During my first days of work in Germany, I made sure to be super friendly to all of my coworkers. Whenever anyone passed me in the hallway, I would grin maniacally, wave, and yelp, “Hi! How’s your day going?” The responses ranged from bemused looks to a total lack of reply. Confused but not discouraged, I continued trying to work my charms on my new friends.
One morning, I passed Roger, the department’s statistician. I laser-beamed him with my eyes and yelled out my usual “How are you?!” He paused for a moment, staring at me bewilderedly and scratching his fluffy, mad-professor hairdo.
“Do you really want to know?” he asked, one eyebrow raised.
“Uh, yes,” I stammered, unsure of what to make of this.
Twenty minutes later, he was still going strong on a breathless diatribe about how the students’ inferior grasp of basic stats and unbearably messy datasets were contributing to his ever-increasing workload.
Eventually sensing my discomfort, Roger paused and gave me a blank look. “Well you asked,” he muttered, rolling his eyes before continuing down the hall to his office.
Germans don’t like small talk, and they don’t like bullshit. Idle comments and feel-good messages have no place here. German flirting is particularly brutal; “Your big nose looks good on your face” is about the best compliment you can expect to get in Germany.
Especially in the former East, Freikörperkultur, or free body culture, is an important part of German identity. Decades of oppression led to a particular appreciation for the experience of freedom and nudity without a direct relationship to sexuality.
This can sometimes be difficult for Americans to buy, particularly when your coworkers casually invite you to the office’s nude sauna or suggest a naked swim in a nearby lake. Adjusting to this culture without getting weird took some grit, finesse, and more than a few awkward encounters.
The pervasive fear of litigation that infuses most public activities in the United States is virtually nonexistent in Germany. Germans take a much more casual, reasonable approach to public safety. On a hike in Sächsische Schweiz, a beautiful, mountainous region of Saxony, I once commented on the lack of guardrails and warning signs surrounding the steepest cliffs. “Only an idiot would fail to realize that a steep cliff is dangerous,” my German co-worker stated matter-of-factly.
A few months later, after a particularly brutal snowstorm, I remember seeing an older gentleman faceplant on the ice while waiting for the tram. He stood up, casually wiped the trickle of blood from his forehead, and resumed his position on the platform without so much as grimacing.
I love this attitude.
Every year, a local artist would put on a crazy party called “Bimbotown” in one of the warehouses in the Spinnereistrasse neighborhood of Leipzig. The party was crawling with machines that this artist made — giant metallic worms slithering across the ceiling, bar stools that would eject their occupants at the push of a button from across the warehouse, couches that caved in and dumped you into a secret room, beds that could be driven around the party and through the walls. It was an incredible event that would have never been allowed to happen in the US because of all the safety violations — someone could hit their head, fall off a bed, get whacked in the eye. And it was one of the best parties I’ve ever been to.
Unlike Americans, Germans are often more concerned with protecting others than they are with shielding themselves from the mistakes of other people.
When I was filling out rental paperwork for my first apartment in Germany, one of the secretaries in at my office asked me if I’d purchased insurance yet.
“Oh no,” I said, “I don’t really own anything worth insuring, to be honest.”
“It’s not for you,” she replied, puzzled. “It’s to protect other people, in case you damage their property in some way.”
Moving to Germany meant an inexorable slowing of the pace of my life. Particularly in Saxony, there are strict rules about when stores can remain open. Most businesses are closed in the evenings and all day on Sunday. Additionally, Germans benefit from frequent holidays and typically at least a month of paid vacation.
This gave me some anxiety at first, particularly when I forgot to leave work early enough to get groceries or didn’t have time to go to the bank. Over time, however, I learned to both plan my days and to enjoy the break from chores rather than obsessing over lost time. After a few months, I was occasionally leaving work at 3pm to go watch the football game with friends instead of trying to cram in a few more hours of work. I still got as much done as usual, but I felt much happier and less burned out.
In Boston, jaywalking is a way of life. The streets are so crazy and the lights so uncoordinated that you’ll die of old age waiting for the crosswalk. When I moved to Germany, I took this attitude with me but quickly found that it was not a universally acceptable behavior. Even if it’s late in the evening and no cars are in sight, crossing the street without the right of way will get you some heat from native Germans, with “Think of the children!” being the top rebuke hurled your way.
Same deal with “forgetting” to pay your tram fare — if you get caught, the icy stares heaped upon you by an entire car full of people will be enough to freeze your blood. The German system relies on people contributing to the common good even when no one is watching, and so freeloaders and rule-breakers are heavily sanctioned in German culture.
Credit cards are also virtually nonexistent in Germany. This presented a problem for me when my American bank account decided to shut down after my first “suspicious” attempt to withdraw money in Leipzig, but once I got that squared away, being required to plan my expenditures and live on a cash-only system helped me keep my finances under control.
A few months into my time in Leipzig, I started really feeling like I had the hang of things. I knew my way around, I was pretty well set-up at work and home, and most importantly, I felt like I had the German attitude figured out.
One morning, I was biking to a conference and felt like it was unusually difficult to keep the bike moving. “Jesus, I’m out of shape,” I thought, heaving my shaking legs around the wheels as I tottered slowly down the street.
While I was waiting at a red light, a man on the sidewalk flagged me down. “Ich spreche kein Deutsch,” I hissed, tired and irritated.
“Your tire is flat,” he said in perfect, clipped English, gesturing at my pitiful heap of a bike.
“I know that,” I lied, aggravated by this typical German statement-of-the-obvious. I tensed my foot on the pedal, ready to hurl myself forward as soon as the light turned.
The man paused and looked at me for a moment, unsure of whether to continue. “It’s just that, I have a pump,” he finally stammered, waving his hand almost apologetically at his backpack. “I could pump your tire for you.”
This article was originally published on February 11, 2015. Featured photo: Alexander Rentsch