, so beware!
23. Barbecue meet-ups don’t have much variety of food. The shiny Weber grill itself has probably cost a couple of hundred Euro, but often the food being cooked on it is cheap Bratwurst and Nackensteak from Aldi or Lidl. Salads also don’t tend to be very adventurous, rarely venturing beyond the standard Kartoffelsalat.
24. They spend a fortune on electrical gadgets and kitchen equipment….but will spend time shopping in several supermarkets to save a few Euro on their weekly groceries.
25. Providing customer satisfaction is considered less important than following processes and rules. The capacity for service personnel to make decisions, and to be given authority to bend the rules, is not really a concept here. It’s one of the less pleasant German cultural differences for most expats: Following a process tends to win here over aligning your mindset to your customer’s needs.
26. Nobody really drinks tap water, despite it being perfectly safe. An otherwise extremely environmentally conscious nation seems perfectly content buying water which comes in plastic bottles, when in reality the stuff from the tap is fine. Resaturants won’t serve tap water to you either. If you order water in a restaurant, expect it to be sparking unless you say otherwise.
27. People drink really slowly in bars. It’s not uncommon for Germans to sit for over an hour with the same drink in a bar and then occupy the table for another hour without ordering another. It makes me wonder how some bars and cafés actually make any money. Perhaps it’s because many transactions are in cash and this is as means of avoiding taxes? Just a thought…
28. Most Germans engage in a hobby that isn’t drinking / socialising, going shopping, or watching TV. I think it’s great that Germans love doing something constructive with their free time which is more physically or cognitively challenging than walking around shops, sitting in a bar or being sat at home on the sofa.
29. Talking about your financial situation, salary or net worth is not a comfortable conversation topic for most Germans. Even those who are very wealthy are fairly conspicuous about showing it. Which is why it’s so easy to spot Russians in Germany!
30. It’s considered bad luck and a cultural faux-pas to wish someone a happy birthday before their actual day. Having a night out to celebrate your birthday the weekend before is also a no-no.
If getting to grips with German culture is something which is puzzling you, check out our consultation services and we’d be more than happy to coach you on some of the mysterious ways of the Germans! For example, how to get ahead here with your employer, dealing with your landlord, or understanding the workplace and dealing with challenging colleagues.
Any which we’ve missed out? Leave a comment below!