An expat survival guide to German manners
In many cultures, people don’t like being forced to commit to something, which is why they will always reply with a “maybe” or “let’s see”.
Germans, on the other hand, like clarity and hate ambiguity. This translates into each and every part of their lives, and there is no better way to epitomise this than the way they talk. If you’re a fresher in Germany, and have not yet been exposed to its customs to the full extent, then you are in for a treat.
The “N” word
All you have to do is go down to your local bakery and ask if you can pay with a credit card.
Their response will reverberate in your ears. If you’re not used to being spoken to like this, the word will sting like a wasp. Forget your friendly “I’m sorry, but” or “I’m afraid” or any other form of politeness, chivalry or kindness (whether fake or not). None of that nonsense here.
It took me more than a decade of constant training to finally get to grips with the “N” word. I’ve now finally come to understand why it is the way it is. The thing you have to get out of your head is: the Germans are not trying to be rude to you. On the contrary, they are trying to be as clear as possible, to make sure that there is not an iota of ambiguity in their answer.
Unlike English speakers, Germans do not have that fear of being too direct. Actually, you'll find that Germans are afraid of the opposite. In retrospect, you should try to see it as a positive: the louder and brassier the sound of the “Nein!”, the more helpful they are trying to be.
Saying “Sorry” in Germany
Another form of “German directness” is their attitude towards apologies. In many countries around the world (and particularly the UK), apologising is more than simply saying you’re sorry. In the (British) English language, it comes up in a whole variety of different situations. Of course, the English say “sorry” when they want to apologise for something that they’ve done: “Sorry I barged into you”, “Sorry I missed your call”, “Sorry I took the last piece of cake”.
But that’s not the limit of British apologies - far from it. We seem to apologise for events in the universe that are far beyond the reach of a mere mortal, like one’s own illness. If I said to my wife that I felt ill today, her initial response would be to say, “Sorry, my love.” As if she could have done something to prevent it and was therefore solely responsible.
Another very important “sorry” is used by the British when invading somebody’s private space, like at a supermarket. If you see somebody standing in the deli section right in front of the olives you wish to purchase, you can reach for them, but you must make sure to utter the word “sorry” as you invade that person’s private space.
The same goes for crossing paths with strangers, or reaching for the elevator button at the same time as someone else, or being unsure of whether you are next in line: “Sorry, sorry, sorry!” This is considered a cornerstone of essential Britishness.
In Germany, to put it bluntly, people never apologise. First of all, an apology can exist in only one possible scenario and that is if you’ve done some considerable harm to another person, be it physical or emotional. Every other scenario is completely foreign to them.
In my 17 years of living in Germany, this is the thing I have struggled the most with getting used to. Somebody reaching over me at a buffet or a canteen - clearly invading my personal space - without saying so much as a single word, does tend to set off a mild nuclear explosion within me. But, on the outside, my facial expression shows zero emotion. I won’t move a single muscle and the only comment I’ll mutter to myself is, “Germans!”
This cultural difference is the main reason why the Brits consider the Germans rude. To a British person, the absence of “excuse me” and “sorry” equates to bad manners. But in German culture, this is not the case. Their raison d’etre is “I am, therefore I can”. It would therefore be wrong to say that German people are rude, they are just… Germans.
Correcting people & Just criticism
If you’re from one of these nations where saying “sorry” 10 times a day is simply par for the course, you will also know to be very careful when expressing any form of criticism or negative opinion in public.
For example, if you’re not happy with the situation you might say, “It’s not ideal”, and if you want to describe somebody who’s being a bit of a prat, you are more likely to say that the person is “not very pleasant”, rather than calling them what they are. In fact, any form of directness is seen as being negative, almost bolshy. Opinionated people full of emotions tend to be branded as antisocial, rude, and even vulgar.
For me, correcting others in public is an extremely delicate matter, so delicate in fact that I tend to steer clear of doing it altogether if I can. In extreme cases where a public correction becomes impossible to avoid you must swerve delicately between numerous pitfalls, to avoid being branded as rude.
Bearing that in mind, you couldn’t end up with a more contrasting mindset than that of the Germans. For them, correcting people is an essential part of being that every citizen must partake in. Some even consider it their moral duty, because, quite frankly, if something’s wrong, then it’s not right.
Telling people off in Germany: A moral responsibility
Some of the cornerstones of being German are being precise and unambiguous, offering lengthy and detailed explanations, and having a high moral responsibility, which loosely translates into minding everyone else’s business.
In other words, if something is wrong, it must be pointed out: polite or not, in public or in private. It is essential to get your head around this, if you are ever going to understand why complete strangers have the audacity to tell you off in public, or tell you that you are wrong, because they think so.
The same applies to criticising people. I remember the first time a complete stranger in the shape of an elderly woman lectured me outside our flat on the topic of recycling. I think my cardinal sin was to place a green bottle into the container for the brown bottles.
She seemed appalled by my actions, and grilled me for about five minutes on a range of topics that spanned from environmental issues through to the Hausordnung (the house rules, which is usually appended to rental agreements in Germany). According to her, if I had read this document more carefully, I would have been better informed.