Last update on June 29, 2020

Expatica’s German teacher Renate Grasstat explains how to flirt with Germans

“Flirting” is a word commonly used in many European languages including German, conjugated as usual: Ich flirte, du flirtest, er/sie/es flirtet… Thus it is similar to other verbs taken from English, like “surfen, canceln, recyceln, downloaden, mailen or pushen” – always making English speakers laugh but quite reasonable for us, as the tone is either a bit different from the tone in the corresponding German word (“canceln” sounds more to the point, more definite and more technical than “absagen”), there simply is no German expression (“flirten”!) or the German word sounds extremely stiff or bureaucratic (“wiederverwerten” for “recyceln”).

However, the meaning and the connotation associated with “flirten,” although it seems a concept adopted from English, might still be slightly different, caused by different cultural presumptions. In some other – admittedly very foreign – languages, it even seems difficult to convey the meaning at all: Teaching multi-cultural classes, I found that Chinese students started giggling and looking somehow embarrassed after looking up “flirten” in their dictionaries. “Flirting” for them obviously had an indecent touch.

Brazilian style

We felt obliged to explain what we meant by it, and a Brazilian guy put all his energy into a dramatic eye-contact, winking and being all smiles, expressing his intentions in an explicit way. No response on the Chinese side. It turned out that there seemed to be no concept of “flirting” for them. They would not do that in China, they said – except for Shanghai, somebody added. (Shanghai had already served as an example for a modern, “Western” and tough way of life among the Chinese students several times.)

Hmm… “So what do you do instead,” somebody in the class asked them. “How do you contact a girl or a guy you are interested in?” The answer was simple: “We usually meet somebody at university. Then we study together, do our homework, study for exams…” And one day we will get married, was the unexpressed but implied sentiment, leaving everyone else baffled.

But what is actually the concept of “flirting” in Germany? I would never thought about it had not some students or friends from other countries complained.

“Men here don’t realize that you are a woman,” said Nadine from France, explaining that she missed remarks like “You look so pretty today” and “Oh, I can see the sun rising” in the elevator of her company building. I admit, I would have found those rather inappropriate. But there are so many more examples.

“Men in Germany are not real men”

“It’s so difficult to look like a woman in Germany, now I understand why you dress like that,” said Isabella from Italy on the connection between weather and clothing. “Women here are so tough, almost like men,” added Martin from the Czech Republic. Serkan from Turkey found that, “Women always try to approach me, which makes me completely shy.” “Men in Germany are not real men, they dress and behave almost like women, and most of them are gay,” said Vladimir from Russia. “Women here don’t know how to treat a man,” noted Suzanna from Brazil. “I can’t understand that an attractive girl asked a German guy if he had a cigarette and he just replied by saying ‘no’ – nothing else!” said Mirko from Italy.

And the most common complaint from many: “It is hard to understand that in Germany a man and a woman can be friends without being sexually interested in each other.”

The US is a big country and I cannot really figure out what is the main feeling toward flirtation experiments with Germans. Accordingly, I have heard many different, sometimes very surprising remarks from Americans, ranging from “Why do European women always wear bras not strong enough to conceal their nipples?” said Brian, who is annoyed by his girlfriend’s choice of lingerie, to “It’s just not easy to flirt with Germans at all – they are so sober, so much ‘to the point’” said Doreen, after some disillusioning encounters.

Lack of superficiality

Why is it not easy to flirt with Germans, many wonder. The answer might arise from a British friend of mine, who found we were lacking a certain kind of humour, maybe superficiality, in the sense of being “easy.” Some people tend to think that we were lacking humour in general. I would not agree (but then, I am biased of course…) but I can see that humour in Germany certainly is of a different kind. In Great Britain, being quick and “witty” (no adequate German translation for that word, by the way) is a very important virtue, and you will hardly find Germans who can keep pace.

Still, flirting, it seems, does not fit into the concept of an honest and upright personality – something that is more important in the minds of Germans than being witty, creative, polite, diplomatic or sexy. “Say what you mean” is regarded as one of the most important mission statements of a reliable – e. g. desirable – person. Putting it this way might be an over-simplification, and luckily, you will find some exceptions but especially for men, I must say that many try to meet these expectations. They show off their knowledge, soliloquize on topics like the best wine with a certain dish, the German tax system or the advantages of a house in the country, not realizing that everybody else is already dozing off. Paying compliments, on the other hand, is strictly to be avoided – they might be a deviation from the truth. So be careful with what you say: You might be taken up on it.

Gender equality

Another issue most of the quoted opinions are based on is the fact that men and women here are more alike than in other countries. Not in politics perhaps, not in society – as there are still not many women on supervisory boards of companies or in very qualified jobs, and there are many women not working at all, at least compared to other European countries, North America or Australia. Nevertheless their appearance and behaviour tell a different story: Why should we dress like Barbie dolls, is the hidden conviction, sober and reasonable, behind many women’s outfits and manner, and why should we expect men to play a certain role? Is that fair?

As an example of German breeding, I must say I would not mind an Italian or French guy being “over-polite,” paying exaggerated compliments and telling me lots of things I do not feel obliged to believe but I would hardly accept the same thing from Germans. This is my advice: If you don’t overdo it, you, as foreigners, have a “jester’s license.” And I take it that we Germans for you, dear reader, probably have a slight trace of “Chinese” mentality.