Expat Corner

Commonly Misunderstood German Behaviors

Things That Seem Rude But Really Aren’t

Moving to a foreign country is incredibly difficult, especially when you don’t speak the language.  And no matter how much research you do, there will be things that happen where you think, “Whoa.  What the heck is that?”  When you don’t understand certain behaviors – or when you totally misread them – it can make the people, the country itself, seem unwelcoming, unfriendly, sometimes even hostile.  I heard an American expat once say that he thought Germany was the most Americanized country in the world.  In a lot of ways, he’s absolutely right.  But, there are some German mannerisms that are almost completely opposite of what we know from the States, and when you compound those differences with existing feelings of unease just from being in a foreign country, it can lead to huge misunderstandings, which make it that much more difficult to acclimate.

cultural differences between Germany and the USA

So, here are a couple of pretty typical German behaviors (some more so for the Eifel) that you will encounter at some point, but that also don’t mean what you think they do.

Staring

In the States, we teach our children that staring is rude.  As adults, when we catch someone staring at us, we initially think, “What’s that guy’s problem?”  And there’s usually an immediate animosity that develops towards the person staring at us.  When people first move to Germany and catch the locals staring at them, they apply that American mentality to the situation and think, “What’s that guy’s problem?”  But, that guy doesn’t have a problem – because it’s not considered rude to stare in Germany.

So, why do Germans stare?  And more specifically, why do they stare at Americans?  Well, let me quell one worry right off the bat.  They are not staring at you because you’re an American, and it doesn’t mean they don’t like you or Americans in general.  You have to keep in mind that the Eifel is mostly made up of small villages.  And a lot of these people live in the same village they grew up in.  It’s not uncommon to have two or three generations of one family living in the same village.  What that means is that they know everyone who lives there, and they usually recognize regulars who come in and out of the village.  So, when they see someone driving through or walking down the street that they don’t know, they will stare because they’re trying to figure out who you are.  Their intention is not to be rude.  We read it that way, but we’re reading it wrong.

I have found that if you smile and say “Hallo,” they will usually stop staring.  If you use a more colloquial greeting like, “Tag” or “n’abend,” the probability that they will stop staring is even higher.  Regardless of the greeting, they will almost always greet you back, sometimes even with a smile.  Either way, it breaks that staring tension.

Line Cutting

Although the Germans have a far superior system when it comes to merging in traffic, they don’t have quite the same efficiency when it comes to standing in lines.  We’re actually quite opposite here.  In the States, we stand in line, and we take it seriously.  We’re patient.  We follow the rules, and we chastise anyone who tries to cheat the line.  On the roads, though, that mentality devolves into total chaos – people slamming on their brakes, cutting other people off, and strongarming their way into whatever lane they need.  In Germany, everything is the other way around.  They just don’t have that same “line behavior.”

I remember my parents telling me how, when they first moved to the Eifel back in the early ’80s, they had a really negative experience with Germans and lines.  They were at a street festival, trying to get a beer from one of the stands.  All of the Americans stood in a line, while all of the Germans crowded around the booth and sort of pushed their way to the front.  The staff were seeming to ignore the line of Americans, and after several people got frustrated, somebody shouted, “I guess they don’t serve Americans here!”  After that, the staff made an extra effort to wait on the neglected line.

But, the thing is, the staff wasn’t ignoring them because they were Americans.  They weren’t ignoring them at all.  The Americans were just going about it the wrong way by trying to apply that American mentality.  Sure, it’s an exaggeration, but think of line culture in Germany as Darwinism in action.  It’s survival of the fittest.  If you just stand there, patiently waiting for someone to call on you, you’re going to be waiting a really long time.  You have to be a little more aggressive.  Don’t go overboard, though.  I was in a crowd of people trying to get on a parking shuttle once, and this American man held his arms out and totally blocked the doors for everyone around him so that his friends and family could get on first – which was at least seven people.  And after we sat down, I heard him telling the people he was with that Germans didn’t know how to stand in a line, so you just had to show them how it’s done.

That was not okay.

Not Taking the Small Talk Bait

About two or three months after moving to Germany, I found myself in this tiny little restaurant in this tiny little village.  I was waiting for my husband to finish up something he had to do for work, and I was bored and thirsty, so I had walked over to this place alone.  I could manage the basics in German, and I wanted to build up some independence, so I went into this place to get a coke and sit outside in the sun for a little bit.  There was nobody in there but me and two men who worked there.  When I ordered my coke, I spoke to one man, but when I returned the glass, I spoke to the other man.  This second man didn’t smile at me or verbally acknowledge me when I came up to the counter.  As I was still learning the culture, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to bring my glass back in or not.  So, I asked him in my very broken German if I could bring him the glass.  He pointed to where I could set it down, and then I tried to make a joke about being clueless and still learning how to do some of the most basic things.  I got absolutley no reaction.  No smile.  No comment.  Not even a “mm hmm.”  I told my husband later about the “super unfriendly” guy at the restaurant, and he just laughed at me.

I know the stereotype is that Germans don’t make small talk – period.  But, I’ve found that it’s pretty hit or miss.  Some Germans make small talk without me even having to engage them first.  But, as my husband later explained, especially when people are working, that whole hit or miss thing goes right out the window.  The German mentality values efficiency and punctuality.  So, when people are at work, they are AT WORK.  They’re focused on what they’re doing, what they need to be doing next, and they are always pressed for time – even when they’re not pressed for time (if that makes sense!).

My husband also knew who the guy was that I had been talking about, and he said this man is one of the local farmers who just steps in for the other man from time to time when he has to leave the restaurant.  Eifel farmers are especially non-chatty.  So, the guy actually wasn’t being unfriendly.  But, because I tried to apply my American (and more specifically, Texan) mentality to the situation, I wrongly assumed that he wasn’t a very nice person and maybe even didn’t like me for some reason.

Being Uncomfortably Blunt

I remember, when my husband and I were still long-distance dating, driving down the freeway after picking him up from the airport in Texas.  He said something to me about looking pretty, and I said – in typical girl fashion – “Ugh, I think I put on a little weight, though.”  To which he replied, with a completely straight face after pinching my waist, “Yeah, it seems so.”  I could have smacked him!  And I told him as much!  The truth was, I had gained two pounds since our last visit, but I didn’t expect him to be so blunt and agree that he too could see a difference.  And he didn’t understand at all why I was angry at him for confirming a fact.  A fact which I had brought up myself.

The thing is, Germans see bluntness – or brutal honesty, as I like to call it – as a positive thing.  Whereas we will soften our opinions or observations so as not to hurt someone’s feelings, Germans will just come right out and say it because they think that is actually the nicer thing to do.  It is more helpful that a person know a brutal truth than to dance around it.  That way they can respond to whatever it is in the best way possible.

Of course, even knowing this, you’ll still have those gut reactions, but it’s important to tell yourself that they aren’t trying to be mean to you.  They aren’t trying to be rude.  I mean, every time I go to my gynecologist for a check-up, he asks me the same question, “Do you want to have children?  Because you are over thirty.  You are running out of time.”  Every.  Single.  Visit.  Sure, my American doctors also gave me such biological-clock-ticking-timebomb warnings, BUT they never did it in such a direct soul-slamming way.  The first time this happened, I told my husband about it and how horrid I found his comment.  Of course, I also admitted that it’s true.  I mean, women can’t have children forever.  To which my husband said, “Yeah, so what’s the problem?”  Grrrr.

Responding to Your German with English

If you’ve tried to speak German with a local, you’ve more than likely encountered people who responded to you by switching into English.  I’ve heard other Americans complain about how rude this is, and how Germans are either show-offs or have no patience.  Both of these are wildly incorrect.

While there are certainly Germans with little to no English language skills, the majority of them can communicate in English.  Most Americans, however, have only a very limited amount of Geman skills, if any at all.  Unfortunately, it is also one of our stereotypes that Americans living in Germany don’t learn the language.  For some locals, that’s not an issue because they know that most Expats are only here temporarily, so it doesn’t always make sense for them to learn the language.  For others, it’s quite a sore spot.  The point I’m trying to make here is that most Germans don’t expect Americans to speak much more than very basic German.  So, when we do try to speak to them in German, they switch to English out of politeness.  They assume it is easier for us if they speak our language because we, more than likley, can’t speak more than a few words and understand even less.

Sometimes it’s also just a matter of practicality.  If they can’t understand what you’re trying to say, or it’s taking too long for you to find the words, they will switch to English because it’s more practical in that moment.  They’re not showing off or expressing frustration with you.

In fact, most Germans are quite impressed with and enjoy hearing Americans speak German.  Any time I have conversations in German with strangers, they praise my skills (even when my sentences are a big jumbled mess).  But, they inevitably switch to English.  For a lot of them, it’s just a habit.  What I have found is that if you continue speaking German, even after they respond to you in English, they will switch back to German.  There is also absolutely nothing wrong with or rude about asking them to only speak German with you.  When they know that you want the practice, or that you really want to learn the language, they will not only speak German with you, but they will help you by offering corrections here and there.

 

Germans, especially in the Eifel, are so much friendlier than people might realize.  When Expats read certain behaviors as rude or offensive, it’s almost always a cultural misunderstanding.

 

 

5 thoughts on “Commonly Misunderstood German Behaviors

  1. I am really enjoying all the info about Germany. I was there 75-78, and wish I could have gotten all this info then. I did eventually learn several of these things, but not near all.

  2. Oh my gosh, you are so right! Especially the part about them responding to your German in English. It’s frustrating because you’re trying to speak the language, but sometimes it’s just easier to speak English. Love your posts!

  3. On that comment from your husband about the two pounds you gained: Men like it supple and sinuous. Playing with bones is for dogs! – And about the taciturnity of Eiffelers – There was an American asking two Eiffelers sitting on a bench about the way. They didn’t answer when he tried it in German, so he tried French but to the same effect. Also in Spanish, English. after he drove off in frustration. After a while one Eiffeler said to the other: “He knew a lot of languages!” The other replied “And – did it help him?”
    Love your observations of German behaviour, they are absolutely correct.

  4. The staring is a tricky one. I know there is nothing personal meant by it, yet even after 3 years of living in Germany I could probably only say I’ve gotten marginally used to it.

    I have found there doesn’t even have to be any real reason behind it. In the first instance they are just looking because there is something there to look at, and as you say there is no concept of it being rude. On the subway for instance, instead of looking down or out the window or whatever, they will choose a face sitting across and just zone out on that. And if there is something interesting or different about what they’re looking at, they will look even more intently.

    Even though I know all that, I still hate it though lol.

Leave a Reply