Inverse Customs: When Germans Do Precisely the Opposite

Expats in Germany and the other German-speaking countries are often surprised by a type of culture shock I call “inverse customs.” These are practices that are either the exact opposite of, or extremely different from the same custom in the US. Expats quickly learn this fact of life abroad: There is always more than one way to do things, and sometimes it’s the opposite way!

No, I’m not talking about the usual German cultural oddities such as the “killer draft” or not mowing your lawn on Sunday. Those may be odd, but we want to address German customs that are either the polar opposite of similar conventions in the English-speaking universe, or at the least veer severely into left field (or right rather than left, in the case of wedding rings).

A prime “inverse custom” example, and one that affects most expats directly, is the German custom of the birthday person throwing his or her own party, even providing the cake and refreshments! This particular inverse custom usually takes place in the workplace, much to the amazement of most English-speaking expats. So much for surprise parties, Ami! We expect YOU to throw your own birthday party!

Who Pays?
Inverse customs often have to do with who pays for what. The most obvious difference has to do with your Handy, your mobile phone. In Germany, Europe and much of the world the caller pays for a call. In the US the receiving party pays for a call. The Europeans, who in the early days of the cell phone era were way ahead of the US, soon figured out that if the receiving subscribers paid, they would often turn off their phone to avoid paying for incoming calls. Today, with flat rates and fairly large amounts of “free” call minutes per month, it matters less, but the difference between who pays for calls still exists.

The only exception happens when you’re in roaming mode. In that case callers anywhere pay for all incoming and outgoing calls. In roaming mode, callers have no way of knowing they are making a long-distance or international call when they dial a “local” mobile phone number. Besides Canada and the US, receiver-pays countries are mostly non-GSM locations. By the way, “caller pays” has another advantage: It cuts down on telemarketing calls, since the marketer has to pay for the calls.

I didn’t notice another related cell phone difference until I was living in Germany. In Europe mobile numbers have a distinctive area code that makes it obvious that you are calling a cell phone rather than a landline phone. Although I was in Berlin, and the Berlin area code is 30, my German Handy number had a 151 area code. In North America you can’t tell whether you’re calling a mobile phone or a landline phone by just looking at the area code. In Germany you can. This difference also makes it difficult to introduce a “caller pays” model in North America. In Germany, if you dial a number that has a prefix (Vorwahl) in the range of 151 to 179, you know it’s a mobile number. (In Austria the mobile prefixes range from 650 to 699, in Switzerland 74-79.)

With its geographical area codes, the North American Numbering Plan (NANP), in contrast to other phone numbering systems, also means there aren’t as many numbers available for cell phones in Canada and the US as there are in Europe. Because they aren’t tied to geographical area codes, Europeans have many more numbers available for cell phones than Americans, which is one reason cell phone use in Europe is still much higher than in the USA.

TV Program Fees
Even Germans find this next inverse custom odd, if they know about it at all. It is indeed odd and exactly the antithesis of what happens in the United States.

In the US, cable and satellite TV providers must pay television and movie content providers for the rights to carry the programming they provide. Every once in a while you’ll see a news report like this one: “Cablevision sues Viacom for making it pay for low-rated networks” (Feb. 2013). In 2012 Viacom also had a payment war with DIRECTV, and for a time pulled its channels from that satellite provider before an agreement was finally reached. That can’t happen in Germany. But the reverse can – and does!

In Germany the payment process is exactly the opposite. The public and private television networks pay the cable and satellite providers to carry their programming! It is the exact opposite of what happens in the US. In fact, there is an ongoing legal tussle between the two German public TV networks ARD and ZDF, and Germany’s dominant cable TV provider, Kabel Deutschland. When ARD and ZDF first began broadcasting HD signals, the giant cable firm demanded more money from the two public networks to carry HD programming. In the US the roles are completely reversed!

The history of this odd German payment practice goes back to the 1980s when cable TV was still part of the old Bundespost (the German post office responsible for post, telephone and telegraph, PTT). The fees paid to the Bundespost went towards expanding the cable network. Now that the cable providers in Germany are private companies, argue ARD and ZDF, that former practice is a relic of the past that no longer makes sense.

No over-the-air HDTV in Germany
High-definition television (only 720p for ARD/ZDF) is not available over the air in Germany at all! German TV viewers can only watch HDTV programming via cable or satellite. For some reason, when German TV went digital, it was only in standard definition (SD). In January 2013 the commercial TV network RTL announced it would no longer broadcast over the air in Germany after 2015. Sat1 and Pro Sieben are also considering abandoning terrestrial TV in Germany. But since about 90 percent of Germans watch TV via cable or satellite anyway, that doesn’t seem to be a big problem. However, many Germans continue to watch SD television on an older analog TV set connected to analog cable TV. German cable providers, especially Kabel Deutschland, have been slow to upgrade to digital TV, despite the fact that German TV over-the-air broadcasting began the switch to digital in 2003! Since 2009 most terrestrial TV (DVB-T) in Germany has been digital only, but without HDTV. In 2012 the conversion to digital TV became complete in all of Germany, but only in SD!

More recently, in mid-2012, ARD and ZDF cancelled a contract with Kabel Deutschland (KDG) that paid millions of euros per year to the cable provider. In retaliation, KDG began limiting the bit-rate of its digital channels (reducing picture quality) and removing some of the regional public TV channels from its schedule, carrying only the public channels it is legally required to carry – channels that are paid for by the German government and the TV fees paid by every household in Germany. ARD and ZDF argue that they are government institutions and should not have to pay KDG any Einspeisegebühren (“feed fees”) for their programming to be carried, since the commercial cable firm makes money from subscriber fees. They might also want to point out that smaller cable providers in Germany have never received such fees, and in the US the cable companies have to pay the TV networks for their programming, not the other way around.

The dispute will now be settled by a German court. In the meantime, angry cable subscribers are still paying the same rate for lower quality television, not to mention the annual public broadcast fee. For now, their only other option is to switch to satellite (free for public channels), if possible, or another cable company, such as Telekom Entertain or Tele Columbus, which use high-speed DSL and IPTV. (Only recently, Germany’s Bundeskartellamt, anti-trust office, blocked the takeover of Tele Columbus by Kabel Deutschland!) The dispute also points out the problem of not having over-the-air HDTV broadcasts in Germany. In the US, at least viewers would have the option of watching HDTV broadcasts via a simple terrestrial TV antenna. In Germany that only gets you TV in normal resolution.

Even the Little Things Can Go in the Opposite Direction
Previously I wrote (in “Kleinigkeiten”) about how German books (and DVDs) have the spine title going in the opposite direction of English-language books. The title of a German book runs from the bottom to the top of the spine (you have to tilt your head to the left), while it’s exactly the opposite for an American book. In that same blog I also mentioned the placement of traffic signals. For some reason the Europeans haven’t figured out that it makes more sense to put a traffic light on the opposite side of the intersection rather than on the corner where you stop. If they did that, they wouldn’t need all those miniature signals facing the cars in the first row.

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