Ah Germany, land of the punctual, recycling, and schnitzel.
I recently returned to the country after having lived there for a couple years. While I didn’t experience any culture shock this time around, it served as a reminder of all the things that had once been learning curves. I also had with me my friend from Malaysia who was experiencing Germany for the first time and asking a lot of questions I had forgotten that I myself had wondered about when I first arrived in the country.
With that in mind, I wanted to make a brief guide to help break down the culture for someone looking to visit or just curious about the German way of life. While this guide didn’t turn out so brief, it’s still a pretty succinct guide when were are talking about breaking down an entire culture into words. Many of these points will be more specific to American’s experiences and perceptions but not all, so no matter where you are from, some of these are bound to be helpful.
- Umweltfreundlichkeit is a way of life. Germans take environmental friendliness extremely seriously (as they should). All household garbage is sorted (and sometimes even public garbages too), cars must meet strict emissions and quality standards every two years, and their public transportation is constantly being revamped towards all electric systems.
- Sort your trash and sort it right! To elaborate on the previous point, every household in Germany sorts their trash to some extent. Some places do so more than others, but regardless of where you are, if you are throwing things away in the wrong container, your trash guys will either refuse to pick it up or tack on a nice little fee to your garbage bill. If you are confused what goes where, either ask your landlord, go online (many states in Germany now have comprehensive guides online in multiple languages) or check the outside of the trash cans (they often have labels explaining what can go in them).
- The first floor is not the ground floor. When riding elevators, you might end up pushing the wrong button a few times before realizing that in Germany, it’s erdgeschoss (ground floor) and then the floor above that is the first floor. This is in opposition to America where the ground floor is also synonymous with the first, making the floor above the ground floor the second.
- Discount markets are king. The most common supermarkets you will likely find are Aldi, Lidl, Penny and Rewe. Of these four, three are discount markets meaning that they stock only one variation of each product. Want a specific brand of salad dressing? Go to Rewe. Want something to eat besides the most basic of German foods? Got to Rewe. Want something that could be considered “international” food? A bigger Rewe might have it. The other three, especially for Americans who are used to unlimited options and selection, are pretty worthless.
- Sparkling water is standard. Each supermarket has an entire aisle dedicated to water (which is saying something since most are less than 10 aisle total to start with) and 70% of that will be various types of sparkling water of differing intensities and brands. Soda Stream may never have been crazy popular in the US but they found their market in Germany where people seem incapable of drinking anything unless it has bubbles.
- Tap water is taboo. If you go to a restaurant and order water, they will ask if you want still or sparkling. They both cost the same and both come out of prepackaged bottles of water. If you ask for tap water they will think you are crazy, might even refuse and will charge you the same as the bottled water regardless. Many Germans won’t even drink their own tap water at home despite Germany having excellent water quality and infrastructure.
- Most apartments and many offices don’t have AC. Air conditioning is really not a thing in Germany although with the way climate change is hitting Europe, that will likely have to change in the near future. I’ve had Germans tell me AC in the summer will make you get sick. Others have claimed environmental friendliness as the reason they’re against them. Whatever the reason might be, expect to be sticky and hot in the summer.
- Deodorant is not antiperspirant. To go along with the point above, it is very difficult to find an actual antiperspirant in Germany. With the active ingredient used by most all antiperspirants, aluminum, being linked to cancer, most Germans have sworn off the stuff and opted instead to douse themselves with aerosol deodorant (which is a bit ironic to me considering how bad aerosols are for the environment) and pit-out all summer long.
- Cultural Diversity. If you are an American reading this who has never left the country then I am here to tell you the “America is the melting pot of the world” story we grew up with is a lie. Practically everywhere else in the world is more culturally diverse. In Germany I’ve had a roommate from Morocco, my coworker was from Brazil, my favorite restaurant was Korean, one of my favorite stores is Japanese, and I’m hearing any number of languages, from Mandarin to Swahili and everything in between, on my daily commute to uni. If they mean that America melts everyone else cultures and homogenizes them into what is a socially acceptable “American” then sure, American is the melting pot. If you want real cultural diversity, pretty much every other country, including Germany, does it better.
- Turkish food replaces Taco Bell. You have not lived until you’ve had a döner as you’re stumbling home from a party. While the kebab is a traditionally Turkish food, the Turkish immigrants in the 80’s brought it with them to Berlin where it got a bit of a revamp. Nowadays you can kind them around every corner where they make great lunches, dinners, and the very best drunk food imaginable.
- Cash not card. Germany is a bit behind when it comes to banking and so many smaller places don’t accept debit or credit cards. Even at the grocery store, if you try to use your card for a purchase less than 10€, people will get a bit grumbly. It’s best to always carry cash with you for the day-to-day purchases.
- Breaking big bills. To supplement the last point, there are two experiences you can have if you are trying to break a big bill with a smaller purchase. Either you will be laughed at and declined or they will take it and not bat an eye. I’ve tried to purchase a croissant with a 50€ bill before and been declined because they wouldn’t make 45+ euro’s worth of change. Similarly, vending machines often won’t take bills bigger than a 5. On the other hand, I watched a guy take a 500€ bill up to a small kiosk to buy a newspaper and the cashier was able to make over 490€ in change with small bills and wasn’t even fazed by the request. I only mention this because if you go to the ATM and get out 100€, you will likely get one bill or two 50’s and then have to worry about breaking them. My suggestion is to specify you only want 10’s and 20’s at the ATM and then you know you are safe no matter what.
- Public transportation can get you anywhere. Public transportation in Germany is some of the best in the world, even in smaller towns. While it might not always be perfectly convenient, it is entirely possible to be car-less and live a perfectly normal life in Germany.
- Don’t be a “black-rider.” A schwarzfahrer is someone who rides the transport without a valid ticket. Depending on what state you are in, what time of day, type of transit, etc you might be able to get away with it, but as a general rule, just buy the tickets, especially if you are unfamiliar with the route you’re on. They’re generally cheep, usually offered in a variety of durations to fit your needs, and very rarely have I felt like I didn’t get my money’s worth.
- Student ID’s will save you money. A valid student ID will save you money on any number of things. Mostly it’s best for museum admissions but I’ve also seen cafe’s and mom and pop stores offer small discounts. Depending on the individual business and sometimes even the individual ticket seller, they may or may not accept international ID’s (and some are even so picky as to require a very specific type of ID that only certain schools even buy into) but more often than not, it’s no problem.
- WiFi exists but can be spotty. Public WiFi in Germany isn’t as good as some other countries I’ve been in. I’ve never seen actual city WiFi in Germany (free WiFi in transit stops, popular squares or outside government buildings for everyone to use) but on any given street in a larger town or city there is usually a business with WiFi that is willing to give you a password. I would personally recommend just getting a prepaid SIM card for 10€ but if you are only in the country a brief period, don’t worry. (Bonus tip, German’s call WiFi, WLAN and pronounce it V-LAN in case you want to ask around for it.)
- Germans aren’t mean, they’re just quiet. A lot of people have this perception of Germans being mean or rude when the reality is that they are just more quiet than many (especially Americans) are used to. Small talk is generally not a thing and I can usually spot an American in a crowd because they tend to smile at anyone who they make eye contact with. Just keep it in mind if you ever feel like you got cold-shouldered.
- You have to ask for help. To go along with the last point, if you are lost or confused in Germany, you will have to actively seek out help. Very rarely will a stranger just offer it. I have often overheard people wondering where to go or trying to figure out some translation amongst themselves and (in a very American manner) offered my unsolicited help. But I always leave these people with the tip to just ask for help next time. German’s are often completely willing to help but they won’t just walk up to a stranger and offer it.
- What is customer service? As a final follow up to the last few points, if you are shopping, do not expect to be blown away by cheery and helpful sales associates. Customer services is virtually nonexistent in Germany and the sales associates primary job is to keep the store clean and help answer customers questions when asked. They will generally not approach you to ask if you need anything and will not linger longer than necessary.
- Return policies are a lot stricter. Return policies in Germany are a lot stricter than in the USA. The return period is shorter and they are a lot less willing to take something back that is open or without tags. In general, makeup cannot be brought back if it has been open or tested, but sometimes I’ve been able to get a gift card for products I’ve had an allergic reaction to. If you are past the return period or thinking of asking a store to do something “above and beyond,” don’t bother, even for an American company in Germany. They stick to their policies through thick and thin and no amount of pleading will change that.
- When in doubt, follow a sign. I have found Germans to be especially good with signs. Things like navigating subway stations, looking for an attraction, and following a bike path are all almost mindlessly easy tasks with German signage.
- The “other guys” are not crazy. Germans have this thing where they like to claim people from other places are weird. I’m sure to a native German, the little differences there are between north and south, city and country folk are very apparent, but to an outsider, don’t be fooled if a German says something like, “those people in Bavaria talk so funny you won’t understand them” or “Berliners are so mean and rude.” In reality, I’ve found Germany to be much more homogenous than other European countries (especially now that I’m living in Italy).
- Do not fall for the Chili Cheese trap! If you are an American wandering around Germany, you might be tempted by a sign to get some chili cheese fries, nachos, burgers, hot dogs, you name it. It’s a trick. It’s not chili like how we know chili as a sort of meat sauce, but rather jalapeños. To me this is a total disgrace but if you like jalapeños then maybe you won’t be so offended. While we’re at it, just stay clear of Mexican food in Germany in general as I’ve found it a bit beyond hit or miss. (I once had a burrito waterlogged with soggy zucchini in it. The horror.)
- It seems like everyone smokes. Really, when my friend arrived to Berlin last month, one of the first questions out of her mouth was, “why does everyone smoke here?” I really didn’t have an answer to that because it seems so out of character for a country that is so clean and health conscious. They ban GMO’s and aluminum in deodorant but will pump their lung full of cancer? I don’t understand either. I have a possible smoke allergy so it’s really a problem for me and the only help I have is that I was able to get used to it after about a month.
- The German language is tough. German is a really hard language to learn and become fluent in. The good news is, they have a lot of “catch phrases” that are similar to English and not too hard to pick up. The better news is that if you are going to be in typical tourist locations, you can avoid the German all together because everyone will speak English. A simple “danke” will be appreciated and is doable even if you’re as inept at languages as I am.
Of course I have to put a bit of a disclaimer on this post. All thoughts are my own and have been from my own experiences. Disagree with any of these points? Did I miss a key part of German culture in this list? Please leave them in the comment section! The more perspectives the better when it comes to culture.