The Culture Shock of Living in Germany: German Social Oopses!

     When we first arrived in Germany, we were so busy trying to figure out the paperwork and finances that I didn't even think social etiquette may be an issue. You may be thinking, is there really such a cultural difference in Germany? Yes, yes there is. I've come across so many expats who struggle socializing with Germans here, and sadly, I had found myself in the same boat. So what follows is my list of social oddities discovered as an American expat living in small town East Germany.

Cultural differences between an American and a German


1. Making Friends

     Back home in the States, it's totally normal to ask a few questions to get to know somebody - what they do for work, where they live, relationship status, and so on. But that's not the case here in Germany! Apparently these are personal questions and to ask them right away can be seen as invasive or nosy. It’s simply too much information for your first meeting. Germans tend to be more reserved and aren't so "personal" right away.
     So if these questions are too personal, what do you talk about when first meeting a German? Apparently hobbies are a good first topic. Trying to find common activities or interests are your best bet. If it turns out you have nothing in common, prepare for silence! Rather than filling in the gaps with small talk, many Germans are perfectly comfortable with sitting in silence.
     Another social oddity is to ask, "How are you?" In the US, this is just a light customary practice that can be asked of anybody, but the casualness baffles Germans. Why would you ask me how I'm doing if you don't really want to know? Why would you want to know about my life if we barely know each other? Are you just nosy or really strange? πŸ˜‚ I can kind of see their point. I think another blogger put it perfectly when they said,
"I think Germans are like coconuts; cold and hard on the outside — soft and sweet on the inside. Americans are more like peaches; soft and sweet on the outside, but inside we’re cold, hard and full of cyanide."
     It's true, American customs can be superficially friendly. Which leads to me something I'm still struggling with here...

2. Smiling!

     Coming from the South, smiling is something expected of everybody - even just strangers walking down the street. Unfortunately, it's expected all the more so from women. So imagine my struggle coming to Europe where smiling at strangers is weird!!! You don't smile at your little old neighbor, your regular bus driver, or even the lady scooping your icecream for you. And don't expect them to ever smile back. If you're smiling at a stranger, they'll assume you're trying to sell them something or you have a loose screw. Or in some instances, that you're flirting! As a married woman, that's the last thing I want πŸ˜‚ So here I am in Germany, still practicing my 'resting bitch face' as after almost a year here, I still find myself accidentally smiling at everybody in town...

3. Personal Space

     Personal space is definitely a foreign concept to Germans which I never would've expected! For a non-smiling, rule-following, reserved society, you'd expect them to be all about personal bubbles. Nope! My first experience with this was at the grocery store. I had just grabbed a box of something off of the shelf to read the ingredients when somebody passing through chose to squeeze in between me and the shelf instead of going around me. I was so baffled! The rest of the aisle was empty, and as you're probably imagining, I was close to the shelf since I was grabbing stuff right? Well apparently it's enough space for somebody to walk through...

     Imagine yourself standing in line. You usually stand a step back so that you're not breathing down somebody's neck right? Well apparently that small step back is grounds for squeezing in! That little gap of space, the bubble that should always exist between you and another person, is just enough for a German to squeeze in and cut in front of you, as if you weren’t even standing there. So watch out! They're not afraid to rub right up against you...

4. Honesty

     Germans see bluntness as a positive thing. Americans tend to soften their words to avoid offending someone, but Germans think it's more helpful to say the brutal truth than to dance around it. For example, my husband's workplace takes turns baking some form of dessert for birthdays. One colleague made a pudding dessert that didn't turn out too well, and somebody told him that it was terrible and that he shouldn't make it ever again - in front of everybody. You don't really hear that kind of bluntness in the US. πŸ˜‚ We've also heard some pretty funny flirting/dating stories. For example, if they don't like a gift you got them, they will let you know. Also, if you plan on dating, you won't have to wonder what went wrong in the relationship. Apparently they will let you know what they didn't like about you! (Which I actually think is good point - I appreciate closure).

5. Helping others

     This one's still something that irks us! Germans will NOT help you when they see you struggling unless you explicitly ask for it. They will watch an old lady fall on the bus, and nobody will help her until she asks for help (no joke, we've witnessed this multiple times). One time my husband was struggling to reach the 'stop' button on the tram because it was crowded, and the guy standing right in the front of the button was staring at his struggling hand without a single motion to help press it.
     Our German just isn't good enough to ask for help sometimes so we get frustrated at the lack of what we believe to be common decency. If you see somebody fall, shouldn't you try to help them up or at least ask if they need help? If you see somebody carrying heavy/large boxes trying to open the door, shouldn't you automatically help them open the door? No, they will just stare at you struggle. Some will even get frustrated that you're taking so long...

6. Noisiness

     If you somehow haven't figured it out yet, Americans are loud. We're so much louder than the Germans. You can always pick out the foreigners at a restaurant or bar because they talk so much louder than the Germans do. After several beers, the Germans do catch up, but it's obvious at first. πŸ˜‚ My father-in-law has definitely received a few dirty looks for talking so loudly in a cafe.
     The Germans appreciate the quiet, and they're very strict about quiet hours. If you're running loud machinery late at night (no more late laundry nights) or on Sundays, you can get fined for disrupting your neighbors. And yes, you read that right - on Sundays! Sundays are days of rest, and excessive noise is not allowed. This means no lawn mowing, hammering nails into the wall/renovating, etc. Even your bbq/grilling time outside is regulated. And if you have young children, some grouchy neighbors may complain that they're playing too loud! Oh boy...

7. Staring

     Man do I hate this one. Apparently Germans aren't taught that staring is rude. Staring is one of my pet peeves so imagine my struggle as an Asian in an old East German town. We live in a neighborhood with what seems mostly elderly so I was constantly stared at when I first arrived. Children are also a problem with their unashamed, big eyes staring up at me. It's completely written on their foreheads, ' Mummy, that lady looks different from us!' πŸ˜‚ The staring has definitely not helped with assimilating here unfortunately. The worst is when you stare back, and they still don't look away! Quite possibly the most awkward encounters in my life...

8. Following the rules

     Germans are not kidding when they say they enjoy order and rules! Of course this is a generalization and doesn't apply to every single German, but overall, they're pretty "by the book." It will be late at night with no cars in sight, but my neighbors will refuse to cross the street because of the little red man in the light. Don't even think about doing this during the day with children around! They will yell at you for setting a bad example! πŸ˜‚ We were going to miss our tram one day so we were sprinting across the street, but I felt so guilty listening to people gasp, "In front of the children?!"
     When we first arrived, we were also intrigued by the trust system of public transportation here. You normally have to scan a ticket/metro card to enter the bus/tram back home, but they just trust you to have bought the proper tickets here. We have learned after living here that they do random checks every once in a while, but it's still an overall trustful system. Perhaps it's because the German system relies on contributing to the common good that freeloaders & rule-breakers seem to be heavily discouraged/scorned in German culture?

Anyways! This turned out to be so much longer than I thought it'd be! πŸ˜‚

Hope you've enjoyed my American perspective on German society. Maybe it'll even help some of you newer expats out there. Get ready for an amazing time here in Germany! 🍻