Having lived, studied and worked in Germany for nearly four years in total, these are some of the cultural traits that I have found to be the most influential. Of course these generalizations do not apply to every German individual, and are only a representation of an overall trend from an American’s perspective.
If I was going to sum up Germany in just one sentence, it would be: “Sh*t just works.” Whether its the public transportation system, health insurance, or free education. Sure there can be a bit of bureaucracy and paper work involved at the start, but overall, I never had to worry about being stranded somewhere, having to argue five hours on the phone to get my insurance company to reimburse medical costs, or had to investigate why my student loan payments were not appropriately being applied to the principle balance.
Germans take great care of their country and perform routine maintenance on everything. If something is not up to its originally designed working standard, or starts showing signs of wear and tear, it is repaired immediately. In Germany nothing jiggles or wobbles, and their highways are as flat as an airport runway. You will never see rusty cars on the road, since a car with rust spots would instantly fail inspection. In many European countries, as long as the door handle has not physically fallen off the door, or the toilet can be flushed by reaching inside it and pulling on a chain, they are deemed as operating adequately enough. In Germany, any such deficiencies are promptly addressed.
It’s true that Germans are on average very prompt people. While Americans are normally timely for work related business, Germans are also just as prompt for informal social functions. If you know that you will be arriving more than 5 minutes late, then you should definitely call and notify whomever you are meeting. Otherwise, they might assume that there was a terrible accident.
But be aware that arriving more than 5 minutes early can also cause your host some stress. I once sprinted to a job interview to escape the rain and ended up arriving nearly a half hour early. The receptionist became flustered and said that they could not move my interview time any earlier. I replied that I was very happy to wait in the lobby until the scheduled time, and had no expectations of starting earlier than originally planned. She looked at me like I was a crazy person who could not manage his time.
Another funny example was when a girl from Latin America invited Germans to her birthday party, and then was surprised to find that they arrived an hour earlier than she did. She thought by telling people that it started at 8 PM, that most guests would start showing up at around 9 PM. While this was true for the rest of her Latin American friends, the Germans arrived at 8 PM sharp. Fortunately, they had brought their own beer and could start the party without her.
The activities list at my university’s Christmas party was scheduled in 5 minute increments. At one point between singing two German Christmas carols, the master of ceremonies said: “Well we finished that last one a bit quickly, so please relax for the next 30 seconds before we are scheduled to start singing the next one.” While this example is particularity extreme, I found in general that a lot of German festivities are a bit too organized for my taste. I’m personally more a fan of the Polish way of spontaneously starting parties at any given place or time.
3. Honest and Direct
This is reason that most people mistaken Germans as being rude. Germans on average are actually very considerate people who are especially careful about not bothering those around them. I always preferred having a group of Germans check into my hostel at 2 AM rather than a group of Italians or Spaniards. One group enters as if they were a stealth military special ops unit, while they other group throws a fiesta.
Germans reply directly and honestly to what ever you ask them. They don’t sugar coat things to spare your feelings. Instead, their feelings will be hurt much more if you lead them on when in reality you actually have no interest. They are fine with you just outright saying no and they don’t expect you to provide a courtesy excuse as Americans do.
If you tell a German: “Good to see you, we should get coffee sometime,” they will literally interpret your greeting as an invitation to go get coffee. If you ask a German “how are you,” you may be surprised at the long detailed answer that your receive. They also may appear shocked that some random acquaintance cared so much to ask such a personal question.
Germans are very good at staying true to their word, and even better at honoring anything that is in writing. Instead of lying, they will often just avoid confirming “yes” to something. However, once you get the “yes,” you can most often trust their word.
Germans don’t really see a reason to do small talk, but when they do it will most likely be about how much something costs or the crappy weather. They do however love to bring attention to other people’s problems or when they feel that you are doing something incorrectly. German’s see focusing on what is already satisfactory as a of waste time. Why spend time discussing what we already know works? While an American might start a conversation with a compliment before proving criticism, Germans will start addressing any problems straight on.
When I first watched another student defend their thesis, I was given the wrong impression that he had done a terrible job since the professors were only pointing out mistakes and provided zero positive feedback. I was surprised to learn later that he had actually earned an A. For my own defense, the lack of follow up questions that I received gave me confidence that I had done a good job, since it meant that everything was clear and satisfactory.
In Germany its considered extremely crass to show off one’s wealth. A person’s automobile is perhaps one of the few status symbols deemed appropriate for show. There is also a notion among some Germans that if a person has a lot of wealth, then they must have done something scrupulous to obtain it. While this may be true in some other countries with large mafia states, I don’t believe that this a fair characterization of most wealthy Germans. I think that the majority of successful Germans made their wealth from being frugal, industrious and having a higher willingness to take risks than their fellow countrymen.
5. Risk Adverse and Desire for Ordnung
Much like their northern Scandinavian neighbors, many Germans would happily trade potential opportunities for guaranteed security. A German would be caused great anxiety by a lack of job security, a lapse in health insurance or a lapse in one of the ten other typical types of insurance that are commonly available. Germans will heavily consider buying the warranty for any products that are not stamped: “Made in Deutschland.”
Unlike in America where credit card companies will mail non-requested credit cards to your door, in Germany getting a bank loan or credit card is much more difficult. Even the German word for debt “schuld” doubles as the word for guilt.
Germany responded to the nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan by deciding to shut down all its nuclear plants. While Germany would probably not mind having some more beach front property as a result of the Netherlands returning into the sea, they still do more than most other nations when it comes to combating the collective risk of global warming. Germans are often willing to make personal sacrifices if it enhances the collective good, and thus brings more security and stability to their communities.
German’s like for there to be order and for that to happen rules must be followed. It can be 3 AM without a car around for miles, and Germans will still wait at a crosswalk until it turns green. My apartment got reprimanded for taking showers after 10 PM, since the water in the pipes made too much noise. Don’t even think about mowing your lawn on a Sunday. A German will often tell you that something is simply not possible, but be unable to provide a clear reason why. Or perhaps you will receive the most common reason: “Well if everybody did that, there would be chaos.”
6. Tight Social Circles
German’s have tight social circles, and breaking into one can be difficult. While an American might invite you somewhere within your first conversation, normally it takes a German more time to become comfortable with a new person. Unlike in the United States, where any person that you have spoken to for over 5 minutes is considered a ‘friend,’ a true German friend is a friend for life. If you are invited to a German’s house, you should take it as a very big compliment.
At my smaller university campus, I found that students often treated university like a job that they would attend before commuting back to their hometowns to hangout with their local friends. Unlike in the United States where there is a great overlap between a person’s work life and personal life, in Germany most people prefer to keep them separate. How is German supposed to relax with friends at a bar when they could be judged by their colleagues?
And forget about it when it comes to dating, even Germans themselves don’t have a good answer for this.
7. German Humor
German’s definitely do have a sense of humor, however its just a bit different than that of other nations. I found that German’s have a much harder time laughing at their own mistakes or faults than Americans do, and also steer away from the self-deprecating humor that you find in England. What I personally considered to be just a friendly ribbing of a good friend, my friend found to be incredibly hurtful. He wondered why a good friend would make a personal attack about a shortcoming of his. Of course the very reason that I had made the joke was because of the fact that we were good friends.
8. Personal and Cultural Shame
Germans are very ashamed of making mistakes or looking foolish. In my lectures, no one would want to publicly guess the answer to a professor’s question out of fear of looking stupid. No one wants to start a conversation with a girl at a bar out of fear of rejection. German mothers get very embarrassed when their child starts crying on public transportation. Let’s not even get into the collective shame felt about that whole WWII situation.
Germany is a very successful country and the opportunities available to the average German are plentiful. Albeit bureaucracy and the high levels of certification required to do anything can be a hindrance. With their strong social safety net, in many ways Germans have much less to lose than the average American does by taking a risk. If people could only get over their fear of failure, the growth of the already impressive list of German achievements would skyrocket.
9. Bonus German Stereotype: Beer
In my university cafeteria, beer was sold at a price cheaper than bottled water. It was even common for students and professors to drink a bottle with lunch and then go back to class. Beer was also present at almost all social functions, and probably is the essential lubricant that keeps the German social machine running. In Germany you can legally drink beer starting at 16. Thus by university age most Germans can handle their alcohol fairly well.
Binge drinking for the sole purpose of getting smashed is not as common as it is in the UK or USA, unless done during the designated periods of Shuetzenfest, Kirmes, Carnival, Oktoberfest, etc. During such events, all strict social norms are temporarily lifted, while everyone involved collectively agrees to pretend as if nothing happened the following week.