German culture

The German Way: It’s a matter of German trust

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If you think Germans seem standoffish, there's something about German trust you need to understand first.

After many years of living in Germany, a theme that always seems to come up for me is that of trust.

We Americans are known for being open, especially when it comes to sharing information about our personal lives. We Instagram, we Tweet and we share every minute detail of our lives on Facebook. And many of us don’t think about doing so.

Even people in their 40s and older are sharing their everyday lives on social media. And these are usually attached to our real names – unlike many of my German friends, who use funny half names or split their first name in two, like Ka Te.

It may be that we Americans are naive or it may just be that we don’t care who knows all this stuff about us. We are more worried about our kids getting kidnapped off the street in broad daylight (thanks, local news) than we are about someone abusing or using our personal information.

What does this say about Americans as a culture?

Once Germans make friends, they do trust you and hold you to your word. Photo: iStock/Thinkstock

I often think about this topic. I have lived in Germany for some 20 years. I still get annoyed with the lack of general friendliness in daily interactions in Germany: Don’t smile, don’t talk to your fellow busriders, and heaven forbid, don’t start talking about your personal life with strangers. My theory for a while was that Germans had an innate fear of each other; maybe we can say it's just wariness or general cynicism regarding people they don’t know.

While many Americans see a stranger as a potential friend, or at least someone to while away the wait, Germans seem to think about what that person could possible want from them or do to them. As expats, we’ve all had these kind of moments. As much as I understand the culture and appreciate it, I don't think I will ever get used to the way people interact with each other here.

My husband hates asking favours of friends at neighbours. I somehow think this relates. He sees anything we ask of someone else as verbindlich, meaning we will owe these people something and will have to be somehow obligated to them forever. I can see the culture clash when it happens.

I am always happy to help people – which means I don’t say no as often as I should. I have learned, however, not to sign up for every school event (especially because they usually take place at 2 pm. on a Wednesday, when I am working). Instead I bring in muffins or cookies – which tend to be deemed too sweet by even the German kids – and run back to work.

The stilted conversations that these events entail are not my cup of tea. I think they sometimes see me as the alien in their midst. I’m one of those foreigners who doesn’t have others of her kind to hang out with. My culture is a non-culture. I smile too much and I admit to being a feminist and to enjoy working full time. The list goes on.

But hey, I speak good German and if they take the time, we could have an interesting conversation. We’re not always as superficial as we’re made out to be. And I also have to open my mind in a different way, to see the stranger danger many people here exhibit doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to get to know me.

But let’s go back to trust. Do we Americans trust each other?

In this political and school-shooting climate, maybe we shouldn’t. I can only imagine that the American society should begin to be less trusting of their neighbours. There seem to be a lot of crazy people around with access to a lot of stuff that can be harmful to others.

The relationships start very differently but once Germans make friends they do trust you and hold you to your word. So we as Americans also have to remember to stick to what we say we will do. If you say you’ll call, call. If you say, “Let’s meet for a drink,” then make the effort.

Here in Germany you need to earn the trust of your fellow citizens – and it can take years. But once you have it, it’s worth the effort.


Reprinted with permission of The German Way.

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