From the American perspective, our views of Germany have been relatively limited in pop culture to maniacal Nazis and yodeling lederhosen-wearing Bavarians all with a burning passion for sausage and beer. In this case, I blame our endless supply of World War II movies or movies full of stereotypes like National Lampoon’s: European Vacation or Beerfest. However, if you actually find yourself in the middle Germany, you’ll find that a lot of these preconceived notions are not really true or at least wildly exaggerated.
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Cultural Differences: A Closer Look at Beer, Lederhosen, and Coconuts
We have this preconception that the Germans are a serious, efficient, hard-working, cold group of people. Like most stereotypes, these ideas and images come from somewhere, but most of the time it is a gross exaggeration. Yes, Germans take their work seriously, but they don’t endlessly work like Americans. As soon as their work day is over, it is done. The majority of people who work a standard 9-5 job do not work outside of those hours. They even have the term, “Feierabend,” (literally party/celebration evening) to embody the sense of bringing the work day to a total close. This can be initially frustrating as an American, especially if you are waiting for a response, but at this point, all you can do is patiently wait or hope to catch them in the office.
In terms of the seriousness and coldness, this is just a cultural misunderstanding. A fitting analogy is that the Germans are like coconuts. They may have a hard shell you have to work to get past, but when you get through, there is a soft and sweet inside. In other words, It can be difficult to get to know a German, but when you do, they really open up and that hard exterior cracks open. They have a tendency to view initial friendliness as superficial and disingenuous, so there’s a sense of skepticism if someone’s a little too friendly right off the bat. This is probably one of the harder things to work through as an American.
Just in general, one of our biggest cultural misconceptions is the celebration of Oktoberfest. So just to finally clear things up: it is a Bavarian tradition (Bavaria is a large state in the south east), it is not widely celebrated in Germany, and it is actually celebrated in September. The famous, traditional Lederhosen and Dirndl are really just worn for this celebration now, and the famous brass music is mostly reserved for tourists and is more of a southern tradition. You’ll find that most Germans would prefer to wear normal clothes and are fully aware of most popular music that comes out the US.
Of course, it was only a matter of time before we had to address the elephant in the room: post-war Germany. After World War II and the social movements of the 1960’s, Germany reformed itself and its policies to make reparations and help prevent groups like the Nazis from coming back. The Police are allowed to take action if your actions/comments incite violence or are discriminatory. And obviously, all Nazi symbols are completely illegal. It should already go without saying that you shouldn’t even jokingly make Nazi references here, but there are cases where non-Germans have been arrested for doing Nazi salutes and saying, “Heil Hitler,” even if the accused were unaware of the laws or weren’t serious. Even if you think that this can encroach upon freedom of speech or seem a little extreme, it doesn’t matter. You follow German law in Germany.
Food: Beer and Sausage Galore with Much More
Food is one of the most important foundations to distinguish culture. If you walk into a German restaurant, you’ll see that the bratwurst and beer stereotype is kind of true. There is always wurst, there are always potatoes, and there is always beer. However, you’ll find that the Germans enjoy more than just pork and potatoes. The closer you are to a diverse urban region, you’ll find Middle-Eastern, Asian, Greek, and Italian restaurants on every street. However, the service is nothing like the states. Food service in the US is all about being as quick and friendly as possible. Part of this is because food servers rely on tips, so they have to be friendly for a good tip, and the more tables they seat, the more tips they will receive. In Germany, you’re going to have to slow down. European food culture in general is a lot slower. Servers are paid a full wage, so they don’t rely on tips. That’s one reason why it’s slower; they don’t have to bring in a lot of people to get paid. That also means they don’t have to be as friendly, but as I mentioned before, Germans see the exuberant friendliness as superficial anyway. After the waiter’s/waitress’s first visit, you might have to start waving them down to get their attention. They will not continuously check up on you. Also, be ready to stay for a while, especially in a group. It’s considered a social outing. In larger groups, you can easily find yourself eating and drinking for more than an hour and only see the server two or three times. Whatever you do, don’t get mad. It’s just a cultural difference.
Traffic and Transportation: Bikes, Trains, and Automobiles
I hope you don’t plan on driving, and that’s not just because the traffic signs and laws are different. From more taxes on gas to the hundreds of euros just for the tests and licenses, owning and maintaining a car is a lot more expensive. The Germans are a lot more aware of their environmental impact, so they add regulations and taxes to deter some of it. On top of that, Germany is denser and smaller compared to the US with a population of about 82-83 million, so they don’t have the space to support everyone driving a car. Thankfully, in most cases, you won’t need a car. Biking is a lot friendlier and more accessible, and the public transportation is held to a higher standard. The trains (S and U Bahns included) can get you anywhere and in many areas the same tickets work for buses and trams. When you buy your ticket, the time it is valid, and the distance of the trip can make the pricing a little expensive. Compared to a car though you will be taking the much cheaper route.
Frankfurt am Main: Germany's Most American City
Before we go any further, I should clarify that there are two Frankfurts. Frankfurt am Main (Frankfurt (M)) is in the west with the famous skyscraper skyline and is historically one of the most important financial and cultural centers in Germany. It is located on the Main river. Then there is Frankfurt (Oder) which is a smaller city in eastern Germany close to the Polish border. It is located on the Oder river. At the moment, we’re only talking about Frankfurt am Main. In a lot of images of German towns and cities, you will find the classic architectural style with the tall wooden and stone buildings with steep roofs. You can find these in smaller towns, old-city districts, or historically preserved areas, but a lot of these “old” city buildings are renovated or completely rebuilt. World War II completely destroyed certain areas (particularly urban centers), so in the end, not much of the original cities were left. In Frankfurt itself, the famous Dom/Römer old city district was completely rebuilt and renovated after the war. Yes, they maintain that old classic style and feel, but most of those buildings are still less than one hundred years old. Most cities are now modernized. Looking at Frankfurt (M) alone, the city was rebuilt to resemble an American city with skyscrapers. It had a huge American influence due to the US’s military presence and policies to help rebuild Europe after the war. Eventually American neighborhoods with their own schools and stores developed, so the city naturally feels American. As the financial base was rebuilt, the city started attracting more business and became more international. Today, the American military presence has declined and the old American neighborhoods are no longer dominated by Americans, however English is still prevalent due to the amount international business and people who use English as a lingua franca.
East and West: The Remnants of a Divided Country
It has been almost three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall and Germany’s reunification. However, a lot of the repercussions can still be seen and felt. Western parts of Germany remain financially/economically ahead of its eastern counterparts. The current refugee and immigration crisis in Europe has spurred a lot of resentment and resistance throughout the continent, but a lot of that sentiment comes from the former Soviet bloc, including the former GDR (East Germany) regions. A combination of isolation, lack of diversity, and economic crisis have created areas where one could face more hostility, especially if you’re non-white. This shouldn’t be too prevalent in Frankfurt, but it’s a situation you can run into anywhere and one that you should be aware of.
Politics: In the Age of Trump, an Inevitable Subject
Even though normally a taboo subject for Americans, you’ll find that politics are a common discussion topic amongst Germans. As the relationship between the US and the world tenses and strains under the Trump administration, this is a subject that eventually cannot be avoided. Generally speaking, a lot of European politics are more left leaning compared to the US, so some European centrist conservative parties are more liberal and more in line with our Democratic party than the Republicans. Also, most non-American governments have several political parties, so there are more defined lines and specifics that they support and represent. The names are a little tricky to figure out at first, but it’s easier to figure out their platforms. While most countries are skeptical with the Trump administration, the Germans in particular are weary. From their perspective, a lot of Trump’s actions and tendencies remind them of the Nazi regime, and as a country that has openly worked to correct and apologize for their past, they are anxious that a regime with similar tendencies is developing.
Some Final Advice
Even though a large portion of the population can speak English, more so in the international urban areas, it wouldn’t hurt to learn some useful phrases, even if it just is, “Excuse me. I can’t speak German/My German isn’t too good. Can you speak English?” which is, “Entschuldigung. Mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut. Können Sie Englisch sprechen?”
Of course this article doesn’t cover every cultural difference, and you cannot expect every German to act exactly like this either. This is just a general rundown of what to expect and what you can possibly encounter, especially in the Frankfurt (M) area. Different regions can have their own slight differences that can be shocking after adjusting to a single area. In the end, all you can really do is at least prepare for the change and learn how to adjust.