Culture Shock in Germany

When we returned to Germany last week, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect.  Yet after describing my culture shock upon returning to the United States after living abroad and witnessing the culture shock of our German friends in the US, I started watching how the German lifestyle might seem incredibly foreign to an expat.

Please note that these points are based on my own experiences and where I have spent large amounts of time in Germany.

1. Cars are small; drivers are fast. Everyone is zipping around and racing from street light to street light.  You’d think it’s a mad dash to the finish line when you first watch Germans driving.  You can’t help feeling tense and maybe a little crowded in the tiny cars.  Then you see something that never happens in the US.  Someone turns on a blinker to switch lanes, and the next person in the new lane lets the person right in.  Every time!

Everyone is incredibly alert.  They can’t make right turns on red lights, so they don’t cut off pedestrians.  In fact, I’d walk across the busiest streets of Berlin over and over before I’d even risk crossing the street in front of a WalMart in the US suburbs once.

I’ve driven several times throughout Germany.  It is more exhausting than learning to fly an airplane because not only is everyone paying attention, they also expect that you are, too.  I’m used to hanging my arm out the window, listening to the radio, and watching people on cell phones weave around their really wide lane in the US.  Oh no.  Here, you’re truly inches away from the parked cars on your right and the moving cars on your left.

When the light turns green, Germans expect you to go.  I mean GO.  People will politely tap their horns to remind you to pay attention to the light.  But when someone (ie someone like me) kills the engine because she’s not used to driving a diesel moving van with a stick shift, no one honks.  They just wait.  I feel like people get impatient if you aren’t paying attention, and they’re kind when you have a problem.

2.  Bikes zip in and out of traffic. I haven’t seen so many bikes anywhere else in Germany as I do in Berlin.  At least 200,000 people commute by bike every day.  Because drivers pay such good attention to what everyone is doing, I feel safer on my bike in Germany than in a little car in the US sometimes.  I’m not saying a biker shouldn’t pay attention to turning cars.  But have you ever felt safe in a bike lane, trying to go straight, when the cars’ turning lane is to your left?  The cars stop and wait for the bikers to pass.

3.  You need a euro coin to get a shopping cart. You can’t just grab a cart and go.  I love this idea.  When they’re done shopping, everyone puts away their carts so they can get their money back.  No carts clogging the parking spots or denting parked cars like in the US.

4.  Grocery clerks won’t provide you with bags. You have to bring your own grocery bags or prepare to pay up to a buck for each one.

5.  Don’t expect said clerks to bag your groceries. That’s your job.  There have been days when I can hardly keep up with clerks.  I’m unloading the cart, loading my bike basket and shopping bags, and trying to pay all at once.  When I’m not fast enough, it’s my own loss.  Clerks will actually start piling the next person’s purchases right on top of mine!  The clerks aren’t being rude; it’s what they’re told to do.  A friend told us that grocery clerks are evaluated by the amount of purchases they ring up in an hour.

turkish farmers market

6. Prepare to recycle everything and be scolded by your neighbors when you mess up. I wrote a guide to recycling in Germany earlier this year where Martin and I counted ten (!!) different piles that we must sort our trash.  As for being corrected by your neighbors… they’re not trying to be rude.  I would say that in order to create an orderly society, Germans feel it is necessary to help one another – by correcting mistakes – to make things flow better.  It’s tough to be corrected all the time, even though it makes sense, though.  Imagine living in a place the size of the State of Montana and having 100 times as many people.  A common sense of order makes sense, doesn’t it?

7.  Everyone speaks English. I might as well just tell you this now.  Germans will pretend they don’t know English, so I must say, for being surrounded by people who don’t know English, they sure do laugh at the EXACT same time my American friends and I do when we’re swapping stories and cracking jokes at restaurants.  And why does it get so quiet and people lean toward me when I answer the phone on the subway (in English, of course) before I meet up with someone?

I love this about Germans – they’re so wonderfully humble!  Even if they aren’t fluent in English, they can recognize English and might know a few words.

8.  German is tough to learn in Germany. One of the most incredible things about living in Germany is learning the language and communicating in a totally new way.  I’ve become a huge advocate of learning in a country surrounded by native speakers – you learn to sound more like them and have to practice even when you don’t want to.  The challenge comes from #7 where I mentioned that most people know English.  Naturally, a German would rather practice English with you than speak German.  Likewise, I’d rather practice German with them.  So learning German can get a little tough sometimes for English speakers.  It becomes a battle of he-said-she-said until you finish doing business together.

Want to know my trick?  When I’m speaking to someone and she hears me struggling to express myself, she’ll immediately switch to English.  I tip my head, wrinkle my forehead, and just look at her like, “What are you saying?”  Yep.  You guessed it – I actually have to pretend that I don’t know English so I can practice applying my German.

turkish market

9.  Doors open backwards. I’m telling you this because I cannot even begin to tell you how often Martin and I look like dopes, yanking doors when we should be pushing and vice versa.  The US has building fire codes that require most businesses to have doors that open outward.  That way, if there’s a fire in a crowded bank and everyone is pushing to get out, you don’t have to fight the crowd just to pull the doors open.  But for some reason, doors to shops in Germany always seem to open in.  You’d probably never notice this problem until you’ve fully embarrassed yourself in front of half of the people who share the same apartment building as you because, over and over, you keep hitting your head on the door because it doesn’t open the way you’re used to.  Not that I’ve done that several times or anything…

Any culture shock you’ve run into on your travels around Europe?  How about as a European going to places that, say, don’t require a deposit to borrow a shopping cart.  What’s that like?

(Images from the Turkish Market yesterday)