What are the biggest culture shocks people face when coming to Germany?
I moved to Berlin, Germany in April, 2016 from Rajkot, India. It has been a year and six months in Germany but the following have been the shocks of my life:
- The German government pays your pocket money:
After moving to Germany from England I've found a few cultural differences that have played a part in my life so far.
Of course, some of these are meant as a joke :)
- Drinking from a bottle and returning it to the Supermarket for Pfand. It's a good difference, but doesn't stop my girlfriend from shouting at me every time I try and throw a bottle away.
- Large square pillows with little stuffing. Because, who needs a functioning neck and a good nights sleep?
- Friends, family and random strangers smashing porcelain in a car park and expecting you to clean it up while they party in a tradition known as Polterabend.
- The amount of different German dialects. In England we get by knowing what people are talking about from different areas. My Girlfriend can sit on a table next to people from Bayern and have no idea what they're saying in her language.
- Waiting at every single traffic light to cross the road.
- The lack of ‘Coffee Shop Culture'. I used to love sitting in coffee shops to work, but it's just not as common over here.
- Eggs in Supermarkets being painted all year round. Not just for Easter.
- Everybody is cycling. Everybody.
- The Fahrradweg being poorly signposted and angry cyclists thinking you have nothing better to do that ruin their day.
- Food comes in just three categories: Pork, Veil and Pommes.
- The word, ‘Feierabend', that illustrates the time after finishing work.
- Shops being closed on a Sunday.
- People driving past you at 130 mph on the Autobahn.
- I'm yet to see a single BMW with a functioning set of indicators.
- The water in major cities - especially here in Cologne - is quite metallic and you need a Brita filter.
- People love playing board games and it's not unusual to be asked if you want to play a round of Skip-Bo while you drink your beer.
- German wine.
- People don't eat as much strudel as I'd have liked.
- Kids carrying a Schultute on their first day of school.
- Being required to watch Dinner For One on New Years Eve with no knowledge of why.
- Not being able to talk as openly, and freely, about money as you can in England.
- When the ticket machine on a bus is broken you get to ride for free. Try using that excuse with Police Officer Gary from Basildon on a bad day.
- German Comedy comes with a completely different sense of humour. Being brought up on English sarcasm and bitterness doesn't quite fit here.
- The ultra-directness of people, even whom you don't quite know that well. They speak their mind. It's nice in a way. Soul destroying when you find out you look like an overweight Ben Affleck in your new t-shirt.
- People smoke waaaaaaaaaaay more here than back home.
- People are much more composed when they're drunk here. I've not seen a girl walking home with one high-heel complaining about how Gazza has treated her like shit and throwing up her 14th Sambuca shot (yet).
- The cost of living is much cheaper than I expected.
- People are much less focused on spending money and I can go entire days without buying anything.
- Trains are well kept and don't smell like urine or regret.
- German Hip-Hop Music is 99.9% white guys.
- Failure is a big problem in Germany. In England we brush it off and move onto the next one, whereas here it can hamstring you for a long time.
- Having to make rather intense eye contact with everyone when you give a toast.
- Public displays of affection are really common, even at family events, and it's just not the British way. I had to explain to my girlfriend why I was a little awkward at the dinner table with my Mum and her husband.
- German's don't have mates. They either have life-long bonded friendships that mean the world to them, or they have people that they know. There's no real middle ground.
- A real obsession with clubs. There are clubs for everything. And, it's not unusual to find people on the internet and meet them based on your common interest. Something that goes really against the grain of what my parents beat into me.
As an American Expat living in Berlin the last two years, here are 10 elements of culture shock I've experienced and found striking:
1. Waiting at red lights: Germans, for the most part, will stand still at a crosswalk if the light is red, regardless of if any cars are coming or not. I have gotten dirty looks for crossing against the light, and was once told (in the middle of the night!) that I was setting a bad example for children. On a deeper level, I think this practice really symbolizes a German affinity for rules, order, and structure.
2. Water in restaurants: It is the norm for restaurants not to serve tap water here. This could be a common European practice, but I'm consistently frustrated by it. I will occasionally ask for simply a cup of tap water from the sink, and the server will invariably look at me like I've asked if it's alright for me to take my shoes and socks off and walk around the restaurant barefoot for a while. What I don't understand is they have sinks. They have glasses. What's the big deal. Is it so uncouth? Do Germans, as one other Quora user suggested, drink no water?
3. Sundays: It takes a while to adjust to everything shutting down on Sundays. Sure, some cafes and restaurants will be open. But supermarkets and almost all stores and shops close, except for on a few select Sundays, such as the Sunday before Christmas. Stock up, people.
3. Staring on public transportation: It is common for people to stare you in the eyes, without it necessarily meaning offense, interest, or anything at all. I find this totally bizarre! Under what circumstances do you feel compelled to stare me down for 4 minutes straight? Shouldn't you have gotten off the U-Bahn like 3 stops ago? Should I have? Have I done something? This doesn't make you feel just as squeamish? We've all read that NYT piece on falling in love with anyone, but time and place, people!
4. Greetings in doctors' offices: I think it's cute that it's standard to say hello or Guten Tag and goodbye or tschüss to every other patient in a waiting room. Strange. But cute.
5. Punctuality: This is probably one of the most common stereotypes about Germany and Germans. It has its basis, but, like all stereotypes, is probably a bit overblown. I think the fixation with punctuality says more about the German mindset than it does about how people, trains, and plans behave in real life. The thought is, things should work as they are designed to. Reality, naturally, sometimes differs. Still, expect most trains and such to run on time.
6. Smoking: Like much of Europe, Germany and many Germans have a relaxed attitude to smoking. It is common for cafes, clubs, and other social places to be smoker-friendly here. Restaurants, less so. Smoking does not bear the same social stigma as in the U.S.
7. Alcohol: Similar to smoking, the attitude towards drinking is quite liberal here. In fact, that laws pertaining to alcohol purchase and consumption in Germany are among the most relaxed in the world. German teenagers can legally consume beer and wine from 14 with a parent, unsupervised at 16, and harder liquor from 18. In addition, as opposed to in New York, it is allowed and common for people to drink in public. This means that someone could be drinking a beer on the train or on the sidewalk without it necessarily implying that he or she is some sort of degenerate.
8. Bags in Supermarkets: Bring your own.
9. Paperwork: Depending on how long you intend to visit and whether you will need a visa, you may be required to get acquainted with the German fixation with paperwork as embodied by the Ausländerbehörde and other bastions of German bureaucracy. Patience is a virtue.
10. Privacy: I think privacy plays a larger role in the culture here than I am used to in the states, even (especially?) after the NSA leaks. Some German friends of mind tape a post-it to the webcam on their laptops. Most use fake names or nicknames on Facebook and other social media. The concern over personal privacy and surveillance undoubtedly has to do with Germany's history and the practices of the GDR East German government. But it plays out in smaller ways as well, including how Germans thinks about work / personal life balance, and corporate and governmental transparency.
I want to mention that I find it a little silly to talk about 'the typical German attitude,' as if only one mindset exists, in a country that is starkly diverse, and increasingly diverse and complex as time passes. Germany also comprises a very large area and I'm sure, as in many countries, the attitudes of people in major cities differs from those in more rural settings. These are some of my observations, as a 24-year-old New Yorker, living in Berlin.
Biggest Culture Shocks for an Indian in Germany:
1) Greeting strangers with a smile is common:
In India if I go about greeting every random stranger on street,then there are high chances that I would be branded a lunatic and I was pleasantly surprised when people here keep greeting you with "Morgen" (Good Morning) , "Tschüss" (Bye) and thank you for every small thing with "Danke Schön" (thanks a lot)
2)Nudity in Locker Rooms and swimming pools:
It is quite common to see people semi naked or completely nude in Gym or Sports changing rooms and even in swimming pools which is totally not acceptable in India
First time when I entered our Gym changing room, I heard a loud "Hi" and the guy was in his birthday suit and was extremely comfortable greeting us with a smile!
3)Nothing is open on Sunday(NOTHING LITERALLY!!):
Barring few Indian and Turkish shops and restaurants and 24 x 7 shops,everything is closed, a stark contrast to India where many actually go for/get time for shopping and eating in restaurants,visiting mall only on Sunday
4)You will get exact change:
Now this is not something which is uncommon in many countries but for an Indian to see that people actually give you change even 1¢ and never ever say they are short of change or worse give you some chocolate instead of giving you change is unheard of. Your bill is €19.99 you will get your 1¢ back while in India if your bill is anything over ₹.19.50/- it is considered 20 and you can forget the change.
5)Get used to hearing No:
If a German says no,it doesn't mean he is being rude to you. It is either he is unable to follow you or doesn't know. Germans are straight forward people and it is either Yes or a No. Direct communication is a norm here
6)Punctuality and Efficiency:
If a meeting is scheduled at 10.00,it is actually supposed to start at 10.00 and delay is many a times unacceptable and if a work has to be finished within a certain deadline,it is expected to finish by that time. Delay is unacceptable
7)Plethora of choices for Non-Vegetarians:
If you are a non-vegetarian,you get lot of options here specially Pork and Beef. Bacon is extremely common and tough to find pure vegetarian restaurants or food(Not impossible but tough) which is not so in India
8)Return an empty Water/Cold Drink/beer Bottle and be paid for the same!(Pfand):
Pfand is a portion of the price on a bottled drink that you get back if you return said bottle to a certified outlet. You can return the bottle once you have finished drinking and you can get a portion of price back
9)Mostly square Pillows:
It is common to see Square Pillows here while the ones in India are mostly rectangular shape
Here is my pillow!
I landed in Germany last August. These were some of the culture shocks for someone coming from India:
- Sundays are off! You have nothing open on Sundays. You need anything, you buy it on Saturday. Even Pharmacies (except few emergency pharmacies) are closed on Sunday.
- You pay a deposit on most beverage bottles when you buy them. This you can reclaim once you return the bottle.
Again, from an US-centric perspective, essentially the reverse of various phenomena amply noted elsewhere on Quora - apologies to everyone else.
- No free coffee refills. After living here for years, I've ceased even thinking about it, but I still recall quite vividly a little incident way back in 1998. I was at the Goethe Institute, and they had a small canteen with coffee and snacks during the breaks. I ordered a second cup of coffee and took it away without paying for it (about 1.50 DM then, probably less), and the German woman working behind the counter had a fit! Looking back, I can't believe my naiveté.
- In a similar vein, people generally avoid drinking tap water (and perforce it's never served in a restaurant), even though it's of excellent quality and totally safe to drink. By extension, there are no drinking fountains in evidence. When I'm out and about, I do as the locals do, buying mineral water (with carbonation, I'm proud to say), but in the privacy of my apartment I drink tap water with abandon.
- The wider acceptance of near-nudity and nudity, also known, especially in the former East Germany, as FKK - freie Körperkultur. It still unsettles me somewhat at the gym, for example, to see how a woman employee will calmly enter the men's locker room to clean up, right in front of all the naked dudes. (I did, however, note that the reverse is not the case-male employees don't enter the women's locker room, so even here there are limits). I'm long used to jokes about American prudery.
- The often bizarre current of anti-authoritarianism, even pseudoanarchism, that runs through this society, in often subtle ways. This is most definitely a postwar phenomenon, one that really gained traction in the 1960s. Whole books have been written about it, so I can hardly do it true justice here. While Germans still greatly value order, rules, procedures, and planning (if you want to plan something, give it to a German, really!), they can often be surprisingly trotzig - defiant - and rebellious. What I find funny is that they do so in a very German way - the rebellion or refusal is focused, deliberate, concerted, and grounded in specific theories and beliefs.
- Shops being closed tight as a drum Sundays and holidays, and often as early as six or seven p.m. on other days. I still have trouble bearing this in mind. It's a somewhat better in larger cities, but since I come from California, that is a major adjustment.
- Having to buy gifts constantly, especially whenever you're invited to someone's home. It makes socializing much more of a hassle and a fuss. Apparently this is common throughout Europe - an American friend of mine who lived in Paris for a decade had similar experiences.
- Not being able to chat up strangers at the bank, or on the train, etc., just to pass the time. I know, I know, that is a goofy American practice regarded with suspicion and disdain in many places, but it's a deeply ingrained habit that I have trouble breaking. There have been a number of pleasant exceptions.
- The surprising degree to which many people are not intellectual, well-informed, worldly, etc. This was a kind of positive prejudice I had nurtured about Germany most of my life - the country of Denker und Dichter, the country of thinkers and poets, etc. Just as Germans often assume that all Americans are "superficial" and can't find Paris on a map or believe the world is 4,000 years old, I thought that every German would be a font of wisdom, spouting Goethe, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, fully conversant about classical music, and so forth. I have been repeatedly shocked to have met people who have completed their Abitur and even further education who nonetheless haven't a ghost of an idea who Brahms or Bismarck were, who think there are no mountains in California, or who couldn't tell you the first thing about Marxism, the Soviet Union, etc.
- The strange way they adopt American culture or American practices, then complain about it. I realize that this is a worldwide phenomenon, to some extent, and yes, I am aware of Adorno's thesis about the culture industry, etc. Yet on a day-to-day basis, it strikes me as absurd. People here often say to me that they adopt everything from the US with a ten- or fifteen-year time lag. It seems to me that people ought to have a bit more agency than they give themselves credit for: if you don't like something, don't adopt it. Nobody is pointing a gun at your head and forcing you to eat at McDonald's, or to see the latest crappy Hollywood blockbuster (most of which are now aimed at the Asian market anyway), or to incorporate English-language terms into your speech without even really knowing what they mean.
- The metric system. Let me preface this by stating that after having served in the military and having worked aboard ships, I am fully familiar with and conversant in it. Moreover, I happened to have been attending elementary and junior high school during the three or four years in which President Carter's "Metric 2000" initiative was in effect (prior to Reagan's canceling it around 1982). So yes, metric was taught to us. On top of that, as I'm constantly explaining to people here, in the US the metric system is far from unknown, especially among scientists, engineers, military people, sailors, and in various specialized fields. However, at the same time I cannot entirely adjust to the notion of using it in everyday life-perhaps for the very reason that in the US it is actually used in specialized areas. When someone says, "That's five meters long," or "It's 19 degrees today, a nice warm day," to me it sounds like an expression that belongs in a lab or factory, not at home. It is as if one were to go around saying, "My physical corporeal mass is need of hydration; I require some H2O" instead of "I'm thirsty, I'd like some water." So even though I understand metric perfectly, I find it harder to accept, on an intuitive or gut level. It always sounds cold and dead to me. Oddly, I don't have this difficulty with the German language itself, with which I feel very comfortable and at home. Hence I joke with Germans that they've abandoned good old German units for ones invented by...the French!