Germany, with a population of just over 83 million people, has the largest economy in the EU and the fourth strongest in the entire world. Germany’s top exports are vehicles and vehicle parts, equipment and pharmaceuticals. Such a powerhouse from such a small land mass suggests a stalwart people with a get-it-done attitude. Some of the character and culture were developed through the German history of contrasting images: separation and unity, sorrow and triumph, succumbing to evil, and defeating it. If you do not heed these 8 things you should know about German culture, you may find yourself misinterpreting the German spirit.
Like many cultures, there are certain stereotypes that exist that paint a picture of Germans as slightly uptight, work-oriented, well organized and very bureaucratic. But is that true? What can one really expect when traveling to Germany or even moving there?
- Bureaucracy: Yes. It is true. Germany is a very bureaucratic country. Registering, voting, signing up for health benefits, unemployment, etc. all follow a strict paper trail to make sure everything is done correctly and in the respective order. Every process has its place, and for good reason. Things have to be documented, filed, saved, signed off on, stamped, and saved again in the computer database. Just to be sure.
- Bluntness: For that very reason, Germans can tend to be a bit blunt. Not because they are not friendly, but because rules are rules. If someone is wrong because they did not follow the rules, it is totally fine to tell them bluntly. Because… well, the rules! No point in arguing, or considering someone’s feelings, if they are clearly wrong on paper. But even in friendly chit chat or small talk, Germans can appear a bit blunt. Again, not because they are trying to be rude, but because they simply value the truth, and cutting straight to it. Because, rules are rules, and the truth is the truth. For everyone.
- Efficiency: A lot of Germans may disagree with you, as they might not find trains, buses, or the post office to be running efficiently at all, but that’s because they don’t realize how good they have it. The truth is the network of long distance and commuter trains and buses follows an almost immaculate timetable and schedule. Accidents happen, trains can be late, but things at least attempt to follow a certain order and system.
- Humor: The stereo type that Germans do not have a sense of humor is not quite true. On the contrary, humor is an important and deep-rooted part of German culture, theater and social interaction. Just like in every other country in the world, there are certain jokes that are regional, and just like other countries, there are rivalries between cities and states. Part of the “no sense of humor” image comes from a certain directness, or bluntness that many Germans exhibit when speaking to others, but if your German skills are advanced enough, many of the jokes can have you in tears from laughing.
- Patriotism: Most people who have either lived in Germany, or traveled there, notice that there isn’t the same level of patriotism and national pride that exists in the US. The reason for that is most likely obvious. Both World Wars sprung from extreme nationalism, and to this day, you will not get a strong sense of patriotism in Germany, unless, of course, the World Cup or Euro Cup is on. Soccer is a big part of German culture and watching soccer matches of the Bundesliga in the stadiums or on TV is part of the weekly routine for many Germans.
- Food: Food plays an extremely important part of German culture. However, it goes far beyond the stereotypical image of “sausage and potatoes”. It is true, meat and fish are the main ingredient for many traditional German dishes. But Germans are also incredible bakers. There are hundreds of different varieties of bread, and other sweet and savory pastries that often fill the streets with a delicious scent early in the morning. Vegetables are an essential part of German food as well, and fresh organic produce can be found in every grocery store. There is tradition and wisdom in the culinary culture, and different parts of the country will have dishes specific to that region.
- Customer Service: Many a tourist or foreigner who is used to a welcoming and “the client is king” treatment in the US has traveled or moved to Germany, only to realize that German supermarkets or department stores care less about how satisfied you are as a customer, and more about being efficient. Germany is not an “open 24 hours” country. Most grocery stores close at 8 pm. Most stores and all banks and post offices are completely closed Sundays. So, when doing your grocery shopping, you may not be greeted with an overly ambitious, so-sweet-your-tooth-hurts kind of greeting that you might get in the US. You may only get a nod, or a brief moment of eye contact. The mentality that the customer is always right or needs to be treated with the utmost respect does not exist there.
- Social Safety Net: Germany has an incredible network of social services, health services and student support. The idea of thousands and thousands of dollars of student loans is unheard of. Every individual is entitled to a minimum amount of monthly income, and if you cannot provide it, the state is going to provide it to you. Needless to say, you have to jump through hoops and provide a decent amount of paperwork (remember bureaucracy), but the German government believes that a human being deserves to have their basic needs met. If they cannot meet those needs on their own, the government has a certain obligation to provide it to them until they can. Access to education and healthcare are considered human rights, not privileges available to those who earned them.