Recently a friend suggested that I read what turned out to be a rather disheartening rant published by an online expat website. (The names shall remain anonymous in order to protect the guilty.) The writer, an American lady, was complaining about her life in Germany, a lament brought on by a recent visit to her local Apotheke (pharmacy). She was whining about the fact that she had to take the extra time and trouble to consult with a German pharmacist (in German of all things) in order to obtain a medication that she could have bought over the counter in the US.
Several people left comments pointing out that the German system actually provided the benefit of helpful, professional advice that would have required a visit to the doctor in the US. True, you can’t just go to a supermarket and buy a bottle of aspirin in Germany, but you can go to your local Apotheke and get sound advice about which pain reliever would be best for your situation. While living or traveling in Germany and Austria, I have made several trips to the pharmacist to get help with a medical problem. In every case, the pharmacist either provided a good solution or, in one case, told me to see a physician. (What I thought was a sprained finger turned out to be a broken one.)
Is the German practice better than the American one? That’s not really the point. The point is that expats need to understand that there is a reason why Germans do something one way, while Americans do it a different way. Saying one way is “better” than another is simply making a judgment based on your own background and experiences.
Yes, I sometimes personally think the German way of doing things may be superior or inferior to the American way. (See The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.) But I’m an American with an American perspective – despite my years of experience traveling and living abroad. Germans, Austrians, Brits, Japanese, or Argentinians may have a very different opinion. The point is to understand two things: (1) You can’t change local ways of doing things, and (2) there are historical and cultural reasons for the way it’s done. Different does not have to mean better or worse. It also can mean just plain different. “Andere Länder, andere Sitten” – the German equivalent of “when in Rome…” – means “different countries, different customs.” Different, not better or worse.
So let’s count some of the ways that Germany and Europe are different from the United States.
Let’s clarify at the start that we’re not talking about the more obvious everyday differences: money (€ vs $), power plugs (round vs flat), voltage (220v vs 110v), etc. We’re looking at lifestyle differences – the German way versus the American way.
- Walking/cycling versus driving a car – North America, with very few exceptions, is a get-in-your-car-and-drive culture. Europe is a get-on-your-bike-and-ride or walk-to-the-market culture. Being a pedestrian in the US can be challenging, besides making you seem odd. Most American cities and towns are too spread out for walking, and public transport, if it exists at all, has a lot of gaps and is not a practical alternative for most people – unless they’re in New York City or one of the few other US cities with good public transport. Living in Germany without a car is a practical alternative. Living in the US without a car is torture. It’s all a matter of how each place has developed and designed its urban areas.
- Doctors and medical care, healthcare costs, life expectancy – Most people would agree that the US healthcare system is a costly operation. Even a short hospital stay can end up costing a fortune. Yet Americans have a shorter life expectancy than in most European countries. The US ranks 36th compared to Austria (16th), Germany (22nd), Switzerland (10th), and Italy (7th). (Japan is first: 86.2 years.) When I was living in Germany, I was amazed by how much cheaper medical care and prescription drugs were, compared to the US. Even without insurance (which you have to have), medicine from my local Apotheke was much cheaper than in the US. A hospital or doctor’s visit costs a fraction of the same thing in the US. Even with the new healthcare law in the US, cost is still a problem. Neither Germany nor the US has a perfect system, but the healthcare system in Germany has been around much longer and seems to be much less profit-oriented than the system in the US.
- Language awareness – Thanks to geography, the US is more insular than Europe. In Europe there is almost always a different language right next door. Young Europeans usually learn English and another language other than their own. Thanks also to geography, Europeans have more interest in foreign languages. Expats need to share that interest if they want a better experience during their time in Germany and Europe.
- Ecological awareness and the environment – Europeans in general, and Germans in particular, are much more conscious of environmental issues. Perhaps because of the higher population density along with higher energy costs, Europeans have made a lot of progress in renewable energy, particularly in solar and wind energy production. Expats also quickly discover that German waste disposal is a more complicated process than in North America, and many German cars automatically shut off the engine when stopped at a traffic light.
- Debt and spending – German has one word for “debt” and for “guilt”: Schuld. This is reflected in government and daily life. A German credit card is actually a debit card, and the amount charged on that card will be automatically deducted from the holder’s bank account at the end of the billing cycle. Expats soon learn that Germany is largely a cash society. Even in a restaurant you can’t assume they’ll take a credit card. On the tourist circuit (hotels, airlines, rail, etc.) a credit card is a go, but the German railway didn’t even start accepting credit-card payment until 1992! Americans used to their credit-card culture need to adjust to Germany’s cash culture.
- Diet and cuisine – The typical German diet tends to be different from that of Americans, but expats can enjoy those differences in the form of a vast assortment of over 200 bread varieties, not to mention delicious pastries (think Austria!). This being Europe, the local Greek or Italian restaurant is run by Greeks or Italians. Americans may miss Mexican cuisine, but there are other good choices, including Asian and Indian food. Even McDonald’s serves beer in Germany, highlighting yet another key cultural difference. Guten Appetit!
- Religion and morality – Few Germans attend church, and they also tend to be irreligious (except perhaps for Catholic Bavaria). If they identify with a religion (and pay the German church tax), most Germans are either Lutheran or Roman Catholic. There is a small Muslim minority, mostly Turks whose parents originally came to Germany as “guest workers.” Other US Protestant faiths (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, evangelical, etc.) are considered “cults” in Germany, and Germans have a hard time understanding the US religious right mentality. “Puritan” Americans are often shocked by German attitudes towards nudity. When it comes to movie ratings, Germans consider violence much worse than sexual themes or nudity.
- Home ownership and renting – Germans have a completely different attitude about home ownwership and/or renting. The American dream was always a home of one’s own – although that may have changed after the recent mortgage crisis (something that could never happen in Germany). Only about 40 percent of Germans own their house or apartment, compared to about 60 percent in the US. I know Germans who have lived in the same house or flat for over 20 years, and are content just to pay rent. (See Chloë’s blog on A Different Type of Renting.) They have no interest in buying. Although there are Germans who dream of their own home, they don’t necessarily want to buy it and have a mortgage. First of all, a mortgage is more difficult to obtain and requires a fairly high down payment. And German tax law is not as favorable to homeowners (mortgage-holders) as is the case in the US.
- Taxes (fuel, income, VAT, etc.) – Americans don’t know what high taxes really are. Germans willingly pay taxes that make Americans blanch. The highest sales tax in the US is under 10 percent. Most US states have lower rates than that. The VAT in Germany is 19 percent (lower for groceries and some other items), over twice the highest sales tax rate in the US. Gasoline or diesel fuel costs more than twice as much as in the US, mostly because of taxes. Other taxes and fees in Europe and Germany are generally higher than in the US, where no one seems to want to pay for anything anymore. Germans understand that to have good roads and public services there is a cost.
- Work ethic, weekends and vacation time – Americans have the lowest rate of paid vacation time of any modern industrialized nation. And most US workers don’t even take the little free time they’re entitled to. Paid leave in Europe is a given, and they use it. Taking work home or working overtime is also rare in Europe. Germans keep a clear distinction between home and work, and never shall the twain meet. Weekends, particularly Sundays, are sacred time off with the family. Germans believe in hard work, but quitting time is quitting time.
So, American expats, respect the differences and enjoy them! The entire world can’t be like the United States, nor should it be. Other lands, other customs!
AT THE GERMAN WAY
- For Expats: Living in Germany – Advice for expats in German-speaking Europe
- Expat Checklist 1 – Tips for expats and would-be expats (before you go)
- The German Way Expat Blog – For expats by expats
- A Different Type of Renting – Germans have a different attitude about renting compared to Anglo-Americans.
- Inverse Customs: When Germans Do Precisely the opposite
- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – Part 2
- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – Final