This topic has the potential to be divisive and insulting. I will tread lightly. A year ago, a friend of mine celebrated her last few days of singledom with a bachelorette party in France. Unable to attend, I sent along an “Instruction Guide to a German Husband”, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek list of Do’s and Don’ts for foreign wives of German husbands.
And sitting down to write about how to deal with Germans, I find myself thinking: 11 years of marriage to a German, countless hours and festivities with German in-laws, 11 years of living in the country and speaking the language… do I really know how to deal with Germans? Only sometimes. I think I’ve got things figured out and then some Amt throws a spanner in the works, or I attend a party where I’m the only foreigner and come away feeling fresh off the boat, a complete outsider.
In daily life, however, I seem to manage pretty well, so I hope these few ideas will help those newly-arrived to acclimate.
1. Have an opinion; catch up on politics and current events. Somehow, it seems to me that the average German is better educated than the average American or Brit. They all have an opinion on world affairs and are more than willing to share it. Much of this is gleaned directly from the media, so if you can understand TV, try watching more news. And more of those documentary-style programs. German television is terrible (Tatort excluded!) and often painfully awkward to watch, if you are used to smoothly produced über-cool American television. They do have a surprising amount (or unsurprising, if you think of how serious the general public tends to be) of documentaries on all sorts of topics, typically scheduled for prime-time slots. The point is, being caught-up on current events will help you maintain conversation or at least prepare you, should you be attacked in public for your nation’s failings.
2. Develop a thick skin. This one is particularly hard for me. I like to think that after eleven years, it’s starting to thicken. The fabric of social interaction in Germany is not politeness and friendliness – they consider that shallow. Clearly it is far more authentic to be gruff and direct (for me it’s quite the opposite, but that’s neither here nor there). The filters of social interaction are very different here. Nobody will tell you much personal information, but they are more than happy to stop you on the street or the train or the bus and tell you that what you are doing is wrong. Just get used to it and pretend like you don’t understand what they are saying (which you might not).
3. Sharpen your elbows. One of the tasks that I have never managed to master is the trip to a butcher or baker on a Saturday morning – or any day preceding a holiday. I delegate this task to my German husband, who clearly was born with sharp elbows. Here’s the problem: Germans don’t line up. They crowd. If I have to face the incessant pushing and I-want-to-be-next-even-though-you-were-first and the childish behavior of 75 year olds unwilling to wait their turn, I will go crazy. I resort to loud statements directed at my children, in English, along the lines of “Gee, honey, I don’t know why that man just pushed me out of the way. He saw us standing here when he walked in. And yes, we should always wait our turn, you’re right!” or “Oh, watch out sweetie, that woman just knocked you over with her shopping cart. She must be in a real hurry to run over a 2 year old, and all just because a new cashier opened up!” In this way, I assume the offending parties get the gist of my complaint, but it isn’t directed at them and thus there is no confrontation. I don’t think it makes me very popular as a foreigner, though. I’m sure that having sharp elbows would be more useful.
4. Don’t expect good service. This is not a service-oriented culture. On occasion, I have asked whether I might please be allowed to spend my money in a shop, such was the consternation at my presence. You must argue your way into good service, convincing your sparring partner that you deserve it. Interestingly, such arguments rarely lead to a hostile outcome (as in, yes I sold you that trinket but now I hate you – which is how I feel at the end of such an exchange), but rather, politeness. I’ll never understand it. Perhaps it has to do with earning the respect of said shopkeeper, Beamtin, support personnel, etc.
5. Learn the language. Who doesn’t love it when foreigners make an effort to learn the language? Germans are no different! Of course they love to show that they can speak English, and they love to practice their English on you. However, if you want to really connect with the Germans you must speak their language. They will love you for learning it and forgive your mistakes. They will be relieved that they can carry on conversation with you and not have to make mistakes in your language (which scares them – I think English teachers must be tough on their pupils). Early on, when I was still barely conversational, I would carry a pocket dictionary with me and refuse to allow Germans to speak English to me – in the stores, in offices, etc. It was hard work! I also watched a LOT of German television, because soap operas and daytime talk shows are the same in any language. You know what’s going on, you just have to give yourself time to let the language sink in as you watch the drama unfold. Stay away from subtitles, dubbed American TV, and just watch Tatort instead.
5 ½ – just a little sidenote: German is different than English. Sometimes it translates a bit rough. German is a very command-oriented language and most Germans don’t bother with the niceties of speech. For instance, it is not uncommon to hear a statement from a German along the lines of “now you will do this” instead of something English speakers might say like “ok, now would you mind doing this please”. Perhaps it’s economy of words. Perhaps it’s lax manners. I attribute it to cultural differences – Germans don’t take it personally or negatively when they talk to each other in commands instead of requests. I try to follow suit – it is their country, after all.
6. Watch Tatort. This crime-scene show started in the 70’s and still has the original introduction, which I would really like to have as a ringtone. It takes place in various German and Austrian cities every week, with a cast devoted to that city. CSI is a rip-off of Tatort. People talk about Tatort at work Monday morning (it runs Sunday evenings after the news), so you’ll be able to participate in conversation. And you’ll learn a few idiosyncrasies of various German regions, which is fun.
7. Learn the rules of soccer and support your local team. Does this need explaining? Also, go to a few games. One of the best eye-opening experiences for me in understanding Germans, and letting go of my inhibitions in relating to Germans (I always felt less, somehow, being so un-European), was standing in the riot cage at a football game. Really, we didn’t have seats, it was standing only, and there was chicken wire surrounding our section. And guess what… I came away feeling that I had discovered how normal German society actually is, that they had poets and thinkers and criminals and just plain old sports-crazed hooligans. Plus, you might actually end up enjoying the game. I love Fussball!!
8. If you have a hobby, join a Verein. German social life is mostly lived out in the various Vereine (clubs) that can be found in every corner to suit every interest. I have participated in choir and volleyball, thereby making a number of friends and finding a real connection to other Germans, outside of my work and independent of my German spouse or his family. This was important to me in becoming well-integrated in Germany. Happily, my participation was always readily welcomed by the existing members, and it is in these smaller venues that people let down their guards and open up their personal lives. It is in Sportvereine (sports clubs) that everyone says Du to each other, regardless of class and age, if you were looking for a place to stop worrying about the Du/Sie problem. I have been very lucky to acquire some friends through these activities and recommend joining one if you are feeling lonely or disconnected here. I think getting a dog might have a similar effect. Germans love dogs.
9. Find a few things that you love in Germany, and use them as conversation material. I, for instance, love Tübingen, Freiburg, the Allgäu and Schleswig-Holstein. When I find myself miserable with Germans and Germany, I will often spend a day in Tübingen and feel better immediately. Interestingly, Germans are regularly surprised that an American would move to Germany – why would we not have chosen the US to settle in instead? I can, at the drop of a hat, list any number of reasons I wouldn’t choose to live in either country (and also, why they are both better than anywhere else in the world). Instead, however, I tend to tell funny stories about the times I reach my limits with my host culture and then retreat to these gems I have found, letting their beauty convince me that I do love living here.
10. Let go. There are so many things I miss about the US. Convenience, for instance. A Starbucks with a parking lot in front. The GAP. Lower taxes. More freedom. More personal space. Relaxed driving. Great service. Real iced tea. I enjoy those things while I visit home. But for the most part, I have let go of those things and don’t even expect them here. Instead, I get European cities and architecture, safe city streets, access to the Alps, beer and wine festivals that my children can attend, incredible maternity leave, affordable preschool for my children, healthy food at low prices, low crime rates, and a surprisingly international community to live in. Life here is very good, it is just different. Let go of the expectations for a good life in your home country and discover the good side of life in Germany, and you will enjoy the country and its people so much more!
… feeling frustrated and uninspired this week, I pulled this older but unpublished post out of my archives…