Birthplace of the bratwurst, home to haunting castles, moody forests and well-known for its reputable healthcare system; Germany is overflowing with fascinating history, delicious cuisine and a culture that is as beautiful and bold as the country’s ever-changing landscapes.
While visiting Germany and experiencing its culture is an exciting thing, moving there as an expat comes with its own challenges, including getting used to cultural differences. In this article Sabrina Bucknole talks to expats to help you to understand and adapt to the country’s rich culture.
One thing newcomers may notice when interacting with locals is the apparent abruptness or directness, Don’t mistake this for rudeness and try not to be alarmed if someone you’ve only just met asks you direct or personal questions.
Teni, a writer from the US who has lived in Hamburg for two years with her husband, has this to say on the matter: “Small talk is not a thing for Germans, but do get used to abrupt endings to conversations. I’ve experienced having long discussions with my German neighbours only to have them suddenly cut it off with a ‘bye-bye’ or ‘okay’ and walk off. It’s a little jarring at first, but you’ll soon get used to it”.
Depending on where you’re from, the sudden directness can sometimes come across as offensive, but there isn’t any malice behind it. Cory, a British expat living in Dresden, and co-founder of You Could Travel adds to this and says “despite all the negative opinions you can read online about Germans, we had a warm, lovely welcome from everybody we met. People were keen to introduce us to their friends or invite us to gatherings and events”.
While there are plenty of expat communities dotted around the country, namely Frankfurt, Hamburg and Munich, one of the best ways to really get a feel for the local culture is to get to know the locals themselves.
One way you can meet the local community is to join a verein (association) where you’ll meet people with similar interests as you. Think theatre clubs, sports clubs, volunteer associations and the like.
Germans are also known for their love of the outdoors, whether it’s walking, hiking or cycling. So if you’re an outdoorsy type, you’re sure to fit right in. If not, no worries! There are plenty of other ways you can get involved with the community.
You could also look out for local forums, online expat groups like Meetup and InterNations, or join expat communities in your new area of residence to help you connect with other like-minded people and pick up a few cultural inside tips.
German cuisine and dining
When you think of German food, your mind may flicker to all things ending in -wurst, from bratwurst and bockwurst to knackwurst and bregenwurst. While traditional German sausages are undeniably mouth-watering, there is so much more to German cuisine than this.
Spargel (white asparagus) for example, is a healthy alternative and is very popular across Germany. It can be found in many different dishes, usually during the spring and early summer. Deryck, managing attorney at Jordan Counsel who has lived in Germany for 15 years adds that “the locals go crazy for their spargel when it is in season. Many restaurants even bring out their ‘asparagus menus’, where you can find odd combinations; for example, asparagus as the main dish, with a side dish of steak”.
Rote linsensuppe (red lentil soup) is another traditional German dish, which is usually enjoyed during the winter months. In fact, one widespread tradition is to eat a bowl of red lentil soup on New Year’s Eve for good luck and prosperity in the year to come. Of course, delicious cheeses, meats and chocolates are also widely enjoyed – something every expat is sure to appreciate.
One thing to note about dining out is that restaurants close around 8pm or 9pm and the tipping culture is very different in Germany when compared to places like the UK where it is normal to tip between 10-15 per cent of the total bill. In Germany, there’s no set rules when it comes to tipping. In some cases, a service charge is included in the price of the meal, but this can vary from place to place. Depending on the quality of service, tipping can range from rounding up to the next euro to 10 per cent of the total bill.
The culture around beer is very prominent in Germany which is often reflected in the number of incredible beer gardens the country is home to. Many beer gardens in Germany are large enough to seat thousands of people – yet even then, empty tables can be hard to find. Thankfully, it’s quite common for strangers to share a table with one another, so don’t be afraid to sit near someone you don’t know. Who knows? You could find a friend for life. For Cory, “meeting for beer is, of course, the best way to get to know new people and pick up the language”.
One thing unwitting expats may want to note is that “the neighboring cities of Düsseldorf and Cologne each have their own distinct beer type: Kölsch (in Cologne) and Altbier (in Düsseldorf). When you are in either of those cities you must never order the rival city’s beer type, unless you intentionally want to provoke your local friends or bartender,” advises Deryck. So if you’re ever in either of these cities, you’ll know what to do… or what not to do.
If you come from a country where most shops and supermarkets are open 24-hours, seven days a week, you’ll need to adjust your shopping times. In Germany, shops are open from Monday to Saturday and close on Sunday. Many stores and smaller shops close around 3pm on Saturdays, but can vary from shop to shop. Some supermarkets stay open until midnight, but many close at 10pm.
Another thing to note is that in some shops, money isn’t usually exchanged from hand to hand. Instead, you should pay by placing your money on the counter then the cashier will pick it up and place your change on the counter.
If you’re out shopping and you need some assistance, don’t be afraid to ask questions in German, even if you aren’t fluent. “It’s super intimidating at first to ask for something in broken German. I’ve found people are much nicer and want to help you out if you at least try to start the conversation in their language. They’ll either switch to English or try to muddle through it with you in German,” says Teni.
Settling in to a new culture, unfamiliar to your own, can be nerve-wracking to say the least. There are sure to be cultural differences that may seem alarming at first, but as long as you try your best to embrace these differences with open arms, you should find yourself feeling much more at home.