Things We Do That Baffle Germans
Living in a foreign country teaches you so many things about its people, its customs, its passions, and its history. It can also teach you about its language and government. But what I find is often overlooked is just how much living in a foreign land teaches you about your own country. You don’t notice the small things – the quirks – about your own culture until you surround yourself with people from another one. You might find that some things, I mean tiny things, that are commonplace in one culture don’t exist elsewhere.
Like when my German husband first learned that we don’t have the expression, “Ich drücke dir die Daumen,” which means, “I’ll hold/press my thumb for you,” or its associated hand gesture. He thought everybody said and did this. The American equivalent, crossing your fingers, was equally odd and unknown to him.
So, just what are some of those little things? And what behaviors do a lot of us develop after moving to Germany that the locals find so confusing?
“It was very nice to meet you.”
This expression is so prevalent in the States that most of the time our brains just kind of throw it out there as some sort of auto-pilot function. We don’t even think about it. We meet someone new (formally or informally), and either as we’re parting from them or immediately after introductions, we invariably say, “Nice to meet you.” It’s just a polite greeting – slash – goodbye that we use with people whom we’re meeting for the first time. I mean, that’s standard, right?
Not for a German. A lot of them have no idea how to respond to this statement. My poor husband. I remember when he first came to Texas and did the rounds with various friends and co-workers. They all asked him about his flight, his impressions of Texas, his plans for the visit, and so on – but then they all closed with one of the many variations of, “Well, it was so nice to have met you.” It never occured to me that this could be a point of confusion for him. He just stood there, smiling or laughing nervously, and looking back and forth between the other person and me. He said nothing back to anyone when they said this to him. After this happened a few times, he asked me, “What am I supposed to do when someone tells me that? What do I say?” It was confusing to him because he didn’t understand how someone could know it was nice to meet him after only two or three minutes. “How do they know if they like me already?! How do I know if I like them?!”
You know, we are just so much quicker to move into that “friend” space than the Germans are. And that expression confuses them because, like my husband, they don’t know yet if it was nice to meet us, and they have no idea how we can make such instantaneous judgements. Introductions do not equal intimate knowledge of someone, and the German language is so literal that they try to take English just as literally – which you usually can’t do. That being said, yes, the Germans do have a similar expression (Es freut mich, Sie kennenzulernen), but that is not something they say to every person they meet. We literally say it to everyone.
The nice thing about the South Eifel is that a lot of Germans here have either worked on base or spent time in the States, and so many of them do know this expression and aren’t thrown off by it. But, for other Germans who don’t have that experience, hearing, “nice to meet you” from an American makes them feel pressured.
Our Use of the Word “Love”
I never realized how ambiguous the English language and our use of it is until I started learning German because it is so very very precise. And it is that precision, which does not translate to English, that causes us to say things that makes Germans think, “Häh?” Like our use of the word “love.” It can be romantic, familial, or platonic. I can say, “I love you” to my husband where it implies a romantic love. I can say the exact same sentence to my parents where it implies a familial love. And I can also use the same sentence again with my best friend where it implies a platonic love. Something else Americans can do with the word “love” is apply it to inanimate or abstract things that we really like. For example, “I love all things Disney. I love Texas. I love John Cusack movies.”
That doesn’t work in German because it expresses the different levels of love with different words and usages. “Ich liebe dich” implies a romantic love. “Ich habe dich Lieb” implies a familial or only slightly romantic love and essentially means, “I have love for you.” You cannot use the verb “lieben” (love) for objects or things you really like. You have to say something like, “Ich finde das Auto toll,” which literally translates to, “I find that car to be awesome.” A German would never ever say, “Ich liebe mein Auto.” Or you could say, “Ich mag alles was Disney macht,” which literally means, “I like everything that Disney makes.” And so on.
There are other variations, but the point here is that Germans don’t use the word “love” with multiple meanings. So, when we tell a German, “Oh, I love your house. It’s so pretty,” they think, “Häh? You LOVE my house?!” Or when you tell your German friend, “You’re so funny! I just love you!” That can cause some serious confusion – especially if your friend is the opposite sex.
Overall, it’s probably not going to hinder their understanding of what you’re trying to say, but it will definitely make them pause. And again, the less experience a German has with Americans, the less they are going to understand what we mean when we use the word “love” in such situations.
Opening Windows in the Winter
When my husband and I got married, we actually had two weddings – a church wedding in Texas (minus the marriage certificate) and a legal wedding in Germany – because it just wasn’t possible for us to get all of our family and friends in the same place. He had spent much more time in Texas with my friends and family than I had spent in Germany with his. So, at our wedding dinner here in Germany, I met a lot of people for the first time. And as I was now their American family member, a lot of them asked me questions about Americans that they had never asked anyone before. One such question was, “Why do Americans always open their windows in the winter? They turn their heaters on and open the windows. Why?” I had absolutely no idea. We don’t open our windows in Texas in the winter – or in the summer. I told them I also found that odd.
Until my first winter in Germany. When I opened all of the windows.
“Aha. Now, I get it.” The short answer is the lack of air movement. The long answer is that our houses are totally different in the States. Aside from New York City, I don’t know of anywhere that doesn’t have central heat and air conditioning in every single building. In the summer, our homes and offices are filled with continuously flowing cold air. In the winter, they’re filled with continuously flowing hot air. I never realized how used to that I was until my first winter here. It was fine in the summer because the windows were always open, and there was usually a steady breeze blowing through the house. In the winter, though, it was cold outside, and so we had the windows closed and the heaters on. But the heaters, while they do a great job of heating the house, don’t produce any air movement. And so I found that I often felt like I couldn’t breathe. Several times a day I would rush to the window, throw it open, and stick my head outside, complaining to my husband, “I can’t breathe in here! How are you not suffocating?!” To which he would reply, “Are you crazy?! Shut the window – it’s freezing cold!”
Whenever I was home alone, I would turn the heaters on to warm up the house and then open the windows to have air movement. It’s totally counter-productive, I know. But it’s very difficult for Americans to get used to that lack of air movement. And that is something that Germans don’t understand, especially because they see it as a very wasteful behavior. So, when we open the windows to catch our breath, they have absolutely no idea what we’re doing, and just think to themselves, “There go those crazy Americans again!”
Not Opening Windows Daily
I know. It completely contradicts what I just wrote. Just, wait. Let me explain.
My father-in-law has rented houses to Americans for the past 30 years. And one complaint he, and a whole lot of other German landlords, has is that American tenants don’t air the houses out enough. They don’t understand why we aren’t opening the windows for a couple of hours EVERY DAY. Unless we’re suffocating in the winter or melting on an especially hot day, a lot of us tend to keep the windows closed. This is baffling to them.
You see, Germans open their windows for a couple of hours each day to air out the house. It’s important to do that for a number of reaons, but the main one is that it prevents the growth of mold. When houses in Germany have no air flow from the outside, they start growing mold. And that can be really hard to get rid of. When I first moved to Germany, my husband was surprised to learn that this was not something I was in the habit of doing. As mentioned in the previous section, we have central heating and air conditioning everywhere. If we open a window, all of that cooled/heated air is going to escape. Plus, it will cost us more energy because the unit will have to keep working as it won’t be able to maintain the set temperature, and our electricity bill will go up. And we don’t just turn the heater or air conditioning on as we need it. They run 24/7, so we have no need to ever open our windows.
This behavior that we bring to Germany with us is confusing to Germans because they don’t realize that we are not accustomed to this. A lot of us don’t know in the beginning that we need to do this, let alone why.
How We Serve Coffee
I have to say, this was the most surprising thing for me to learn. I was visiting with some friends of my in-laws a while back, and we got onto the subject of cultural differences. We started talking about table manners, and then the wife told me a story about an awkward incident that happened to her on a visit to the States recently.
Her husband has family members living on the East Coast, and they had gone over to one of their houses. Now, these particular family members were strangers to her. She had never met them before. They offered her a cup of coffee, which she accepted, but when they served it to her, she immediately became uncomfortable and confused.
As she told me, “They just set this coffee cup down in front of me. On the table. I mean, there was no saucer. I thought to myself, ‘What is this? Do they not like me?'”
She didn’t understand why the American family members had served her coffee in a mug sans saucer. She didn’t know because she didn’t have a whole lot of experience with Americans, and in Germany, they always always always serve coffee in a cup with a saucer. The saucer is important because that’s where you rest your spoon after stirring in the sugar or milk. A lot of Americans either leave the spoon in their mugs after stirring or take it directly into the kitchen. So, my mother-in-law’s friend felt a little bit insulted, but mostly perplexed, by the way they served her coffee to her. All she could think was that they were trying to slight her somehow.
She eventually found a way to bring it up and was much relieved to learn that it’s just how we serve coffee in the States.
So, the next time you get a sideways glance or a nervous laugh from a German, ask yourself if you’re doing one of these things. Chances are, you’re doing something that’s just a bit culturally confusing for them!