The One Exception to the German Punctuality Rule

Have you ever heard about German punctuality? You surely have. Swiss people may have the best watches, but it´s the Germans who are recognized worldwide for always being extremely on time.

As a newcomer, one of the first things you’ll get told by anyone who tries helping you blending in is to get yourself a planner, a large wall calendar or at least  to master how to use your smartphone’s notes function. Here paper and pen still hold a special place, and almost everyone still has handwriting that puts your ordinary scribbles to shame. Seriously, you will feel less cool while taking notes at a meeting or handing a napkin with your number to someone.) But why would you need all this? Simple, because Germans plan ahead, the serious kind of ahead. It is completely normal to make an appointment three weeks in advance to go to the movies with someone. If that doesn’t come as enough of a shock to you, I recently attended a culture-related seminar where I found out, on average, Germans’ furthest scheduled social event (this is confirmed and written down in the planner) goes as far ahead as 150 days. Meanwhile, the rest of us don´t even know what we will have for dinner tonight.

Of course all this is just “average”, “common”, “normal” and all those nice terms that work great when we are trying to forget diversity exists, that pretty much every individual is as complex as the universe and that, more often than not, it is the exception what makes the rule. Speaking of which, there is this thing in Germany that epitomizes the greatest exception to the German punctuality legend: Deutsche Bahn (DB).

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Guten Tag, Frau Schmidt

In the office the other day my colleague was in a quandary. “But I don’t know whether to write ‘Du’ or ‘Sie’”, she said, brow furrowed, “I’ll have to text my friend and find out what she says to her.” The “Du” / “Sie” under discussion was a cleaner, recommended by a friend. My colleague had the mobile phone number but no knowledge of the cleaner’s age or general attitude to linguistic formality. For non-native speakers and students of German, the “Du” or “Sie” dilemma is all too familiar, but here was a born-and-bred German stumbling through the same maze of uncertainty.

The assumption that Germans just know this sort of detail – imbibed through years of interacting with aged relatives over Kaffee und Kuchen – no longer holds true. Customs have changed: some Germans and some parts of Germany have become less formal, it seems. The challenge now lies in knowing which ones. My colleague did not want to offend an older lady with the informal “Du”, nor to come across as a fusty stickler for tradition with a bright young thing. “If only I could write to her in English,” she bemoaned, “A simple ‘you’ would be so much easier.”

In the olden days – a mere fifteen years ago would suffice – the answer would have been clear to all Germans. “Sie” for anyone older, a stranger, or a distant acquaintance; “Du” for close friends and family. Neighbours and colleagues would fall into two camps. Those you had an intimate friendship with who had offered you the “Du”, and a brief “Sie“, plus head-nod on the stairs for anyone else.  Continue reading

How to tell when Germans are really being rude versus just being German


If you want to confirm the fact that the internet is not improving people’s IQs, just type “rude Germans” into your favorite search engine. Boom! You’ll get over 1.9 million results, most of which were written by morons. (But “rude French” pulls an amazing 39.1 million results!) Few of these online commentaries run counter to the usual “rude Germans” rant and the negative stereotype that so many Americans, Brits and others have of Germans. Even fewer of these web articles, forum posts and blogs offer any useful, helpful information on the topic of “rude” Germans, French, or other Europeans.

The Rudest Countries
I recently saw a CNN online article that listed the “10 Rudest Countries” in the world. As usual, France took first place in the rudeness race. Germany only came in fourth, right behind the UK. The USA placed seventh. But a survey like this, by the skycanner.com cheap flights travel site, is subject to all sorts of distortion, including cultural biases, language difficulties, personality differences, and ignorance, to name just a few.

What a person perceives as rudeness may only be a cultural misunderstanding. What is considered rude in one country or culture may not be regarded as rude in another. But every culture has people who are rude, no matter which culture it may be. Certain impolite behaviors are unacceptable in almost any culture. Sometimes an expat or traveler is actually right to consider someone rude! Continue reading

Bilingual Nagging

I continue to navigate my way as a parent of bilingual children. We extol the joys and merits of having children grow up speaking two languages — the cognitive agility, the tendency towards more open-mindedness, and the acquisition of the language itself. The nuts and bolts of it however are not as straightforward as we might have thought they would be while the babes are in the womb. It’s not as simple as just committing yourself to one method such as the one language one parent method (OPOL). That was the easy part, and the key to making it work has been discipline. As the kids have grown, however the bumps in the road have been appearing: we’ve been battling Denglish, and I’ve been wary of Englisch in the German classrooms. Continue reading

Learning German for Kids Part Two

I wrote in my previous post about various toys, books, and CDs that might help kids to retain the German language they’ve acquired while living in Germany. The reason for my thinking of this topic was inspired by a conversation I had with Ann Belle of Belle NRW when she was getting ready to move her German-speaking Kindergarten-aged kids back to America. Six months later, she’s built on this list and added a number of concrete tips that are definitely worth sharing. Thank you, Ann, for generously sharing your resrouces with the German Way! Continue reading

Learning German for Kids

We expats are coming and going, not always when we want to. My friend Ann Belle of family-friendly North Rhein Westfalia blog Belle NRW had to relocate back to the United States late last year reluctantly. After the initial years of stumbling to find her way as an expat mother, she launched Belle NRW, and was also comfortable and relishing in the positives of having her American children ages five and three in a German kindergarten. One of the biggest pluses, of course, was that they were learning the German language. So, it was with some regret that she was removing them from this daily immersion to repatriate back to America.

Before she left, she asked me for some book and toy recommendations that might help them retain their German. This is the list I sent: Continue reading

How I Became Fluent in German Fast

I’ve been meeting many more expats now that I am living in the heavily populated Rhineland/Ruhr region of Germany. These expats range from old timers/lifers to newbie/temporary assignees. As any expat can relate to, the newbies are grappling with learning the German language: some try private tutelage, others secure places at the local VHS, while others make the deep plunge for the Goethe Institut in Düsseldorf. Most of them ask me about my level of German and how I learned. I admit that it was a quick ascent to fluency for me, and I know that I was fortunate to not have problems with the German language as an expat woe. (I was instead confounded by the local Swabian dialect while living in Swabia.)

A glimpse of my German language text books. Photo credit: Jane Park

A glimpse of my German language text books. Photo credit: Jane Park

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So you want to work in Germany: Do you have to learn German?

In short, the answer is: Jein. Last week Jane wrote about the latest news on the abolition of university fees in Germany. I’m not sure how quickly non-German wannabe students will be flocking over here, but it is certainly a good deal! In recent months, I have encountered a number of expats living in Germany, some of whom speak German and some of whom don’t. So the question is, do you absolutely HAVE to speak German fluently in order to live and work here?

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Source: amazon.de

Of course you don’t have to do anything. I know a number of people who have been living here for more than five years who really don’t speak much German. They are doing just fine. However, I think there are a number of factors to consider and questions to ask yourself before you take the plunge and move to Germany without speaking German.

  • How comfortable are you going through your daily life not understanding what is being said around you?
  • Are you okay with not being understood by everyone?
  • Do you have the confidence to get the information you need, and are you ready to have to fight for it?
  • If you are looking for work, do you have skills that no one else has? Skills that will get you hired even without German?

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