Whether you’re visiting Hamburg, Frankfurt, Munich, Berlin, or a small town somewhere in between the bustling cities, you’re sure to come across some of these cultural differences during your travels in Germany.
Many of the positive cultural stereotypes of Germans are true. Germans generally take their work very seriously, and they work hard to provide efficient services and excellent products. They also plan things intricately, including free time activities. Punctuality is valued very highly, and tardiness may be met with annoyance and even disdain. Trains run like clockwork, and there is a designated time and place for everything. Be prepared though for delays when using long distance trains (IC & ICE), as the slightest disturbance will lead to a delay to ensure a safe recommencement of the journey.
Germans also love outdoor activities – cycling, walking (alone, with the family, or with their dogs), hiking, sailing, skiing, snowboarding, etc. They also love food, beer, and dining outdoors. It’s common to see groups of friends and families grilling sausages in the sun in the local park, or a couple enjoying coffee and cake (kaffee und kuchen) under a tree. Outdoor living is celebrated, and Germans make the most of the short summer months.
As for the negative stereotypes: Germans may seem unfriendly at first, but this is due to a difference in cultures. Germans compartmentalize their personal lives and their work lives, so they may not be warm and friendly right away. In a relaxed social situation, among friends, Germans are incredibly friendly. And contrary to popular belief, they do have a sense of humour.
Northern Germans are a bit more reserved than other Germans in general, in both social interactions and expression of emotion. In contrast, Bavarians (South-Eastern Germans) are a lot more open, and extremely proud of their culture. Berlin is one of the most international cities in Germany, and it’s known for being a hotspot for alternative artists. Cologne (Köln) is the social hub and party city of Germany and Frankfurt is the business centre of the country. Even within each city, there are many different areas and subcultures to discover. If you keep your mind open and participate in the local culture, you’ll be surprised by how diverse and interesting this one small country can be.
Having said all of the above, I have come to see that the young generations of Germans are very relaxed and do not subscribe heavily to the stereotypes surrounding their culture. You will often find vibrant, arty German communities of very open-minded and approachable young people, as well as well-travelled Germans who will welcome tourists with warmth.
Insider Tips for Understanding German Culture:
- Germans consider quick service to be good service, whether the server is friendly or not. If your food comes quickly and the order is correct, you’ve received good service.
- It is legal to drink alcohol in public places in Germany, and people will often drink a bottle of beer on the tram on their way home from work.
- When visiting a German friend’s house, it’s polite to ask whether to remove your shoes before entering. (Alternatively, watch to see what they do, and follow suit).
- Stick to the right hand side of escalators, paths, and roads to avoid being bumped into and then scolded by someone in a hurry. (And, of course, drive on the right hand side of the road!).
- Cyclists have right of way over pedestrians. Keep off cycle paths, and take heed when a cyclist rings their bell at you to warn you that you are in their way.
- Jaywalking is illegal, and frowned upon. There may be no cars around for kilometres, but you should still wait for the green signal before crossing the road.
- There are rules for almost every public space, and non-adherence is not tolerated. Tourists are also expected to find out what is allowed and what isn’t, and to act accordingly.
- In most German cities, you will find very little English signage or information boards with English translations. Tourist centres are very helpful, but you may need to learn a few key phrases and words to find your way about easily.
- Many restaurants in Germany are self-service – you are expected to order at the counter, collect your food on a tray, and return the tray after you’re done. Failure to clean up after yourself may be met with disapproving glares.
- Dogs are allowed in most public places – in restaurants and shops, on trains and buses, and even at zoos!