Why Germans are 'rude'

Why Germans are 'rude'

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In her latest column, Expatica's resident German expert Renate Grasstat explores why Germans seem so rude to outsiders.

Have you ever experienced a shop's door being banged right into your face? No? You will.

This is the most frequent complaint about Germany I hear when talking to people from other countries - especially to British and American students.  It is even more common than grumbling about shopkeepers' and waiters' behaviour, and this certainly says something.

In the puzzled faces I can literally see the question behind the complaints: Why do we Germans do that? Why are we so amazingly impolite?

I suppose I should shrug my shoulders and answer "no idea", which is what German shop assistants (at least in Berlin) usually seem to do when confronted with a question they either do not know the answer to or just find irrelevant.

Gingerbread assumptions

One of my colleagues recently asked a shop assistant in a supermarket: "Do you have gingerbread?" The reply was: "Davon gehe ich aus". ("I assume so."). She didn't move a muscle. Irony? Patronizing? Just unwillingness? My colleague turned on the spot and walked out of the place - even though he was German, too.

Well, perhaps I had better explain something about these kinds of sentences. They obviously do not have the same implications as in English. There can be no doubt that the English language is less direct in these situations and therefore more polite than German. And this makes it much easier to be polite (no excuse for banging the door, I know).

Delicate language tasks

When I was working in an office for an international language school I sometimes was in the unpleasant situation of having to call one of the clients and ask if he or she were willing to change their time schedule (because the school had made a mistake in scheduling the teachers). This was one of the most delicate tasks - not to reveal the fact that their usual time for the lesson, the time he / she had booked the course for, had already been given to somebody else. Oh, how I hated that!

Not recommended for the easily offended

Liza, my British colleague, had no such difficulties: "I was just wondering if …." she said in a cheerful voice after some introductory remarks, and it did in no way sound like a hopeless situation. I was full of envy - we simply do not have a phrase like that! Well, it could be translated, but no-one really uses it. If somebody says: "Ich frage mich, ob….", which would be the literal translation, the other person would probably think (and, even worse, perhaps say): "Na und?" (So what?) Already reached a conclusion? What do I have to do with your inner monologues?

Meticulous and logical

So does this politeness thing boil down to a mere language problem? I am afraid not (which means I am sure, eh?). This takes us back to the gingerbread situation: What I was trying to show was the fact that 'we' ('the Germans', if there is such a thing….) tend to look at things meticulously (surprise, surprise!), even for the language. "The book says…" is not correct in German. Why? Well, is the book able to speak? People like to tease one another by reacting to 'illogical' questions with 'logical' responses: "Can you tell me the time?" - "Yes, I can".

Moreover, I personally think that having lived in a very 'serious' and deeply thoughtful society for generations, together with a certain grouchiness some people are obviously born with, has caused a profound aversion not only to being cheerful and bright 'for no reason', but also to serving and being served as well. 

A history of rebellion

"Find out for yourself" is what really counts, and don't play other people's fool. If you consider German history of the past 150 years you may find that this attitude might even be a rebellion against a strictly hierarchic and authoritarian society, where 'humble servants' had to be suspicious.

Well, it might be. Frankly, I do not really think the gingerbread shop assistant had thought about that….

But discussing politeness in English and German is not a one-way street. I overheard a conversation by two English guys in a Berlin pub the other day: "I said: You must come and see me when you are in London! - And he asked for my address!!"

They were shaking their heads in contempt. "Well, how come… - didn't he know I was only being polite?!"

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To read more about Renate Graßtat you can click on Education - Language Instruction under Expatica's business directory.

Do you have questions about the German language? Write to Renate Graßtat and she may use your question in a future column.

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Renate is currently offering new classes on "Survival German", Business Language, Understanding the Media, German Literature and Exam Preparation 2006. Visit www.learn-german.de or call +49 (0)30 615 26 35 for more information.

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3 Comments To This Article

  • Wai Yen posted:

    on 7th September 2009, 18:05:27 - Reply

    Well... being suspicious and everything probably accounts for why I and my colleagues as foreigners always get ignored when we ask for help at a train station or a public place. If we ask in German it\'s even worse. We\' ve learnt to ask in english... we are more likely to get help then.. but we usually first get treated like \"ghosts\" by the the first couple of people we ask. They push us away or just ignore us. I mean... seriously...lived for 18 years in 6 different countries, no one country is filled with \"angels\"...but this is still the first country that people treat people like that. Just ignore people who ask for help.

    I don\'t know if it would be a different situation if we looked German. We are Asian and maybe that\'s why they think we are all here to beg for money??? Or what?

    We were just in a typcial outdoor restaurant the other day and 1 german had an epileptic attack. My newly arrived colleague and I rushed to help the husband hold her head and my colleague ( who is actually an ex-military doctor) called out for someone to help us hold her legs. No one budged. There must have been about 100 guests there ... and people just stared and some continued eating. In the end we called the ambulance the the emergency helicopter came. My newly arrived colleague was shocked that people could just continue to eat when there\'s someone physically calling out for help. Social Psychology at work? What was happening? Why didn\'t any german help their own fellow citizen?



    In the 3 smaller towns where w used to live, the villagers there used to spend so much gossiping about us, from the food we ate to what we barbequed. To the time we took our showers ( makes me wonder if they\'ve been peeping) to the temperature of water we use!!! I knew about this when neighbours actually came over to \"tell us\" what we should and should not be doing. I just wish they would mind their own business. How can some people have so much time on their hands to \"command\" other people what to do? We even had neighbourhood kids throw eggs at our windows. It came to the point where our kids cried
  • clever? posted:

    on 29th May 2009, 13:50:15 - Reply

    The author`s response to the question: why are Germans so rude - exemplifies perfectly the German´s pernicious inability to accept criticism of any kind – or to address criticism adequately. It`s not they who are rude, but we who do not to recognize inherent teutonic perfection! And this is exactly what is lacking: their inability to express joy - they cannot, because they are too suspicious – and not because they are such “deep thinkers” [Edited by moderator]
  • JOe posted:

    on 7th July 2008, 22:51:17 - Reply

    The last parapraph sums it up nicely. Germans are not superficial, they actually don't like fake "politeness". Fake politeness, as the one of saying"you should come and see me in London" despite not meaning it literatelly just IS NOT politeness. It's [edited by moderator] not justified. That's why I think Germany is the moral winner, if appropriate, of this discussion on German rudeness.