As a girl, born in Romania who then moved to Germany as a school-aged child, German life and culture did not come naturally to her. Leaving relatives and close friends in Romania, the difference in attitudes and way of life was readily apparent. From mainstream student in Romania to unwelcome outsider in Bavaria, life was an exercise in accelerated language and youth cultural studies. Life was filled with teasing and isolation until speech progressed to the point where it was no longer discernable as a second language. Unlike the US, Germany is not a melting pot for different cultures. So, it is not easy to integrate. Nor is it easy for immigrants, young or old, to maintain their original cultural traditions.
It took time for this little Romanian girl (let’s call her Christine) to really adjust and fit in to this new Bavarian culture. But what is culture? The definition is: “All the ways of life including arts, beliefs and institutions of a population that are passed down from generation to generation”. That means that culture also changes, and that culture is formed by history. Culture, beliefs, and behavior are rooted in the lived experiences of our ancestors. With that being said, if you want to understand German (or any other) culture you have to first take a look at its history.
What traits do you imagine when you think of the German culture? Punctual, always on time. Very hard working. Reliable. A bit dour, humorless, and maybe even somewhat cold. While this stereotype is probably earned through common experience, like in every other culture you will readily find exceptions. And maybe those exceptions are part of a cultural softening or change occurring through the years and generations. Many Germans are very funny and are late on a regular basis. One of Christine’s friends, for example, has always been late. So, he has to set his watch 10 minutes ahead just to be able to be on time.
One thing you will notice when meeting an acquaintance from Germany is that they will not hug you. The greeting consists of a firm handshake to keep someone at one arm’s length. Many Germans are confused by the American “How are you.” They expect people really want to know how you are and are a bit confused or disappointed when they find out that is just a form of greeting in the US. The German greeting is only a “Guten Tag” (good day), or “Gruess Gott” (greet God, more common in southern Germany). Germans have a hard time doing small talk and do not find it rude to simply be in a room with someone and remain quiet. If you are waiting for a meeting to start, or are invited to a party, silence will not be interpreted as awkward.
Going to a restaurant or having a drink with friends, everyone will usually just pay their own portion of the bill. There is even a saying for that in Romania- “Platim ca nemti”, which means, “Paying the German way.” Germans love drinking beer and have a big variety of beer and breads. They also love riding their bikes. There are bike lanes next to many sidewalks which makes it safe to ride your bike. And of course, things are not as spread out as in the US, making it convenient to ride bikes for more than just leisure. While restaurants remain open, stores are generally closed on Sundays and on many Christian holidays.
Germans try to educate their kids to be independent and responsible for their decisions, and to deal with the consequences. For example, kids typically ride their bikes to elementary school or take the public bus by themselves. School and education is very important for Germans. Unfortunately, the negative perspective of things is highlighted more than the positive, which can sometimes make it difficult for kids to build up self-confidence. There’s no “nice try”. It’s either right or wrong. When the kids were younger, their German father would “help” them with their math. It usually resulted in more tears than mathematical solutions. Kids, and even sometimes adults, from Germany are sometimes hesitant speaking in another language because they are afraid of making a mistake even when they have a relatively good grasp of that language.
Immigrants to Germany who are able to learn the language and fully integrate are able to enjoy the full beauty of this fascinating country and culture.
Hopefully this text has given you a little insight into the German culture and maybe piqued your interest in learning more about the people, the country and the language.