Monday, May 05, 2008

Hello from Germany

So, I made it to Germany. To my big dismay, Air Canada messed up my seat reservation (that's the third time this happened). So no cloud watching from above, but instead a middle row middle seat with a neighbor who uninhibitedly stared at my scribbled equations.

After the first days I have now almost gotten through the phase when I turn around frequently and think "Hey, they speak German!", am amazed by the blue highway signs (not green!), and can't pass by any bakery without buying something. In a case of severe jetlag I spent a full minute staring at my mother's cotton pads where it reads 'weich und fusselfrei', wondering what it means, and ordered a-glass-of-water-without-ice-please forgetting that a) no need to speak English b) they don't usually put ice in it anyhow, at least not as long as the outside temperature is below 30°C and c) the water isn't for free.

What's new in Germany? Not much actually.

Despite what I've been told, they still don't give you cashback at the register ("Nee, da kommt ka Geld raus").

The topic of the month is apparently sex. Yeah, I mean, what else. It's all Germans ever talk about, right? Just read this blog. But seriously, apparently a women called Charlotte Roche wrote a book, titled "Feuchtgebiete", which made it on the top of the worldwide bestseller table. I find myself unable to translate the title (it's a pun). And now all of Germany talks about female secondary sexual characteristics.

Besides this, optimism is reaching unimaginable hights because the unemployment rate apparently has been dropping further, and spring is everywhere. Stefan says I missed the cherry tree bloom, but here's some apple trees:

Btw, I coincidentally came across this text about the American-German interaction

"Table 2. Politeness: American Friendliness.
  • Not broaching controversial issues like politics or religion when desiring to maintain a friendly atmosphere
  • Using politeness formulae (routine formulae) with strangers or acquaintances: Hi, how are you? It was nice meeting you. Have a nice day. Let's get together sometime. It was nice talking to you
  • Maintaining "the customer is always right"
  • Not saying anything negative, especially to a stranger (usually)
  • Expressing some willingness to talk to strangers about family situation
  • Saying "excuse me" when touching or bumping into a stranger in public
  • Using first names right away
  • Talking "informally"
  • Using chitchat, small talk

Table 3. Politeness: German Respect.
  • Broaching controversial issues like politics when desiring to get to know a person better
  • Using routine formulae: saying Guten Tag or some variant when greeting strangers, saying Auf Wiedersehen or some variant when leaving
  • Often considering salespeople experts
  • Using last names only with an earned title or Frau or Herr ("Ms" or "Mr.") when addressing strangers and people one doesn't know well
  • Using the respectful form of "you," Sie
  • Expressing willingness to talk with tourists on the train; topics may vary across cultures
  • Expressing honesty and directness
  • Showing distaste for small talk

Problems occur, however, when Germans and Americans meet, for Germans often interpret American "friendliness" behaviors as the beginning of deeper friendships, which the Americans may not be intending at all. Americans, even if unconsciously, tend to know these distinctions exist. They know when friendliness is meant, and they know when a different relationship--a deeper, more enduring friendship is developing. More than once the German-speaking interviewees in this book talked about their first reactions to Americans' statements like "Hi, how are you?" and "Let's get together sometime," which the Germans took literally. They were quite disappointed when the Americans looked shocked at their detailed explanations about how they were, or when they never did "get together" with them.

Conversely, Americans can interpret German "respect" as distance or aloofness, or negative honest assessment as rudeness. If a supermarket clerk were not to say anything to many Americans upon reaching the cashier, it would be perceived as a problem, most probably unfriendliness. Similarly, telling a friend how bad she looks would also be construed as rude.

The American and German behaviors may be interpreted within the framework of Helga Kotthoff's hypotheses that Germans stress "honesty" in such encounters, while Americans wish to maintain an agreeable attitude and do not want to "disappoint" their interlocutors.

Thus, when they meet, if they are expecting behavior from the others that they find in their own cultures, Americans and Germans often do not have their expectations met, and they become disappointed in the members of the other culture.

Sometimes the stories are funny; at other times they are disturbing, when interviewees have had experiences that depressed, angered, or enraged them. German readings of Americans and vice versa cause many of us to have the following negative and positive opinions of each other, aptly summarized by Hall and Hall:

Germans often describe Americans as being overly familiar, intrusive, historically and politically naive, poorly educated, narrow in viewpoint, undisciplined, lacking in taste, profligate, unmindful of the proper care of property, vacillating in decision making, shallow, boastful, and overly self-confident ....

On the positive side, Germans often see Americans as friendly, open, resourceful, energetic, innovative, and, in general, capable in business ... [with] greater freedom, generally happier, ... more productive and creative than many other people ...; [and having] opportunities to succeed ....

[Americans find Germans] highly disciplined, well educated, neat and orderly, ... systematic, well organized, meticulous, ... efficient .... Some Americans find them hard to get to know--not unfriendly, but reserved. On the negative side, ... Germans are pushy in service lines ... and often insensitive to the feelings of others."

For more details, read this interesting article. I am very relieved that I can hencethereforth blame my distaste for smalltalk on my place of birth.


  1. a neighbor who uninhibitedly stared at my scribbled equations.
    And now all of Germany talks about female secondary sexual characteristics.

    It's a causal universe. "8^>)

  2. To my big dismay, Air Canada messed up my seat reservation (that's the third time this happened).

    That's happened to me a couple of times recently too. One can apparently pay an extra $35 to encourage them to honour the seat assignment they gave you. Using the "web check-in" to print your boarding pass the day before also seems to help.

    It's just made me try even harder to get the Lufthansa planes, where the staff are both more efficient *and* more north-american-pleasant. I'm not clear if booking with them vs. Air Canada would help, or if you can do that flying from Waterloo.

    Nice article about cross-cultural interaction. Reminds me of a joke, where a Finn and an American are on a train together. The Finn maintains companionable silence. Meanwhile, the American keeps asking small personal questions about family, employment, travel plans and so on. Both grow increasing frustrated and angry at the the other's *shockingly impolite* behaviour.

    Anyway, thanks for the blossom pictures. We've had such a cold spring here in Vancouver that, now in May, when most of the trees finally have leaves, many of the cherry trees are still in full bloom. Usually they're done in March. It's a nice combination.

    I shall wave as I fly through Frankfurt on Thursday.

  3. Hi Rillian,

    I actually thought I booked Lufthansa. I always do! Just that I didn't realize there's two nonstop flights YYZ-FRA the one leaving only ten minutes after the other. The one Lufthansa operated by Lufthansa, the other one Lufthansa operated by Air Canada. I apparently picked the wrong one (should have looked more carefully). Air Canada is the only airline where I always have the problem with the seat reservation. Given that I'd rather do without all in-flight service than sit on a middle seat, I find this extremely annoying. Btw, yes I was then told as well I should have made a pre-check in, but this isn't usually necessary so it didn't cross my mind.

    I will wave back :-)



  4. Because plate tectonics is looking more and more like the engine behind Earth's biosphere, I can't help but think that plate tectonics has something to do with the cultural divide between America and Germany. After all, the divide between Europe and America will continue to widen for another 50,000 million years or so -- before heading on collision course, once again.

    And in about 250,000 million years, a saltwater pond will be the only thing separating America from Europe. Then perhaps the cultural divide between Americans and Germans will finally come to a close, making the two one and the same.

    On second thought, though, I can't help but be reminded that about 250,ooo million years ago, most the world's land mass merged into a super-continent, leading to the worst mass extinction in Earth's history. Granted, individual preferences can vary greatly, but I, as an individual, would greatly prefer cultural distinctions over mass extinctions -- any day!;~)

  5. I lived near Kaiserslautern (at the nearby US military base) for three years, 1968-71. It was fun and I liked going out to the 16th Century tavern der Spinradel (sp?) with friends - they let us drink beer there at age 15. Here is a cute description from

    Kaiserslautern is surprisingly tranquil for its size and surprisingly untouched for an international city. Experience the
    creative tension that results from these contrasts and makes the atmosphere vibrate: In the city of Kaiserslautern, love, lust and passion are always in the air! See for yourself and be enchanted there is so much to discover:

    I was also impressed by Berlin, the Wall etc. I have kept a piece that was sold after the fall.

    PS: There is a certain term invented by Freud that some think apply to those German traits of orderliness etc., heh. As for the frankness, frankly I think that's better than polite unreality. (The Germans are more like "Yankees" than "Southerners.")

  6. The first time I visited Germany, I tried to speak what pitiful little German I knew from growing up. (My grandparents and parents spoke some weird combination of English, German, Yiddish, and Hebrew at home).

    Some locals in Berlin thought I spoke German like an uneducated dumb "country bumpkin" from East Prussia (Ostpreussen) or West Prussia (Westpreussen). I didn't know what they meant at the time, and still don't know what the context of speaking like an "East Prussian" meant.

    Anybody know what they meant?

  7. Anon,

    I think they meant you spoke differently than they did.

    (Which was probably the dialect of those who considered themselves upper class).

  8. Sounds like I'd get along fine in Germany.

    For a long time I had a campaign to stop strangers from asking me "how are you". It involved giving them more information than they were completely comfortable with. After 20 years, it appeared I had made no effect, other than to cause my friends to cringe so I quit.

    And getting water without ice would be the crowning glory.

  9. I'm surprised to read that Americans don't talk politics, and Germans do. Among the people I eat lunch with at CERN, it's always me and some of my fellow Americans who are being mocked for talking about politics too often. (Although, come to think of it, I don't think it was the Germans who complained.)

    In our defense, we do have the (eternally) ongoing Presidential Election to talk about.

  10. Hi Bee,

    A very interesting look inside the German cultural mentality as it compares to that of Americans. I looked down the list to see what the similarities and differences of the average Canuk in this stereotypical perspective. I would say that the average Canuck avoids politics on first meetings, tries for the most part to keep things friendly without leaving a false impression, more reserved then Americans while not as much as Germans. We have a mixture of how we greet each other with the more formal being older. I perceive us as more worldly in knowledge and globalist in attitude while still naive about what the world’s true problems are. We see strong nationalism as both outdated and dangerous. We certainly have less optimism then Americans which mainly stems from the realization that we are more the puppets on the world stage and less the puppeteers. We are more trusting than the average German or American which could be perceived as either strength or a weakness.

    I made this admittedly personal evaluation based solely on what I would call multi-generational Canadians, with the exclusion of the new Canadians as they carry with them more of their native culture. Of course in the true sense this cannot and should note be ignored for this serves to have our culture to be more dynamic and I would say something that the others should observe closely as time progresses. That is I’ve always felt that Canada serves as the current experiment as to whether globalism is a truly viable notion in the relative short term.

    What you said about the fellow seated beside you staring at the equations you were jotting down, I found to be most revealing as it relates to the cultural/personal differences and attitudes. Your response was one of annoyance and perhaps a little of invasion. His on the other hand was one of curiosity, that at the same time lacked boldness. What I observe from this is that perhaps there was a potential to be found that might have proved interesting to be realized.



  11. Hi Seth,

    Well, it's hard to tell how general personal experiences are, but in my impression Germans indeed talk more about politics than Americans. Even with the presidential campain going on, the discussion seems to be mostly about the candidates and not about the politics. I wouldn't say though it's a very pronounced difference (Germans apparently like to talk about the chancellor's dresses). Anyway, I probably don't have a very good impression of the 'average' American since almost all those I know have a PhD, probably an IQ above 130, and travel very frequently (and I guess if only these would vote the country would look very different). Best,


  12. Hi Carl,

    *lol* I've given up on trying to tell people to please not ask me all the time how I'm doing if they aren't interested in the answer. It's apparently an urge that's impossible to overcome. But if I'm having a bad day it still annoys me. Otoh, I am reasonably sure that I probably came off as rude and unfriendly for exactly the reasons mentioned in that text, and when I come back to Germany after having been overseas for a while I know exactly what they mean. That starts with people just nodding instead of saying 'thank you', the excuse-threshold being considerably higher, and generally people don't grin that permanently and widely. I've gotten used to the Americans to some extend (it's very similar in Canada, though not quite as extreme) but in some regard it's always a relief to be back in Germany where I don't have to be concerned about appearing rude and unfriendly without meaning to. Best,


  13. Hi Anonymous,

    Maybe it was the accent as CIP said, but possibly it was the vocabulary and/or grammar. E.g. when talking to my grandmother or people her generation they would use a lot of words or phrases you wouldn't quite use today. I was visiting Namibia some years ago. It used to be a German colony, so many of the white people there speak German fluently. But it's somehow a funny German. I couldn't even tell exactly why, but you notice that for many decades they haven't been in much contact to where I grew up. Best,


  14. to CapitalistImperialistPig,

    My grandparents grew up in Koenigsberg, East Prussia during the 1920's. They moved to Tel-Aviv (in British Palestine) in early 1934. (They thought Hitler was a madman from the start, and refused to live under such a chancellor). From what they told me, they lived in some area which some German Jewish folks lived in Tel-Aviv, where they continued to speak German. They only started to speak Hebrew outside the home when it became very unpopular to speak in German, especially after Israel became an independent state in 1948.

    Perhaps my grandparents passed on their particular dialect of East Prussian German to my parents at home, largely in isolation during their years in Tel-Aviv, Israel.

  15. Hi Anon,

    you might want to check this Wikipedia entry on Low Prussian. Adding some Yiddish and Hebrew will make it quite a wild mix for the ordinary German listener ;)

  16. Yep. Lufthansa plane to Frankfurt: requested seat assignment. Air Canada plane from Munich: middle seat. On a plane with only one middle seat per row! sigh.

  17. Hello Bee (and Stefan!) - I'm very glad to have found your blog! My husband and I are Americans who are moving to Munich in September, having spent awhile living in Stuttgart in 2001-2002. Your blog is quite interesting and the intercultural article here is so spot on, in so many ways, especially the bits about the depth of interaction and level of honesty that are expected (and acceptable). I'm looking forward to being back in Germany! Thanks for sharing the article.


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