How to tell when Germans are really being rude versus just being German

If you want to confirm the fact that the internet is not improving people’s IQs, just type “rude Germans” into your favorite search engine. Boom! You’ll get over 1.9 million results, most of which were written by morons. (But “rude French” pulls an amazing 39.1 million results!) Few of these online commentaries run counter to the usual “rude Germans” rant and the negative stereotype that so many Americans, Brits and others have of Germans. Even fewer of these web articles, forum posts and blogs offer any useful, helpful information on the topic of “rude” Germans, French, or other Europeans.

The Rudest Countries
I recently saw a CNN online article that listed the “10 Rudest Countries” in the world. As usual, France took first place in the rudeness race. Germany only came in fourth, right behind the UK. The USA placed seventh. But a survey like this, by the Skycanner cheap flights travel site, is subject to all sorts of distortion, including cultural biases, language difficulties, personality differences, and ignorance, to name just a few.

What a person perceives as rudeness may only be a cultural misunderstanding. What is considered rude in one country or culture may not be regarded as rude in another. But every culture has people who are rude, no matter which culture it may be. Certain impolite behaviors are unacceptable in almost any culture. Sometimes an expat or traveler is actually right to consider someone rude!

But how do you correctly judge behavior as rude or not rude? That can be problematic even in your home culture, so it’s going to be even trickier in a foreign culture. We’ll talk about that below, but first let’s discuss some things that will help foreigners see you in a more favorable light, and help you see them in a more accurate light.

Show Some Respect!
One rule of life is that we usually get treated the way we treat others. English-speakers are often guilty of assuming that everyone speaks English (or should), even in Germany, France or any foreign location. I have already written about the hazards of English as the universal language. Most expats know they should learn the local language, but even when you’re just a tourist, it is common courtesy (not rude!) to learn at least some key phrases in the language of the country you’re visiting. Germans or French people understandably get irritated when they encounter a loutish Brit or American who makes no attempt whatsoever to learn to say please, thank you, or anything else in the native tongue.

No one expects you to expound at great length in the national language, but you can at least show some respect by learning some key phrases that allow you to be more polite – and less irritating. You may not realize it when you have become the “ugly American” or “ugly Briton” – but you increase your “ugly” chances by not making any effort to learn the local lingo. If you are experiencing rude behavior in a foreign culture, ask yourself if it might be the other way around. Does your behavior seem rude to the natives?

The (Not) Rude French
I first went to France in the late sixties, when I was still young and stupid. I had a restaurant experience that led me to believe the tales of rude French waiters were indeed true. But in the intervening years I have returned to France and Paris many times. Even with my minimal French, I am often amazed at how nice the French can be. Without any prompting from me, I once had a Paris cab driver act as a guide, explaining to me (in English) the sights we were passing. (No, he did not take the long way.) I have since had very pleasant French waiter experiences. Another cab driver drove back to my Paris hotel to return the iPhone I had left in his taxi. A tip: Often a simple “Bonjour Monsieur/Madame” will make all the difference.

Unnecessary Smiling
Europeans, especially northern Europeans (not just Germans), only smile when they want to. Smiling at some stranger you have never met before is considered foolish. Americans who smile at everyone on the street can seem, well, a bit weak in the head. (Recall the scene in Crocodile Dundee where the title figure is walking down the streets of Manhattan, tipping his hat and saying “G’day” to everyone he passes.) The problem for Americans is that they often mistake a European non-smile for rudeness, when it’s just a neutral facial expression, indicating neither joy nor sorrow, neither anger nor approval. Just normal.

German Frankness
If you really want to hear the truth, ask a German. If you ask an American, “Does this shirt/dress look good on me?” you’ll usually get a polite reply, even if the person thinks it’s the ugliest thing he/she has ever seen. Ask a German the same question and you’ll get an honest, blunt opinion – positive or negative. Germans tend to be direct and to the point. They consider small talk and over-politeness a waste of time. Americans often mistake German frankness for rudeness.

Some people use the-coconut-versus-the-peach metaphor to describe this difference (and not just for Germans and Americans). A coconut is tough on the outside, but soft with sweet milk inside. A peach is just the opposite: soft on the outside, with a tough pit in the center. Germans are coconuts, with a hard exterior that’s tough to crack. Americans are peaches, easy to get to know, but with a hard interior. As one consultant puts it: “When peaches and coconuts meet, misunderstanding is common. Peaches can see coconuts as cold and difficult to get to know, because they don’t engage much in social conversation. On the other hand, coconuts can see peaches as too friendly, superficial and even impolite because they ask too many personal questions.”[1]

Rude or Not Rude?

So how can we determine if a German is exhibiting boorish, rude behavior or is just being German? We can’t just automatically assume that native-speaking locals are always right. Sometimes they’re just being jerks, no matter which culture they’re in. Even German bluntness can be dialed up to German rudeness.

But finding the balance between overreacting to a perceived slight, and letting people walk all over you is not always easy. In your own culture it is usually easy to recognize rude behavior in daily life, but when you’re in a foreign culture, especially before you have time to learn the ropes, it may be difficult to determine what constitutes rude behavior in that culture, and what doesn’t. Is there a better training method than trial and error?

Language is Culture
Well, for one thing, foreign-language teachers should also teach the daily cultural aspects of the language they’re teaching. Language is culture, and culture is language. But it may be too much to expect full coverage of such things in the limited time of most language courses, and a lack of appropriate training for the teachers.

On the other hand, people headed for an expat assignment, or even normal tourists, really should do some of their own research on the target culture. We should assume some responsibility of our own for gaining a certain degree of cultural awareness. Good travelers do this all the time. Even just reading a good guide book can be helpful. (Also see our tips below.) But even the best preparation will leave some gaps in your cultural awareness. Some things will have to be learned in situ.

Techniques for Raising Your Cultural IQ
Here are some methods and resources you can use to increase your cultural awareness:

  • Be observant! Pay attention to native behavior. Learn how the locals respond to certain behaviors versus what would be the case back home. How do Germans react to other Germans?
  • Cultivate cultural informants. These can include a German spouse, German acquaintances, fellow workers, other locals, experienced fellow expats, good books and websites, and consulate/embassy info.
  • Avoid spending too much time with compatriots. Fellow English-speakers can isolate you from getting to know the local culture. Sure, it may be more comfortable, but it won’t help you adapt to the new culture.
  • Learn German. If you only communicate with the natives in English, you’re missing a significant part of the culture, and thus many aspects of behavior. The less German you know, the more likely you are to misunderstand German daily culture. Stop making excuses (“German is so hard”) and get on with it! You may need a basic attitude adjustment.
  • Never assume that behavior that is acceptable back home will also be okay in the foreign culture. Don’t take anything cultural for granted! But that also applies in reverse. You can’t just automatically assume that German behavior is rude – or not.

Finally, it is worth noting that in various surveys concerning rude Brits, French, Germans and other nationalities, each nationality tends to vote itself as “rudest” compared to others. In an earlier Skyscanner survey, the British voted themselves “world’s worst tourists.” Americans think Americans are rude and obnoxious. A study by the research group Public Agenda[2] found that 79 percent of Americans say their compatriots lack basic manners. Nearly 90 percent claim they’ve encountered rude behavior. And 61 percent say that the problem has become worse in recent years. No wonder they would think foreigners are rude!

Also see:

1. Susanne M. Zaninelli in Communicating Across Cultures by Bob Dignen (online PDF, Cambridge University Press)
2. Time (2002)

10 thoughts on “How to tell when Germans are really being rude versus just being German

  1. This is ridiculous! Germans in general are rude and unfriendly!
    I have a friend, who was born in latin america from german parents, so culturally he is a latin american with german genetics.
    He had the opportunity to study in Germany, and went there with a group of his friends, all of them brown skinned. Guess what HF?
    The “German” was treated just like agerman, even though he is “not a German” while the brownies always complained to him that “Germans are the worst as…les”, very rude, unfriendly, blunt, etc…
    My “German” friend” never got treated in such a way…

    You forget the fact that racism is also a key ingredient, we don’t live in wonderland you know!

    This doesn’t mean that all germans are rude, evil, racist, these are human traits.

    About smiling being fake and foolish…being a sour-puss also is foolish…

    I guess European think that smiling means that you are being unsincere…so, being serious and cold means that you are a sincere person? C’mon! Those are just cultural traits.

    Have you ever heard “Auslender Raus” nowadays?

  2. Benny, I really think you’re talking nonsense here, but I approved your comment anyway. I’m not really sure what your point is, but your giant leap into “racism” has nothing to do with what I wrote. If you have ever been to Germany, you don’t seem to have learned much there.

    If you’re going to leave a comment, at least respond to what I wrote, rather than veering off into right field.

  3. Germans arent rude in any way. As a dutch living near the german border with a lot of german contact Germans are just efficient just like the Dutch actually. Actually this is a western european germanic characteristic its not for nothing Germany and Holland are strong economies with the highest living standards of its inhabitants. So where the soutern European likes to express his feelings and are a little more talkative the north europeans are more down to earth and straight to the point. And I better go to a restaurant or ask a beer in a bar in Germany because they are way more polite than here in the Netherlands where they are really blunt and rude to the top!.

  4. I myself work in hospitality industry and find it extremely funny.

    I disagree with most of what you said and find it a great excuse. I meet lots of people from lots of different cultures asiatics, africans, western and eastern europeans, people from north america as well as from south america and I will tell you something:

    EVERY culture smile to show empathy, courtesy, sociability and other fellings AT THE FIRST SIGHT for no big reasons WHEN but ONLY WHEN they are willing to.

    Do french generally act rude? Yes, usually in france and usually when you are clearly a tourist . Do Germans act rude? In my experience every where and in any situation.

    I could go over all your text but I will close with that: Not all german are impolite or anything like that i meet a few that were even very frendly even not smiling at all or being very neutral.

    Nevertheless Germans seem to have a very hard time interacting with people from other cultures either in Germany or abroad and seem to have a very disturbed notion of their rights and obligations when dealling with other people. Again it does not aply to every one at all.

    • i am tottaly agree with you. French waiters are probably rude when u are clearly a tourist. coming from Indonesia lived in spain and moved to germany and moved to France i can tell it all. I was brainwashed by germans on how bad french people are before moving there, but before that i was learning french and when i arrived there, i realised how nice French people are, how beautiful is everything, same in Spain people are romantic and friendly to new neighboors. i remember the first two months in germany i have no hello back from my neighboors when we met on the lift. they even sent a police to my room just bcs i hang my sheet on the window taking of advantage of the sun that comes once a year. LOL

      4 years living in germany not even a single person who step on my feet saying sorry to me. The list of the rudest country they made there is for dummy people who believes everything what people write in the internet.

      I am glad after living in Germany moved to France its open my eyes very wide open, germans cant even make a delicious bread, no wonder they are rude.

      4 anitos en alemania ni un aleman me llamó guapaa por la calle. jajaja

  5. I have only met two truly rude people in Germany. Whenever I look lost there is always someone who asks if I need help. It takes some getting used to German manners and behavior but after spend a lot time learning German in Germany it would never occur to me to think them rude–just more formal and serious. As for the French, I was surprised how polite people in Paris were. As an American I would say, learn some of the language and speak more softly and you will fit in better.

  6. Hey there all non-Germans!
    In this comment I’ll talk a bit more about one of the most known preconception about us Germans. I mean, obviously in Germany everything is so different then in England- therefore for English people it seems like Germans never excuse or something. That´s really sad, but I have to say – that is how it works here. Although we don’t want to be like this – we just don’t notice it anymore. I for one always try to be as polite as I can, but then I visited London. I never saw a difference between the English and the German behavior. But one happening really confused me – everybody asked me if I need help. Just a normal thing, but – when you are asked something like that in my hometown – you should be concerned about your stuff. Sadly I had to accept that Germans in general never would be that friendly that English people. Preconception confirmed.

    Well I am from German and I don’t want to force you to think good about Germans but I’m sure not every German is like you would expect. Honestly, most of us are pretty nice to you if you are pretty nice to you if you are nice to them. Of course, there are unfriendly Germans, just like in England, America and all over the world, too. All in all, the only thing save to say is, that every person is different.

  7. Hi there,

    First of all, I find the German attitude quite refreshing. They are the most sensible people I have ever met. I have a number of German colleagues and I like the way they don’t bull**** around—I live in New Zealand, to give you more perspective. I work in a university, and people come from all over and Germans are the best colleagues I can ask for. They aren’t socially inept (as a lot of other people here put them) they just mind their own business (which people just should). They hate small talk, but it is not the case that a person cannot have conversations with them—they just couldn’t be bothered if it is about the weather. They aren’t ‘friendly’ in the regular sense of the word, since they just couldn’t be bothered with the social conventions/trappings that a lot of cultures are so engrossed with. I think—and this is just my opinion—Germans just have a very low tolerance for stupidity. If every other person out there is a German, God knows the world would have been a boring place—but it would have been WAAAAAAYYYYYYYY more sensible. And I’d rather have it sensible I suppose. 🙂

  8. I am sorry but manners are manners everywhere, and lack of them cannot be simply put to cultural differences. Directness does not equal rudeness. I live in francophone country, studied in the US, lived in UK and regularly travel there for work. I also regularly travel to Germany as my husband is half German and my sister is married to a German. I can speak from personal experience. Yes, Germans deserve reputation of being rude. But to be fair, so do French. French and Germans share a fair amount of unpleasant attitudes, only they express them differently. You can get a snub from French and vocal insult from a German. It is hard to say which one is better. But they both tend to accumulate after a while making social interactions very unpleasant or even stressful. Being polite is simply a matter of making any interaction easier for both sides.

  9. I was so lucky that when I went to Germany I was visiting a German friend who had just moved back after living in the US for 20+ years. Because of this, she knew exactly what cultural differences would be surprising to me, because after spending her entire adult life in the US, some of them were surprising to her too. She warned me that people don’t say excuse me (her colleagues told her she was weird for doing it), don’t thank you for little niceties (holding open the door for them, moving out of their way), and that if you go to a restaurant you must have 3 hours available because everything from getting the menu, to getting the food, to getting the bill takes 3x longer (or more) than in the US.

    Even knowing these things, I still experienced them as rudeness. I asked for the bill 20 minutes ago, why is the proprietress still standing back there chatting with her husband? I made space for you to get by in a grocery store – why did you brush by without acknowledging me? Why did that man just walk right into me or physically push me aside rather than saying “excuse me” and doing his part to get around me? Ah yes, because you’re German.

    I think it’s one thing to understand that other cultures do thing differently, it’s another to accept it on a visceral level. So when I was shoved or ignored my visceral reaction was the same as what it would be if someone did that to me at home or anywhere in the world. Knowing to expect this cultural difference allowed me to be prepared and sometimes to even laugh it off, but having spent time in diverse countries around the world, I have generally found certain behaviors to fall into the “basic decency” category, and because they don’t in Germany, it’s hard for many of us to accept.

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