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What Are the Biggest Culture Shocks People Face When Coming to Germany?

by Tim Wenger Feb 22, 2018

Landing in a new country is a “trip,” both in the literal sense, as well as the parlance of our times. One never quite knows what to expect, no matter how much he or she might have heard about the place. Language barriers only add to the issue. In that light, we thought we’d dive into the culture shock that takes place in specific destinations popular with American tourists, starting with Germany. We checked in with Quora as well as editorial content from Matador Network to look at the biggest culture shocks visitors face when coming to Germany.

On the shunning of basic tap water

Despite Germany being on par with the most of Western Europe regarding drinking water, many Quora commenters find it notable that Germans tend to avoid tap water. Nicolas Corwin explained, “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.” Michael Snow added this: “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.”

On the struggle to shop on Sunday

Certain places in the US still see many shops and services closed on Sunday, but the practice is slowly dying out. Personally, I recall the time slightly after I turned 21 years of age when Colorado finally began to allow liquor sales on Sunday — no more driving south to the New Mexico state line or suffering through 3.2% ABV beer from the gas station! In Germany, however, the struggle continues. Genevieve Northup noted in a Matador piece that “Stock up now because come Sunday, villages are post-apocalyptic ghost towns. But it’s not all bad; Sundays give you the chance to focus on neglected chores, like the three loads of laundry that will take two days in your ‘energy saving’ LG washer and dryer.” Quora user Michael Snow sympathized: “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.”

On the penchant for always following the rules

Crossing a vacant street at 2 AM? Better wait until that light turns green — someone may jump out from behind the corner and scold you for “setting a bad example for children,” as Michael Snow noted. Germans play by the rules — even when unwritten — and that means “don’t even think about kicking up your feet on the next seat while riding the train from Stuttgart to Munich. Mowing during quiet hours will earn finger pointing and chastisement in a tone of disappointment you’ve only heard from grandma,” explained Genevieve Northup in Matador. “Always yield the lane to somebody going faster… If they have to slow down, you waited too long and you will hear about it,” added Pete Creswell.

Apparently, though, driving on the Autobahn remains a rather hectic ordeal.

On holding your place in line but keeping your distance in conversation

Americans are known across the globe for their incessant need for “personal space,” but Germans retain their own variety. Bauan Ismail noted on Quora the importance of keeping an arm’s length when talking: “The people here have lost the ability to stand body contact. Especially the male population has a distanced understanding of physical contact.”

Genevieve noted in Matador that when waiting in line, you’d better make your intentions and place in the order obvious, or risk being pushed aside. When that happens, “You have three ways to handle the situation: a) stick your elbows out to save your spot, b) make a fuss, or c) accept your fate. Beware that the response to b is less than satisfactory. The perpetrator will turn around with a look of ‘There was a line? I had no idea’ and continue on.”

On the lack of chit-chatting

Germans aren’t about to just strike up a casual convo to pass the time while queuing. Try to start meaningless chatter and you may find yourself a victim of the legendary German stare. “Not being able to chat up strangers at the bank, or on the train, etc., just to pass the time,” noted Nicholas Corwin on Quora, “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.”

Matador contributor Isabelle Martin echoes the sentiment: “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.”

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