Help me stop thinking like an American!
August 29, 2010 4:05 PM   Subscribe

What should I know about German customs/behavior/social norms before going there for 10 weeks?

I'm going to be spending 10 weeks in Freiburg for an intensive German language program. (Yay!) In my last German class, we learned a few useful ways in which German conventions differ from those in the U.S.-- for example, at a restaurant, the waiter will not bring you your bill unless you flag him down and ask for it, because it's considered rude to bring it unasked, whereas in the U.S. it's standard for the waiter to bring the check to the table when your meal looks like it's winding to a close. Or that if you ask to use the Badezimmer, it's possible you'll be shown to a room with a bathtub but no toilet, and that it's not impolite to ask to use the Toilette.

What other such useful advice do you have about successfully navigating German culture?

(Suggestions for things to do in and around Freiburg are also appreciated, as are any particularly useful or fun German idioms...)
posted by coppermoss to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I studied in Germany for a while last year, and I loved it. Here's some general advice off the top of my head.

The bill thing is a good one. I once spent an unfortunate amount of time in a café bar trying to remember the word for "bill" and plaintively watching my waiter walk on by. Finally, I was all, "The bill, bitte?" And he smirked at me and I died a little inside. But I finally escaped the bar. Lesson learned: always carry a pocket dictionary.

Be sure not to "ride black" on the trains. Carry a passport with you at all times, if possible. When officers saw my super English-y name on my commuter pass, they often asked for my ID. Also, I got carded while buying some liquor--the passport was good to have.

Internalize the words "drücken" and "ziehen." Don't be the Austauschstudent running into doors all the time. Learn from my woe.

Carry small change around for bathroom visits. The ones in train stations are usually coin-operated, and the ones in department stores like Karstadt are manned by staff. It's expected to tip. On the bright side, the restrooms are generally very clean!

You'll hear "Schönen Tag noch!" from all the store clerks. It's like "Have a nice day!"

When ordering a Döner from a food stand, sometimes they'll ask if you want it "gleich," sometimes they'll ask if you want it "mitnehmen." They both mean "to go," far as I could tell. If you like it spicy, ask for the Döner "mit scharf."

"Jein" is an awesome word that means "yes and no." The word "eine" will often be contracted to "'ne" in fast, casual speech--at least it was in the NRW. "Etwas" sometimes becomes simply "was."

German modal particles will add flavor and zest to your speech. I wouldn't try to overload yourself on them in the beginning. They'll come naturally over time. Just be aware of them, 'cause you'll hear them everywhere in eavesdropped conversations.

Another amusing occurrence is the habit of attaching "oder" to the end of sentences to seek affirmation. We do it in English too, you know?

Be ready to fling your groceries into a bag at the local Lidl. There aren't any baggers, and those cashiers are mighty fast!

Garbage sorting is a tricky beast, but just keep at it.

Pretty much every plastic soda/juice/water bottle as a Pfand added to it. It's a small amount of change added to the price at the register. If you return the bottles to the store (generally via a machine), you'll get the money back. Keep tabs of your bottles, because the Pfand money adds up. Some stores only take certain brands of drinks back. Be aware of this so you don't lug a sack full of empty Apfelschörle bottles to the Aldi downtown.

Have fun! Germany's awesome.
posted by ElectricBlue at 4:48 PM on August 29, 2010 [6 favorites]

I have often referenced this site and found it very useful.
posted by batikrose at 4:48 PM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd recommend the archives of Nothing for Ungood a great, and highly amusing blog, from an american living in Munich. Not updated much anymore, but the archives are great, and according to my girlfriend (who is German and ought to know), pretty accurate observations of German life.

Frieburg is brilliant. Dinner at the brewery is excellent, the weissbier is superb and the black forest is nearby and extremely well worth visiting. As in most of Germany a lot of people speak good English and are generally happy to help if you try to communicate in German first. Its a university town, so there's a lot of educated young people about.

Most useful phrase "Ein Mass weissbier bitte", followed by "noch ein bitte"!
posted by prentiz at 5:11 PM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

This forum populated largely by English speaking expats in Germany has a lot of pertinent discussions.
posted by Lorin at 5:20 PM on August 29, 2010

Don't mention the war!
posted by yoyo_nyc at 5:37 PM on August 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

As mentioned above, not only will you have to fill your own bag at grocers (and quickly!), you'll either need to bring your own bag or buy one of the store's own (and usually far too big) reusable bags. And most store clerks will end by quickly asking, "Kassenbon?" ("Receipt?"), a word which, though intuitive, took me quite a while to parse.

I'll second ElectricBlue's sugggestion to internalize drücken/ziehen, which takes a surprising amount of effort.

Also, even if you intend to speak your best German with everyone and not be the hapless tourist who automatically starts every conversation in English (seriously: don't ever be this person), you also shouldn't assume that you can eventually switch to English when you have difficulty, even if asking politely. While most Germans speak English just as well as you do, many do not -- and this includes many youth, which I really didn't expect for some reason.

And, the biggest thing: for the most part, no stores will be open on Sundays. This includes even big grocery chains in big cities. I only buy a couple days worth of groceries at a time, and was very often caught off-guard with nothing good to eat on Sundays.
posted by astrochimp at 5:51 PM on August 29, 2010

1. In cafes, ask for leitungswasser if you want to drink free tap water; a request for wasser means sparkling water, which you have to pay for.

2. Germans did. not. laugh. at any of my jokes (and I'm usually considered wittier-than-average in North America). It wasn't a language gap, either- they all spoke great English and understood the premises of my jokes perfectly; plus, some of my attempts were non-verbal and relied on gestures or facial expressions. And I don't think they stonewalled me out of annoyance, either; even men who were hitting on me, usually a pretty easy demographic for a laugh, just didn't seem to find my jokes funny. Other North Americans I met told me this is just how Germans are and we just have to deal with it. They were really nice; they just didn't laugh when I made jokes.

3. There'll be lots of yummy cheese, sausage, cake, chocolate, doner kebabs, and beer. Make sure to get exercise! I packed on a bit of chub in Germany, that's for sure.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 5:57 PM on August 29, 2010

(Re: my note on language, I should add that I found every German extremely accommodating whenever I asked if we could switch to English -- I just felt bad in the few cases where I realized that my German was better than someone's English, and that I was putting them through unnecessary stress by asking them to translate into a second language spontaneously.)
posted by astrochimp at 5:58 PM on August 29, 2010

I was taught that in Germany, the polite response to a compliment is to downplay or deflect it. "Your house is so nice!" "Oh, it's too small, really." They aren't being rude or denying your compliment. That's just how they do it.
On the other hand, my German teacher (an actual German woman) said that this seemed to be changing somewhat, particularly among younger people. So YMMV.
posted by Adridne at 6:29 PM on August 29, 2010

I studied abroad in Germany and had to work hard not to smile at random people. I'm friendly, and from the south, they kept giving me startled looks thinking I was someone they knew and didn't recognize.

Also people will stare at you on the train. It is okay to stare back. No smiling. Staring contests with old ladies are kind of fun.

In most places bikes need their own train ticket, so remember that if you use one and don't want to pay a fine.
posted by birdbone at 7:09 PM on August 29, 2010

Don't cross the street against the signal.

Even if no cars are coming.

Even if you think nobody else is around.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 7:15 PM on August 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Americans tend to be superficial in the way they greet people. In America a common greeting for just people working at the bank or grocery store is, "What's up?" or "How's it going?" even though you don't really care. That is an excepted social norm.

However, when you are in Germany, don't ask the German equivalents of these (Wie geht's Ihnen, Was ist los?). That is not how interactions are started unless you are talking to your personal friends and you really want to know what is on their mind or troubling them. Wie geht's Ihnen would be somewhat equivalent of somebody in America taking your hand, looking you in the eye and asking what is troubling you. Was ist los? can be understood as, "What is your problem?" in a not so nice way.

So, at the bank, baker or department store or on the phone, use Guten Morgen/Tag/Abend. Down south in Freiburg, one might say Grüß Gott. Up north we might say Moin! Moin!

This all might sound obvious, but it is a common mistake that especially Americans make.

Really try hard to default to the formal Sie form of the verb when addressing someone you don't know at the bank or store. You can usually default to du if you are talking to your fellow students. Professors get Sie, of course. Most people are understanding about it if they realize you are a foreigner. If somebody introduces themselves with their first name, you can usually use the informal du. Sometimes they will say, Wir können uns dutzen. This means we can say du to each other. Older people might know each other over 30 years and still say Sie to each other. If you meet the parents of your friends, say Sie unless they say otherwise. You can say du to children but from the age of 16 a person can insist that they be addressed with Sie. If you are ever unsure, just say Sie. Always say Sie to a cop.

Also, in most places (if the cops have nothing better to do) you will get a ticket if you are riding your bike after dark without a light.

That lovely red-bricked path that you are walking on is actually a bike path. Try not to find out the hard way.

You can easily get a ticket for drunk driving even if you are on a bike and not that drunk.

There are two potentially offensive hand gestures in Germany that you probably don't know about. You can make them with friends but if you make them to a police officer or other authority figure, you could get a hefty fine or, depending on extreme circumstances, get arrested. One is Der Vogel. It literally means the bird but it is not like our version of the bird. It is made by tapping your temple with your index finder. It is often accompanied with the phrase, "Du hast einen Vogel". literally, You have a bird. It basically means that you are a fucking idiot. You may inadvertently make this gesture when you want to show that you are thinking about a problem or you think someone had a good idea. I'm not even sure what the other hand gesture is called but it is made by waving your hand in front of your face with you palm towards your face. It means, "Du bist bescheuert", you are crazy, stupid, etc. You might inadvertently make this gesture when you explain that you were really drunk last night or were out of sorts. "I was so drunk" *waves hand in front of face*. In both of these examples, it doesn't mean what you think it means.

There is another gesture that is not really offensive, but I didn't know what the hell it meant until after I first realized it was a gesture and asked about it. If somebody puts their finger underneath their eye and slightly pulls down their lower eyelid, it is that same as saying, "Yeah, right" or "bullshit" depending on context. A good time to use this is when you hear politicians and PR people trying to spin themselves out of a tricky situation. I think it is mainly older people that do this though. I don't see it often.

Also, Germans like to complain. Often it is quite subtle. It might drive you crazy but it's kind of a bonding ritual. It's hard to explain.

Check out Germany: Unraveling an Enigma by Greg Nees. It helps explain why Germans are the way they are and the historical reasons behind it.
posted by chillmost at 2:12 AM on August 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

Also, when you are speaking English to a non-native English speaker, avoid overusing "like" and "Ya know" in your speech. It makes you sound stupid and confuses your conversation partner. Speak clearly and avoid slang, sports metaphors and popular catch phrases.
posted by chillmost at 2:20 AM on August 30, 2010

Be aware that many people - and shops, post offices, etc. - will likely take timekeeping very seriously.

I found (in Freiburg and also when I studied in Regensburg) that men would stare at me and/or follow me down the street much more than anywhere else where I had lived. This was creepy and unpleasant, but it never escalated to unwanted physical contact. I don't have much useful advice to offer on this front except to be aware that creepy behaviour might not be as unusual as you'd expect.

A few Freiburg-specific suggestions:

Hausbrauerei Feierling is one of my favourite spots anywhere. I presume that it is the brewery to which prentiz refers above. It's well worth a visit.

It is well worth eating in one of the Mensen if you are eligible to eat there. The food is really good and the prices are outstanding. I see that the online menus have English glossaries too - back in my day (1993) we had fun trying to guess what some of the regional dishes on the menu were:-)

You might want to hop to Basel, Colmar and/or Mulhouse for a day. They are all quite easily accessible from Freiburg.

Have a great time! I absolutely loved my student days in Germany.
posted by sueinnyc at 6:40 AM on August 30, 2010

My link to the Mensen didn't work the first time. Sorry.
posted by sueinnyc at 6:41 AM on August 30, 2010

Sueinnyc - exactly where I meant!
posted by prentiz at 11:04 AM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I could wax poetic about Freiburg for, well, forever, so if you want more info, please me-mail me. I'll comment on some general German practices I've noticed, but mostly, Freiburg-specific info. I studied abroad in Freiburg for a semester (the EU program, not the language one). Things to know:

Freiburg has a (rather narcassistic) saying, "There are two types of Germans, those who live here and those who want to." The weather rocks. Locals explained it to me once, about Mediterranean air streams and whatnot, but the takeaway is: it is freakishly nice there. As a native Southern Californian with a sincerely pathetic reaction to cold, I only needed a coat in December, and even then, it didn't get below 50- mild winters- nice falls. Pack accordingly, and enjoy the outdoor Biergartens. But don't run in the street, or in your neighborhood. They'll think you are crazy- Germans run in parks- fortunately you have Dreisam and the Black Forest if you want to exercise.

Environmental things. Freiburg takes pride in being one of the greenest cities in the world:

-- As ElectricBlue stated, garbage sorting is a beast, but you must recycle, recycle, recycle. They will do some serious social recycling enforcement on your ass if you don't. This rule is not one you want to break, unless you want a lecture at every street corner. They have very specific containers- clear glass, green glass, brown glass, paper, cardboard, etc. On a side note, I make my own Halloween costumes, and had a ridiculously difficult time finding cardboard for a section of it because of their fervor for recycling. (On a side note, they don't celebrate Halloween. Or rather, they've adopted it in a very simple form, and if you dress outside of the generic scary costumes, you'll be quite confusing. It did prove to be a fun social experiment when I went as a pregnant woman to a party. It turns out, no matter how crowded the party, it was always possible to maintain a 15 foot radius around me...) Back to the recycling- at one point, my roommate showed me how to break apart my q-tip for the cardboard recycling portion. So, yea.

--Figure out bike lanes. I assume you'll take public transportation, which is easy to figure out. Don't walk in the bike lanes, don't ride on the wrong side. It's easy enough to figure out since several parts of the city are car-free, and there's ample pedestrian room.

-- If you have any say whatsoever, live in Vauban! Ah Vauban...sigh. Vauban was a French dominated portion of Germany- and was used as French barracks. Today, it has been reclaimed by this amazingly unusual cross-section of environmentalist, university students, vegabonds, and hippies. Real hippies. Not just drum circle hippies- there are communes there. The person who lived next to my building lived in a caboose, and on the other side was a treehouse. It was amazing. They are so clever with the buildings too, and if you have any interest in green design and architecture, it's amazing.

Other things:

Watch your step! Freiburg's Bächle stream throughout the city, and have a tricky way of sneaking up on you. But, as local superstition has it, if you accidentally step in one, you're destined to marry a Freiburger. If you are the superstitious sort, you could just find a hot uni student and never watch where you're going...

Eat gummi candy. A lot of it. It's delicious and Germans are the best at making it. Haribo is in every vending machine.

Drink beer. Lots of it. Because its beer. Drink early and put sprite in the beer. It's their "pre-beer" drink.

Germans enjoy privacy. Don't take it personally.

Try your damndest to remember shops close early. Almost none are open on Sunday. Prepare accordingly.

Travel! You are 30 minutes from either the French or Swiss border. See the alps. Hike in the Black Forest. And, if you must, go to Oktoberfest. What I learned: never underestimate the Australians love of drinking.

Last bits: Go to Moudan. Its a morgue converted into a bar. The building next to it was a French hospital during WWII and has been converted into student housing, and they converted the morgue into a bar. Cheap, kitschy, awesome.
posted by edgybelle27 at 2:33 PM on August 30, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the answers! I'm here, in Freiburg, absolutely loving it [my host family lives in Vauban, even!], and have a couple of follow-up questions: does anyone know where the best place to buy a cheap-ish raincoat [or if not cheap-ish, then expensive and awesome]? Secondly, my German is not fantastic. If someone I'm talking to switches into English unprompted, should I switch, too, or is it okay if I go on trying to speak in German? (I signed a contract with my school saying I would speak as little English as possible while I'm here, if that matters. I just don't want to be rude by not switching if it's called for.) Vielen Dank!
posted by coppermoss at 11:38 AM on September 25, 2010

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