Settling into a new country means opportunities to make a fool of oneself abound. Sure, there are some things that are universal, like, I don’t know, breathing, but a very large reason for the way we do things is the culture we grew up in. Exiting that culture and springing into another one means learning how things work all over again and invariably getting a lot of things wrong as you go about it.
Many German Cultural Norms aren’t obvious, even to not-so-Newbies!
I lost count of how many things I got wrong in my first few months (okay, years) of living in Germany:
I drank cold Glühwein from a wine glass, got on a bus via the middle doors and got speaker-phoned to the front for a bit of a talking-to, had a conniption at the Aldi checkout as groceries flew past my head (I had no idea supermarket cashiers could scan so quickly), didn’t ever dress warmly enough, had ‘naked feet’ more often than not, kept my window open all the time…
I could not have stuck out more if I had tried (and I really wasn’t trying, one already feels so out of place as a foreigner). I even wrote what became a book, about all the rather specific things I noticed Germans did, which were namely exactly all the German cultural norms which I wasn’t doing.
Here’s a collection of some key cultural faux pas I, and many of my fellow immigrants, have made so you don’t have to.
German Language Mistakes
German is a language that needs no introduction. Its articles and umlauts and unyielding grammar make it a difficult tongue to master and, as with any language, learning it means making three hundred mistakes every time you open your mouth.
My very first Christmas in Germany, my parents visited. Dad, keen to grease the cogs of his high school German, and yet crippled by nerves, polished one key phrase – Merry Christmas, Frohe Weihnachten – and wheeled it out at every opportunity. Except he had stumbled somewhere along the way, and perhaps mixed his high school history with his high school German. The result was repeatedly wishing everyone Frohe Wehrmacht!
The words for cheat and mould are rather similar, I still struggle with the remarkably similar words for church, cherry, kitchen and cake, and am too afraid to say the word ‘puddle’ in case I say fart. Children jumping in muddy farts lacks a certain romance.
Defaulting to informal when communicating with Germans
Something many people struggle with, upon moving to Germany, is where the lines between friend/acquaintance/stranger are drawn.
Germans tend to maintain more of a distance between themselves and people they have only just met, or indeed people they don’t know very well. They do this, largely, linguistically.
The English language did away with formal and informal pronouns a long time ago, so modern English uses other elements of language to either maintain or bridge a distance. However, German has maintained its formal and informal 2nd person pronouns, which means it is actually easier to be clear about where you stand.
The informal ‘you’ is du, to be used with friends and family, people of the same age and the formal ‘you’ is Sie, to be used with your boss, your elders, your doctors, your teachers (and anyone else you don’t want to be particularly close with).
Things are loosening up a bit, and younger generations are fans of the du. Many workplaces, for example, have a du policy (and equally as many don’t) But it does pay to be aware of Sie and du. Du used deliberately inappropriately can be a tool of rudeness, or derision, indicating a lack of respect.
Play it safe and use Sie in situations where you are meeting someone older than you are (or your boss, or someone from whom you are seeking professional advice) and wait until they indicate it’s time for the du.
Setting a Bad Example
If the green walking man is not showing, and there is a kid in sight, do not cross. Simple as that.
One of the more rigidly observed German cultural norms dictates that by all means, go ahead and risk your own life by jaywalking (and contrary to stereotype, particularly in the bigger cities, many do) but don’t be a bad example for children.
You absolutely will get called out on it and it will likely be with the phrase, ‘schlechtes Vorbild’ – a bad example.
Dawdling at the checkout in German supermarkets
Ask anyone who has recently moved to Germany about their first grocery shopping experience, and panic will cross their face. It is terrifying. Nothing can prepare you.
Just as you have got all your groceries on the belt and are moving towards the other side to begin the bagging process (cashiers do not bag your groceries in Germany) the scanning begins. With extreme speed, the cashier will start pegging groceries in the vicinity of you and your bag, and you must catch them and pack them before the dreaded build-up occurs.
Do not let the build-up occur.
The build-up makes paying even more stressful, because you must pay and get rid of the build-up before the next customer’s groceries start flying at your head and the judgement of twenty shoppers bears down upon you. You can, of course, fling everything un-bagged into your trolley and then wheel it to the nearby provided bench, and sort things out there. Also, bring your own bags or you’ll have to pay for them when you get there.
Underestimating the importance of punctuality
Yes, Germans like you to be punctual. No, that isn’t a stereotype. However, I must clarify – there are certain situations where punctuality goes out the window, and they are: medical waiting rooms, tradespeople, the Deutsche Bahn.
Celebrating your birthday the wrong way
There is another aspect of life that Germans like to be quite precise with, and that is birthday celebrations. Niche aspect, I know. However there is really only one way to celebrate your birthday in Germany, and that is by ‘partying into your birthday’.
Ideally, if your birthday is a Tuesday, you will hold a party on Monday night, and count down the hours until it’s officially your birthday. You could, if you really must, hold your birthday party on the actual day of your birthday, but you absolutely may not hold it the day before. Or a couple of days before.
Even if, you know, none of your adult friends are actually able to make it to a Monday night birthday party and you think ‘oh, well, I’ll just hold it on the preceding Saturday night’. Don’t. It’s bad luck and Germans will think you are weird forever.
Don’t assume there’s a queue (there’s rarely a queue in Germany)
Seriously, there won’t be a queue.
Failing to kowtow to cyclists
Some cities are far more cyclist-loving than others, but Germany as a country loves bikes and the people who ride them. As a Sydney-sider, I arrived in Münster (Germany’s bike capital) ready to rage at cyclists for their brazen ways. How very dare they enter roundabouts and criss-cross roads with abandon, weaving in and out of traffic like they are the king of the road. Newsflash: they are the king of the road. And don’t walk on their bike paths – they are allowed to ride wherever they want to, but you are not allowed on their bike path.
Figuring out the various German apartment and housing related rules
Many of us live in a shared household when we first arrive in Germany, either in a WG or with a flatmate. If you are sharing with fellow foreigners, you’ll figure this stuff out by getting roused on by the authorities (landlords, garbage collection etc) but if you are sharing with Germans, you’ll learn the housing-related German cultural norms all rather quickly.
Separate your rubbish (bio waste, packaging waste, paper, glass, ‘the rest’) recycle your Pfandflaschen (and claim your 25c per bottle) and keep the apartment on an ‘airing out’ schedule.
Germans take airing out – Durchluften – extremely seriously. If in doubt, ask a German to demonstrate the ideal way of airing out, because as far as I can tell, they all have entirely different ideas about how to do it, while all agreeing on what not doing it might bring: ill health and mould.
Some other things to keep in mind…
- Don’t insult German bread.
- Don’t insult German beer (or the beer of the region you are currently in).
- Be aware that being invited somewhere means having your meal paid for (the German ‘invite’ in a restaurant/café/bar situation means ‘my shout’).
- Be aware that being invited somewhere in the English sense of the word, i.e. come to my house for a little gathering, necessitates a Mitbringsel – a little gift for your host.
- Most German households prefer it if you leave your shoes at the door. They might even have a spare pair of Hausschuhe (house shoes) for you because all Germans know that bare feet can kill.
- Germans are handshakers. If you are not a handshaker, then you need to be prepared.
And lastly, of course, it pays to keep in mind that Germans are, at the heart of things, a nation of regions.
After a few years of living in your lovely little corner of Germany, you may feel like you have it all figured out. You may get a little lax, a little confident.
Then you’ll move to another state, or perhaps just pay the village down the road a visit and everything you have learnt will mean nothing. Viel Glück!