Expat blogger Emily Rasch is still working on fitting in with the Germans and making friends. She shares some of her challenges, and offers some tips.
There are many interesting dynamics to socializing, celebrating, and finding a sense of self when living in a foreign land.
In Germany, there is a complex social structure which can be difficult for foreigners to grasp. After five years of living in this country, I am still learning.
Exploring a new culture
When I first arrived here, I was excited to explore a new culture and to develop new relationships. Seeing as I married a German, I knew this would always be a big part of my life.
I thought my new life would be an extension to the comforts I left behind. Slowly it has become more similar, however some nuances remain. Of course things often work out differently than people envision, and sometimes I still have to remind myself of this fact.
Naturally, the first people I would get to know were my husband’s family. This came with its own set of struggles, and leaving behind my expectations as to what the word “family” means to me has not always been easy.
Customs and etiquette
In preparation for my first visit with my new family I read about customs and etiquette, in the hope of not embarrassing myself. One book mentioned “giving an odd number of flowers that weren’t white and unwrapping them, but leaving the florist paper on the table in the hallway”. My husband had no idea what I was talking about when I asked about this. It turned out there wasn’t even a table in the hallway anyway. However, the formality of it wasn’t so far off.
My family back home often meets to celebrate birthdays and holidays, and for casual weekend barbecues. My German in-laws only get together for major holidays, which is quite an adjustment.
I thought when I moved here that our cultures would meld, and it would be a little bit more welcoming by not exclusively doing things “the Germany way”. I was dreadfully wrong.
Many Germans, particularly those that are younger, can speak English quite well; getting them to do so, however, is a challenge. Learning a language to belong and communicate is essential, but the process is also ostracising if people use the tough love approach and don’t extend themselves even a little bit.
Everyone had an opinion
Once, I even overheard someone talking about how my husband and I should exclusively speak to one another in German immediately after I moved here. All of it was exhausting. Everyone had an opinion on the matter, despite the fact they had never been in a similar situation.
Joining in on conversations was a major challenge, because interjecting a cohesive sentence took time and by that point the topic had changed. It was difficult to not feel self-conscious, and at times having too much pride to rely on my second vocabulary made things move at a snail’s pace.
It was difficult not to take things personally or to feel as though my thoughts weren’t being valued unless I could explain them in German.
Through all of the difficulties, I do what comes easiest to me and use thoughtful gestures to make it clear that I am making an effort. Whether it’s taking baked goods to an office function, writing a birthday card, or sending someone photos from an event, these small things bridge language divides. After all, actions do speak louder than words.
A sense of community
Socializing and celebrating in Germany are often centred on tradition and community instead of family. These events are really incredible, and it’s nice to see the unity that joins thousands of strangers having a great time. But these events do not take the place of a comfortable, yet intimate dinner or get together, which is typically done outside the home.
Getting past the gap of being a ‘bekannte’ (acquaintance) vs. an actual friend — and truly feeling accepted — may take years. It is possible you’ll feel as though you constantly have to make the initial push to make it happen, which often feels very one-sided.
Living in a village will make things slightly easier in some regards — because everyone knows what everyone else is doing and who they are — but it also means dealing with that kind of mentality. Plus, the chances of meeting others in a similar predicament drastically reduce.
Getting out of your comfort zone
Sometimes it’s even fun to push people out of their comfort zones a little bit. Just be aware you’ll oftentimes have to forge your own path by inviting people to celebrate holidays that are important to you, or by proposing activities that are a common interest.
Another thing: if you casually mention you’d like to get together, you had better be willing to back up the claim. Inviting people to do things is taken seriously. The words “we should do that sometime” will likely send people into a panic. The locals are seemingly more rigid in making plans, so having a set time, date, and locale, will help to avert that.
The good news is that once you’ve established a true friendship, it will last a lifetime.
Emily Rasch is an American expat from Ohio who loves to travel. Visit her blog at http://munichbavaria.blogspot.com/