When I moved to Germany for the first time in 1992, I was 21 and was going to university in Freiburg. I had never worked in an American office for more than the time required to do a temp job over spring break and had spent summers working at McDonald’s. When I was 18, I lived near Geislingen for 8 weeks, staying with the family of an exchange student who had lived with us for six months when I was nine years old. This was my first encounter with a “real” German home and the accompanying culture rules this entails. It was not a very exciting summer for an 18-year-old woman who had just graduated high school and wanted some adventure. I read a lot of Michener (the fattest English novels I could find for the money), listened, but not spoke, a lot of Schwäbisch, and tried not to make any cultural faux pas.
One of the things I was most often reminded to do was to close the door behind me when moving through my friends’ house. This is something that is most definitely not ingrained into the average American’s way of life. In the German houses I have encountered and lived in, each room has its own door (not just a doorway). There are doors between kitchens and living rooms, and doors between living rooms and halls. Each of these doors is to be kept closed unless one is currently walking through it. In 1992, I didn’t get it, and even now, despite the fact that I close doors unconsciously as any German does, I still don’t quite appreciate the need to so. Some of the reasoning behind the closed doors is due to the Killer Draft (see Hyde’s Killer Draft blog on the topic, and mine as well), and some is due to the heating systems in some houses. The radiator system using water seems to require airing and keeping doors closed to keep the heat in.
Fast forward to 16 years later, and I am now the owner of my own German row house with radiators and in-floor heating. Having been trained by my in-laws and husband, who grew up in this house, I am also constantly closing the door. As an American, I certainly don’t mind the drafts, but the doors in the living room have to be closed now due to escaping babies who are heading for the stairs! Upstairs, we don’t always close the doors — unless we are having people over and the rooms are messy — but we do tend to more in the winter. The doors in the hall also have a funny opaque glass insert to let the light into the hall as well. This is something that makes me crazy because it also lets light (and noise) into the rooms when babies are trying to sleep.
This door-closing policy also applies to many German offices, as I learned when I started my first job in a publishing house in Freiburg. This probably originated from the same reasons as above, but I think it also says something about the way things work in the workplace here. In the US, information is generally passed easily between hierarchies and across departments. Here I have noticed that information is shared on a need-to-know basis. You are expected to ask if you want to know something, and must knock before doing so. This goes hand-in-hand with the Siezen/Duzen (formal and informal) way of speaking with one’s peers and superiors. In my first job, people had been using the Sie form (last names and formal) with each other for 20 years. It wasn’t until two Americans started working in the office that this started to change. Soon the cleaning lady was using Du with me and the sales guys were finally using first names with each other. But I was constantly battling with my office mate, who was Romanian-German, about leaving the door open in the heat of summer so that we could have a bit of air. (Some things never change).
Next time you visit some German office, whether to deal with your visa issues or to sign your kid up for kindergarten, note the closed door. Don’t forget to knock!