Germans don’t mind noise — as long as you don’t make any.
I have no solid comparative data to back it up, but I would rate the German tolerance level for noise (Lärmempfindlichkeit) as among the lowest in the world. This is especially true for Germans living next door to you! German ears tend to be highly tuned to noise (hellhörig), especially what they consider LOUD: loud radios, loud walking, loud talking, loud music, loud lawn mowing, loud children, loud partying, loud sneezing, loud dogs, loud engines, or loud anything. Of course, almost anywhere, one person’s music can be another person’s noise. But in Germany, your music is much more likely to be noise to your neighbor than anywhere else.
To quote the wonderful German author Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935):
“Es gibt vielerlei Lärm, aber es gibt nur eine Stille.”
(“There are many kinds of noise, but only one silence.”)
Obviously, when you pack 82 million people into a country the size of Montana — with 82 times more Germans than Montanans — you have to do something to control neighbor-noise. That seems logical. The preferred German method to do that is called “laws and regulations.” In Germany, there are federal, state, and local laws concerning noise and the control thereof.
Americans are shocked when they discover to what degree German law dictates when and where people can make even normal, everyday “loud” noise, such as lawn mowing. Usually, these are state (Bundesland) or community laws that regulate noise. A typical example would be regulations that forbid any Lärmbelästigung (noise pollution) at these times:
- All day on Sunday and German holidays
- 8:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. Monday through Saturday (September-April)
- 9:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. Monday through Saturday (May-August)
- No lawn mowing between 7:00-9:00 a.m. and after 5:00 p.m.
- Daily from 1:00-3:00 p.m. (in the state of Hesse; recently repealed)
The hours may vary slightly from state to state, but you can see that your lawn-mowing options are very limited, and the kids and/or your stereo need to be muted after nine or ten in the evening. The laws and regulations use terms such as Ruhestörung (“disturbing the peace”) and Zimmerlautstärke (“room volume”). I’ve heard of “room temperature,” but never “room volume.” Apparently, the German term means that you can’t make any noise that is loud enough to escape your room and be detected by your neighbors. Of course, considering how sensitive German hearing is, that can be a problem.
When I was living in an apartment house in Berlin, at least two different neighbors I knew told me how the tenants above them sounded like elephants stampeding when they walked around in the apartment. (To be fair, the apartment floors were a bit hellhörig, or poorly insulated for sound.) Despite discussions with the noisy upstairs neighbors, the offenders were unrepentant and the noisy stomping continued. (One complainer solved the problem by moving out.) I also heard of a woman whose flat neighbors complained that her walking in high-heels was too loud when she came home late one night — feeling it was serious enough that they had to let her know. I was nervous when I ran the washing machine late one night. I was afraid I’d get a knock on the door from some irritated neighbor, but I never did get any noise complaints. Sometimes I could hear the upstairs neighbors playing their piano, a technical violation that I never acted on.
On the other hand, I personally experienced a major exception to the noise rules during the 2008 UEFA football play-offs last June, when Germany was doing well (before losing to Spain). Soccer (Fußball) fans in Berlin—meaning just about everyone—were partying it up on game nights, while I was hoping Germany would lose, just so I could get some sleep. For the Germany versus Turkey semi-final match on June 25 in Basel, every TV set in Germany was showing the game that evening, even at streetside cafés and bars. When Germany beat Turkey, the city went nuts, complete with (illegal) fireworks and partying into the early hours of the next morning. (Fußball and Fasching are the two things that can actually turn otherwise somber Germans into party animals.) It was a warm night, so I didn’t want to close the windows. Now I was the one who wanted to call the cops, but they would have just laughed at me. Just another crazy American. Some Hausordnungen (apartment rules) allow tenants up to four parties a year, but that still doesn’t mean you can disturb the peace on into the wee hours (except during soccer championships).
Despite the noise laws (or perhaps because of them), German courts are constantly hearing cases of neighbor suing neighbor, or landlord suing tenant over noise issues. There are German attorneys who specialize in “noise law.” German courts have made some interesting rulings about noise over the years. One recent decision decreed that a neighbor only had to put up with two hours of parrot screeching; after that, he was entitled to damages. Another court forced a German tour company to refund a couple’s money because their hotel room in Spain had been too noisy. Another judge ruled that a neighbor’s dog could only bark for 30 minutes a day, in maximum intervals of ten minutes. (I wonder how that worked out. But I can’t remember ever hearing a barking dog in Berlin, even though many people in my building had dogs.)
Another partial exception to the noise rules concerns children. German courts have generally ruled that kids are by nature noisy little creatures and that kinderfeindliche (non-child-tolerant) Germans just have to put up with normal kid racket. However, if you let the kids play outside after nine on a summer evening (when it’s still light), you risk complaints from neighbors who want their quiet after nine p.m., no matter what.
To close, a German saying…
Lärm macht nichts Gutes,
Gutes macht keinen Lärm.
Noise does nothing good,
Good doesn’t make noise