Reverse culture shock can be disconcerting, even scary. While driving in my hometown the other day, I had a flashback to my time in Germany when I noticed a few things that Americans do that contrast with normal practice in Germany and Europe. Some of them are funny, but more often they’re scary. Whether you agree with them or not, Americans and Germans (Europeans) tend to do things very differently. Not all of them have to do with driving, but I’ll start with that. Most of these ten items also apply to Austria and German-speaking Switzerland.
10 Things Expats Miss After They Leave Germany
- Drivers Using Turn Signals | American drivers don’t seem to know that their cars have a turn signal as standard equipment. German drivers signal when they leave their own driveway. In the US, drivers who signal a turn or lane change are the exception rather than the rule. In Germany it’s the opposite. A non-signaling driver in Germany is as rare as a banged up, junky car.
- Ecologically Aware Drivers | In the US one often notices cars with the motor idling when stopped, sometimes for a rather long time. Americans frequently complain about the high cost of gasoline, although they pay only half of what Germans pay to fill up their tank. Yet they’ll leave the engine running when they don’t need to, wasting their own money and harming the environment in the process. – Germans can buy cars with an option that automatically turns off the engine at a stop light or for other brief stops. (No, restarting your engine does not use more fuel than a short engine-idling period.) Pressing the accelerator automatically restarts the engine. But even if they don’t have a car that does that automatically, German drivers don’t leave their engine running needlessly. For one thing, they are more environmentally aware, for another, they pay a lot of money for Benzin (gasoline/petrol) and don’t want to waste fuel while their car is standing still.
- BS-Free Conversation | Once you get used to the Germans’ non-sugarcoated frankness and their utter straightforwardness, you have to be careful when you return to the land of politeness, tactfulness, and “let’s do lunch.” I find the German matter-of-fact approach refreshing and realistic. My post on How to Tell When Germans Are Being Rude versus Just Being German discusses this aspect of life in Germany, and Ruth’s GW Expat Blog post on Ten Things I Like About the Germans touches on it as well.
- Self-Seating at Restaurants | When you go to a restaurant in Germany it is normal to just walk in and sit down where you like. Sometimes a food server might suggest a seat, but there is no hostess to seat you. Where you sit is usually up to you. No waiting. Simple.
- No Shopping on Sunday | When I first began living in Germany, I thought the ban on Sunday shopping was a bad idea. All the stores are closed. The city center is a deserted ghost town. Sunday is truly a day of rest and quiet. If you want to buy anything on Sunday in Germany, you have to go to the airport, a train station, or a Tankstelle (gas station). But after a while, you realize the Germans are on to something. No work, no stress, and no shopping. Although very few Germans go to church, Sunday is a day to relax and be with family. It’s hard to argue with that. – If you live in Berlin, there’s an exception called the “Späti” (slang for Spätverkauf or Spätkauf, “late sales [shop]”) These are small 7-Eleven-like convenience stores that stay open late at night and on Sunday. You can buy drinks, snacks, some groceries, and magazines. The legal status of Spätis, like many things in Berlin, is a grey area.
- Well-Behaved Dogs | Germans believe that, just like children, dogs should be seen and not heard. In Germany you see dogs on public transport and even under or next to the table in restaurants. It works because in Germany dog owners (Frauchen/Herrchen, mistress/master) know that their furry friend must not be a barbarian – at home or in public. Especially in public. German dogs don’t jump up on you like a goofy spoiled brat. (I hate that!) They don’t bark when they’re not supposed to. They know how to behave in a restaurant or on a bus. Woof! – In related news, Berlin recently introduced a “dog driver’s license” (Hundeführerschein), actually a dog-owner’s license that requires a test to prove that a dog is manageable and knows how to behave in public. Dogs that pass a behavior test are exempt from certain laws related to canine behavior and access, the most important of which are leash laws. The test costs €100 ($112), and has raised the ire of some dog owners. But in another move that will cheer many Berliners, owners who take their dogs out on Berlin’s streets without a poop bag are now subject to a fine. Massive dog poop is on my list of things I do not miss about Berlin. – For more about pets in Germany, see these two blog posts by Jessica: For the Expat Pet People and Moving with Max.
- International Awareness | Expats who return to the US after living in Europe for a couple of years or more, can suddenly find themselves surrounded by know-nothings with little global awareness. In this type of reverse culture shock, former expats go through news and information withdrawal, isolated in a land of isolationists, who can’t discuss or don’t want to discuss international matters. German news, SKY News, and CNN International aren’t easily available anymore. Streaming video does offer some options as a partial cure, but it’s not quite the same thing as just switching on the TV set. – On the other hand, English-speaking expats arriving in German-speaking Europe are often ill prepared for dealing with the geographical, political, and international awareness they encounter. I wrote about this issue in Landeskunde for Expats.
- Real Beer and Good Cheap Wine | I’ll never forget the first time this particular variety of reverse culture shock struck me. I had just returned from Germany, still suffering a little from jet lag, when an American friend offered me a beer. I casually took a swig… and looked at the bottle to check if it was water. The label said “beer,” but it tasted more like H2O!
A similar shock comes when you realize that the great Spanish wine you could buy for five or six euros a bottle at Rossmann either can’t be found in the US at all, or it costs three times as much as it did in Germany. German white wines are also tasty, but those exported to the US tilt more to the sweeter side. And even if you can find a good foreign wine, it costs more than it did in Europe, and the selection is smaller. And why does a good California wine cost more in the US than a good French or Spanish wine in Germany?
- Real Bread and Konditoreien | Germans have over 200 varieties of bread – in all shapes and sizes. Once you get used to the wonderful bread in Germany, you can suffer bread withdrawl symptoms back in the USA. If you’re lucky, you can find some real bread in North America, but it takes a lot more effort than it did in Germany, where there is a good Bäckerei on almost every corner. And getting a daily supply of good bread rolls (Brötchen) in the US is not nearly as easy (or tasty) as it is in Europe. – The Konditorei (pastry and coffee shop) is yet another thing that the US could really use. Starbucks is great in Germany and the US, but in the US Starbucks alone can’t compensate for the lack of the great coffee and pastry shops found in Austria, Germany and Switzerland.
- German Doors and Windows | Anyone who has opened and closed a German three-way tilt window (Kippfenster) or a solid German door – with its robust German latch and lock – soon realizes that the German talent for engineering and design is not limited to automobiles. When you return to the States, American doors and windows seem to be flimsy and unrefined. There’s nothing like a good solid German door or an ultra-cool German three-way window. While European-style tilt-and-turn windows are available in the US, they aren’t cheap, and they’re not very common.
I could easily add many more items to this list, but these are my own top 10 items for today. What would you add? Please leave a comment.
Also see: Cultural Comparisons: The USA vs Germany