“Trifles make the sum of life.” – Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (Chap. 53)
Can you tell which books are German, and which are American or British?
Some researchers claim that we have absorbed most of our home culture by the age of five. In other words, what makes us German, American, Italian or Japanese has pretty much sunk in before mom and dad send us off to elementary school!
Anyone who has spent time in a “foreign” culture and become acquainted with “foreign” people knows that the experience teaches us that all those little things we take for granted about daily life are arbitrary. Why should a wedding ring be on the left hand versus the right? Isn’t using the thumb rather than the index finger to indicate the number one is just as logical as otherwise? Why do the Japanese drive on the left side of the road, while the Chinese stay on the right? Who knows, but that’s just the way it is.
Some of these differences are very obvious (driving on the left or right), but others are more subtle (the orientation of titles on book spines), and we may only notice them when we’re suddenly confronted with them. Over the years, following more trips back and forth between the USA and Austria/Germany/Switzerland than I can count, I have learned about the many cultural differences, obvious and not so, between the German-speaking countries and the United States.
If you are used to buying aspirin off the shelf in a grocery store, it comes as a shock to find yourself in a land where aspirin (a German invention!) can only be obtained from a pharmacist at an Apotheke. But you don’t have to be in Germany very long before you learn about that. I want to focus on some of the more subtle differences – things that may not be apparent to an expat until many months, or even years have passed by. If you ask Germans (or Europeans) about most of these things, they’ll look at you like you’re from Mars. (“Take me to your leader!”)
Some of these Kleinigkeiten remain virtually subconscious – until suddenly you have a revelation. Wow! I never noticed that before! It was just such a revelatory experience I had recently while looking for a book on a bookshelf that inspired me to make this list of “little things” about everyday culture. It was something I already “knew” but that suddenly jumped out at me – bam! – as I was twisting my head in an effort to read the book titles. Do you know you can spot a German book mixed in with English titles right away, because the German title is going the “wrong” way? But if there is an assorted mix of German and English titles, it can drive you nuts (and lead to a headache)!
Here’s my list of 15 little things that expats in Germany learn – sooner or later:
1. Traffic signals located on the opposite side of the intersection (USA) or on the corner where you have to stop (Europe), requiring the use of mini-signals for drivers stopped right at the signal. (Personally, I think the Europeans have this one wrong; we don’t need those costly mini-signals in the US. Or am I just being ethnocentric here?)
2. Book spines: US titles read from top to bottom, German ones from bottom to top; you have to lean your head to the left to read German book spines, but to the right to read US book spines. (See photo above.) This also applies to DVDs.
3. The thumb is used to indicate the number one in Germany/Europe. Showing the index finger (as in the USA) can confuse Germans into thinking you mean two! (This was a key plot device in the film Inglourious Basterds.)
4. The “doggy bag” is unknown in Germany. Asking to take leftovers home from a restaurant, as in the USA, produces puzzled looks. (If pressed, most Germans think this is a good idea, but since they usually clean their plates anyway, who cares?) UPDATE: In recent years there are more and more restaurants in Germany that will provide a box for taking leftovers home.
5. Leaving outgoing mail in your own mailbox for the postal carrier is strictly an American custom. It’s unheard of in Germany/Europe (and may be unique to the US).
6. It is difficult to find drinking fountains in Germany/Europe, while they are very common in the USA. (I guess this one goes with “water is for bathing, beer for drinking.”)
7. Auto license plate/registration fees in Germany are based on the cubic displacement of the engine, not the price of the car. The bigger the engine, the higher the license fee. (Do any US states do this?)
8. McDonald’s serves beer in its German restaurants (wine in France). That would raise eyebrows in the USA.
9. German blue-collar workers can get beer with lunch in the canteen. It’s even written into their contract.
10. A marriage ring is worn on the right hand in Europe, not the left, as in the USA.
11. The answer to “What’s your name?” is often your first name in the USA, but always your last name in Germany.
12. German houses and apartments are usually sold without electrical fixtures, and often without any kitchen appliances or fixtures – a bare kitchen, not even the kitchen sink!
13. Window screens are rare, but roll-down metal shutters are common in Germany.
14. There are two things that Germans consider deadly, but Americans consider harmless: (1) a draft and (2) ice cubes.
15. Twist-off bottle caps are rare in Germany; you need a Flaschenöffner.