German compartmentalization comes as a shock to most Americans. This rigid compartmentalization is both physical (floor plans, closed doors) and mental (friends vs acquaintances, business vs pleasure). It is a cultural difference that usually becomes obvious to expats in German-speaking Europe early on. But like many cultural differences, it is one that tends to sink in slowly and involves breaking long-established habits.
I have lived in Germany and visited there often, yet some un-German habits die hard. Like leaving doors open or punching the “1” button for the ground floor. There are many things about daily life in Germany that you can “know” intellectually, yet somehow are slow to be truly absorbed and comprehended.
At various points in an expat’s life there come those certain “aha moments” when you suddenly “get it.” One such aha moment for me came when I was living in Berlin. I was house-sitting for friends who were staying in the US for almost a year. They had a lovely fourth-floor loft apartment with an open, airy, bright floor plan. The only doors are the entrance and two more for the bathroom and a guest toilet/lavatory. The bedroom is set off by a wall without any doors. I loved it.
So when I had to throw my own birthday party (another cultural difference!), I looked forward to having some of my Berlin friends see my wonderful apartment. I thought they’d be impressed. Weit gefehlt! (Think again! Far from it!)
One of my guests (we’ll call him Kurt) lived in a typical German apartment that I had seen before. It’s your typical German layout with a hall and doors everywhere. There’s not a room in the place without a (usually closed) door. None of the rooms is very large. Even the balcony is narrow. To me it’s pleasant but cramped. Very compartmentalized.
A house tour is not a common thing in Germany, but I’m American and in a loft apartment it’s difficult not to show someone the house anyway. Except for the bedroom and baths, it’s all in plain sight. Even the kitchen is only separated by a counter from the living room. So I eagerly showed Kurt around the place. It soon became apparent that he hated it! Kurt would much rather have doors and compartments. He was uncomfortable with the openness of my place. It made him nervous not to be able to go into a room and close the door behind him. It dawned on me how deeply this cultural aspect is ingrained in all of us.
Yes, there are some Germans who like an open plan. After all, most of the residents in my building are Germans. But Kurt was not one of them. For him my open, airy place was a nightmare. That became one of my cultural aha moments.
Sarah has already written about the German Closed Door Policy. (An old article in the English edition of Der Spiegel about cultural differences was entitled “Come on in, my door is always closed.”) Learning to knock on closed doors in German offices is another big hurdle for Americans. But to me, particularly when it gets hot in Germany, closed doors and compartmentalization are the enemy. There seems to be no German concept of cross ventilation.
In a country where air conditioning is rare, it’s nice to have a gentle breeze in the house on a hot summer day. But now we’re touching on another German phobia, the “killer draft”, which is why Germans don’t believe in cross ventilation. In my Berlin loft apartment I enjoyed a nice breeze across the whole place, a breeze that would terrify the average German, not to mention Kurt. He would not approve.