Understanding German culture: a starting point
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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 tested continuously for two years to ensure all was in order before it was officially the law.
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.
Comment here on the article, or if you have a suggestion to improve this article, please click here.