Understanding German culture: a starting point

Understanding German culture: a starting point

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Although an understanding of German culture takes time to acquire, the newcomer to Germany can facilitate the process through understanding the most common areas that make the German culture unique.

Germany is the second largest exporter and third largest importer of goods in the world. Yet despite its close links and relationships with other nations around the globe, it retains its own very distinct culture.

If you are a newcomer to Germany, insight into German culture is essential to help you integrate into your new life. However, the starting point for an understanding of any new culture is recognition that your own values, which have become ingrained over many years, are invisible. Perspectives and beliefs, which shape behaviour, are developed following the unique experience any individual has while interacting with others from the same region or with a similar belief system over a period of many years. These collective experiences will inevitably influence behaviour in any given situation. 

Often these values only become apparent when meeting people from a different culture. Miscommunication and misunderstandings can therefore frequently occur when a newcomer comes into contact with the new culture, which, due to its own rich heritage, will have a very different outlook and set of values.

Insight into German culture takes time to acquire and this will be helped by specialist intercultural training before moving abroad. However, the newcomer can gain some insights through understanding the most common areas, which make the German culture unique and sometimes, surprising.

Germany celebration

Formality

The German culture is one of formality. There is a distinction between the formal ‘you' and the informal ‘you'. People who have been neighbours or work colleagues for many years may still refer to each other as the German equivalent of Mr and Mrs rather than use first name terms.

It may be more difficult to make friends initially in Germany — the expat family will need to go and introduce themselves to their neighbours. This is because German culture is not a relationship-driven but a task-orientated culture. Germans do not generally participate in small-talk about the weather, but prefer to get on with the job in hand. Although it can be challenging to induce the German people to ‘open up', once you succeed, you will meet their warm and generous side. Once a friendship is made, it is often for life.

Why no kitchen?

Anyone moving to Germany may be confused why rental properties frequently do not have kitchens. This is normal as 70 percent of the market is made up of long-term rentals, so when moving into a new home, the tenant would be expected to install a new kitchen and decorate for the long term. This part of the culture dates back to the post-war era where people needed 20 to 30 percent equity to obtain a mortgage, creating the trend of long-term rentals. You will find most landlords still rent long term today.

Understanding German culture: a starting pointTime-keeping

Attitudes towards time are also different. In the US, time is money. However, in Germany, people are expected to be on-time as this shows respect to others. If someone cannot deliver on time, they are not seen as reliable.


Clear divisions

German people tend to compartmentalise life and business and this is shown in many areas. For instance, work relationships are kept separate from social relationships. Similarly, job roles are specialised and experts from each department will attend cross-functional meetings. In the social arena, you may also see evidence of this compartmentalisation when paying the bill at a restaurant. Typically, the bill will not be divided equally as each person only pays for what they eat or drink.

Oktoberfest


‘Why?' rather than ‘How?'

A sense of ‘responsibility' is also a key aspect of German culture. Even children are often told to ‘take responsibility'. If something goes wrong or someone is late, there will be much analytical discussion about why this happened.

Germans often ask ‘why', while many other western cultures ask ‘how'. This is seen in the planning aspect of the culture which is particularly important. When the Congestion Charge went live in the centre of London, an 80-year-old woman was charged when her car had not left its garage for many years! In Germany, a similar Lorry Autobahn Charge was Understanding German culture: a starting pointtested continuously for two years to ensure all was in order before it was officially the law.

Quality counts

This may also give an insight into the importance placed on quality, which comes back to the long-term outlook of the German culture. If a German purchases a new coat or car, they will buy quality, expecting it to last for the next 10 years.

No grey areas please!

For anyone moving to Germany, it is a clean and orderly country. Situations are viewed as right or wrong and any shades of grey are avoided. Great emphasis is placed on obeying the ‘rules' and this can make Germany a comfortable place to live. However if unprepared, some may find this a little restrictive, so gaining some insight into the culture before moving is essential for a smooth and happy transition.

 




By Petra Schlerf, Senior Intercultural Trainer, Farnham Castle

Farnham Castle is a world leader in Intercultural Business Skills training and Global Mobility Programmes and can help with more detailed briefings on individual cultures. For further information visit  www.farnhamcastle.com.

Photo credit: Arne Museler (photo 1), libertygrace0 (photo 2), 46137 (photo 3),
momentcaptured1 (photo 4 & 5). / Published 2012; updated by Expatica December 2015.

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5 Comments To This Article

  • Zia posted:

    on 26th July 2015, 21:51:41 - Reply

    And you didn't mention that most Germans are very cold and rude. "It's your problem." are often thrown around and they would not go any extra inch to assist anyone. Overall I sense a strong insecurity in this culture. Insecure that they might not be able to get things "perfect". Overall the work environment is repetitive, innovation is not encouraged and any change is held back. Proof? Just take a look at a few of their major research Universities' websites. The lack of organization and web building skill is everywhere.
  • Sheldon posted:

    on 12th June 2014, 17:33:05 - Reply

    @Anne I know this is almost a year later but I think it is important to recognize the culture difference when going to restaurants. I am not sure if you are from the United States or not but if that is the case. When you go out to eat you are expected to be there for a while and relax and socialize it is not like the US where waiters and waitresses are working for tips. It allows you to slow down and relax often from a busy day but this should not be confused with being on time for events and meetings and giving people a time and being there at that time. Also why is work so important being here in Germany and I understanding that life is not about your job and stressing about it will make your life shorter can you please explain more about the work ethic.
  • Anne posted:

    on 8th August 2013, 11:35:10 - Reply

    @Punktlichkeit

    I have to disagree with you regarding your generalized commentary on German culture and tardiness. I have been living here for close to three years and i've experienced more wait time (usually with service providers) here without any excuse than i ever have elsewhere. I'm also flabbergasted at the lack of work ethic-there are way too many holidays and it takes forever to get a simple services completed.
  • Deutsche Pünktlichkeit posted:

    on 20th July 2013, 19:11:39 - Reply

    @Daniel: This is a common prejudice against us germans, but to be honest... there may be a lot of truth in it: It's unpolite to let someone wait - And we germans really mean that! It doesn't matter if we could have made better use of the time or not (time is money) or how long we had to wait - because it's always unpolite to let someone wait and it will be considered as an insult of the waiting person and shows, that one can not rely on your word and that you don't seem to care, what the waiting person will think of you. We will expect an excuse and a reason, if you are late and we will expect, that we don't have to ask for it. If you said you will be there at X:Y pm and you come 5 minutes later - you have not only let us wait, but you did lie to us too! Being !exactly! on time is no matter of money - it shows respect, good manners and reliability. You'd better come 5 minutes earlier! So much for the prejudice.... This is not true for all folks arround here and even most of the germans will agree, that my text is rather extreme.... but, just try it - come 5 minutes too late, if a german is expecting you and you will see, that there is a big bit of truth in what I said ;)
  • Daniel posted:

    on 20th June 2013, 14:26:43 - Reply

    I didn't understand the comment about time- in the US "time is money" however in Germany.... What exactly is the cultural difference you are trying to outline? This requires a clearer explanation. Americans tend to think being on time is important for the same reasons you mentioned in Germany- isn't that one of the similarities between the cultures? The expression "time is money" is supposed to express the importance of being on time, so I'm not sure I understand what contrast you're trying to express.