Blend Into Germany: Best 10 Insights Into German Culture
Last updated: 10 Jun 2020 / by Sam Williams
When you are planning to move to Germany, there are many things that you will need to consider such as finding a job and getting the right accommodation. But if you want to feel really at home, you will not just need to take care of the practicalities.
Every country has its own quirks and Germany is no exception. Learning about the culture is an essential step but one that is often missed out of relocation guides. You may already have some expectations about what life in Germany will be like but don’t try and skimp on your research. Learning as much as you can before you arrive will help make the transition much easier.
You may have traveled to other European countries before – but this doesn’t provide much of an advantage. Germany has its specific traditions and social rules, so if you arrive expecting it to be like Italy, Spain or even the UK, you will be in for a shock.
The good news is that it is remarkably easy to learn about Germany. Clear, uncomplicated and direct, Germany is a country that is easy to adapt to, once you understand the culture. Our guide below provides some invaluable insights into German life and will help you make a flawless start.
1. Follow the Rules
There is a stereotype that Germans love rules. You will quickly discover this isn’t a stereotype: it’s reality. In Germany, rules are an important and fundamental part of society and the more quickly you realize this, the sooner you will start to fit in.
Germans always expect rules to be followed. Just to be clear, this means following the rules even when you think there is not really any need. For example, in Germany you can be fined for crossing the road when there is a red light. This applies even if there is no traffic. If you are in a hurry, you might consider just crossing over if the road is empty – but be prepared for scathing glances or even muttered comments from your fellow pedestrians.
This is because in Germany there is no individual interpretation of the rules. You must follow the rules at all times. No excuses just because it is inconvenient, or because you don’t think it’s necessary.
The unwavering compliance with the rules may sound rigid, but it makes life simpler. Everyone knows exactly what to expect. German life is typically very structured, and rules are a very large part of this.
It’s not just compliance with the rules that you’ll need to get used to; you’ll also discover there are a LOT of rules. However, as a newcomer, this can be beneficial as you won’t have to second-guess what you are supposed to be doing!
This slavish adherence to the rules is part of a wider love of order. One favored phrase in Germany is “Ordnung muss sein” which translates to “there must be order”.
Everything is expected to comply with rules and order within German society, even gardens and allotments. Possibly the best example of this is the common garden gnome. In Germany, gnomes must be no more than 69cm tall, have a beard, wear a red cap and an apron, carry a lantern or push a wheelbarrow. No other types of garden gnomes are permitted. Why? Because those are the rules!
2. Be Punctual
Germans may not have invented the clock, but they have a fondness for time and punctuality. While in Germany you will find that you won’t have much to grumble about when it comes to trains, trams and buses – they’ll all run on time.
Whether it’s arriving for a dinner date, your working hours or a project that’s due to be delivered, punctuality is expected without fail. Unlike in other cultures, there is no flexibility over time.
Even on a social occasion such as visiting a German friend’s house, you must be punctual. In certain other cultures, it’s common to turn up 15-30 minutes late to prevent “rushing” your host but that’s not the case in Germany.
If you are uncertain just how important punctuality is to a German person, take a look at a German dating site. You will see that many singles list punctuality as an important quality and lateness as one of their top turn-offs!
However, although you should never be late, it’s not great to be there early either. If you arrive much earlier than the due time, it shows you are poor at planning. As you’re probably beginning to realize, Germans prize order and planning above almost everything else so you’ll need to adopt the same values to fit in comfortably.
3. Working Hours Are for Work – and Nothing Else
Germans have a reputation for being ruthlessly efficient – and it is accurate. Compared to some other European nations, they work shorter hours but are more productive. Germans take work very seriously and will expect you to do the same, regardless of the industry you are in.
If you are used to enjoying a very social workspace, Germany may be a culture shock. Although the Germans are very friendly, they do not mix business and pleasure. Working hours are for work, not cultivating friendships or gossiping by the water cooler.
You may not see as many open-plan offices in Germany, but even where there is, do not expect to become best buddies with your colleagues. You should use formal terms of address, remembering to acknowledge any titles such as a doctor.
The du and Sie dilemma is one that many newcomers face, but in the workplace, the rules are fairly clear. You should use the more formal Sie to communicate with everyone, including your subordinates. Some trendy industries are showing signs of moving to use “du” but you should always check rather than make an assumption. A simple “können wir uns duzen?” is the polite way to ask if you can address them informally.
However, even if you ask to address your colleague informally, don’t be offended if they decline. It’s not intended as an insult, it’s just not the traditional German way. Many co-workers continue to address each other as Herr X or Frau X even when they have known each other for many years!
If you were hoping to use your new job as a way to find new friends, you could be disappointed. Many Germans prefer to keep their professional and personal lives separate. This means that going for drinks with colleagues after work is sporadic and you’re unlikely to have a calendar of corporate social events.
The huge benefit of this approach is that German employers respect your personal boundaries. You won’t be expected to read or respond to work emails during your personal time, and if you take a holiday, you can enjoy it without interruption.
4. Don’t Allow Accidents to Destroy Your Long-Term Plans
In Germany you will be expected to adopt a responsible approach. This means not only taking care of your own items but also making sure you don’t damage other people’s property.
This may sound like an obvious approach, but have you ever considered how you would compensate another person for any damage you accidentally caused?
In Germany, there are clear boundaries of responsibility and if you harm another person or their property, you will have to bear the costs. Depending on the nature of the accident, the financial costs could run into hundreds of thousands of euros – or more!
Therefore around 85% of Germans take out private liability insurance. This is a type of cover that protects you from financial ruin if you have a mishap or accident. It doesn’t protect your possessions but covers you for any damage that you cause to someone else.
There’s no way to guard against accidents occurring, but you can make sure you’re able to fulfill your legal obligations. German courts don’t have an upper limit on costs that can be awarded, and you will be liable for any indirect losses as well as direct losses.
For example, if you accidentally knock against a coffee shop chair and cause someone to spill their hot drink on their laptop, you will be liable for any costs. This could be any burns to the person from the hot drink, as well as potentially replacing or repairing their laptop.
If the laptop can’t be fixed, you will be responsible for financial losses associated with any information which can’t be retrieved. This may be work that’s been completed or contracts that are lost as a result. The financial consequences of just one small bump on a chair could be devastating!
Of course, you may be unlucky enough to experience an even bigger accident. If you don’t have private liability insurance to cover the costs, you could face financial ruin. This is why the vast majority of Germans believe it’s neglectful not to take out private liability insurance.
Although it’s a new concept for people from some other countries, think of it like driving a car. You wouldn’t dream of sliding behind the wheel without insurance in place, so why take the risk with your everyday life?!
5. Don’t Max Out Your Credit Cards
While the rest of the world starts to consider the possibility of a cashless society, Germany remains firmly attached to its “geld”. Paying by plastic is far less common than elsewhere with almost eight out of every 10 transactions using cash. If you peek inside a German’s wallet, you’ll see nearly twice the amount of money that other nationalities typically carry.
If you are accustomed to whipping out your card whenever you need to pay, you could get caught short in Germany. Most people prefer to pay with cash, you’ll find that there are many places which don’t accept plastic anyway.
Part of the reluctance to stick with paper money is the reluctance of German to rack up debt. Compare the average debts of different nationalities and the difference becomes clear. The average debt for a German adult in 2019 was approximately $30,000 – this compares to $133,000 for a US adult.
Therefore, in Germany, you won’t see a reliance on credit cards. In fact, Germans are incredibly reluctant to rely on any form of borrowed money if it can be avoided. The words for debt (schuld) and guilt (schuld) are practically identical – a very revealing insight into the German attitude!
If you choose to take out a credit card, you will need to check exactly what you’re getting carefully. There are different types of accounts in Germany, and not all credit cards work as they do elsewhere.
Many of German credit cards are revolving cards connected directly to your bank account. While it makes it easier to get a credit card, you will have to clear the whole balance every month. So you can’t max out on your credit card on a killer shopping trip without facing immediate consequences!
It is possible to get traditional credit cards, but these aren’t as common. They are usually offered by a foreign provider who holds a license in Germany.
6. Happy Birthday to You: Paying For Everything
It is your birthday? Have a wonderful day – but don’t sit back and expect to be treated by everyone else! In other countries, a birthday is an opportunity to be spoiled and enjoy other people buying you drinks and dinner, but that’s not the case in Germany.
Socializing is not common in the German workplace (see above) you won’t be expected to ignore your co-workers totally. One of the occasions where you might spend a little more time chatting than usual is on your birthday. Your colleagues may know when your birthday is but they’ll find out anyway when you bring cakes into the office.
Yes, that’s right. You need to bring your own birthday cakes to work and invite everyone to come and take one. It may seem a little back-to-front but if you don’t treat your co-workers on your birthday, you’ll be seen as extremely mean.
To get over the disappointment of providing your own birthday cakes at work, you might decide to arrange a few drinks with friends in the evening. However, yet again, you’ll be the one treating others as German culture dictate that the birthday boy or girl buys drinks for everyone else!
If all of this sounds thoroughly depressing, never fear. You will still get birthday presents – which you won’t need to pay for.
7. Recycling is Essential
Greta Thunberg and other environmentalists have worked hard to raise global awareness about our planet. In Germany, their work was much easier because there was already a widespread commitment to eco-friendly measures, such as recycling.
In Germany, recycling is an essential part of life and every household takes it seriously. The country is renowned for having one of the most effective recycling initiatives. This has led to manufacturers dramatically cutting back on unnecessary packaging, reducing the amount of rubbish produced every year by approximately one million tones.
You can do some recycling at home, with five different colored bins on your doorstep: green, blue, brown, yellow and grey. Not all municipalities operate the same system so if you move to a new house, you’ll need to reacquaint yourself with how it works.
Aside from the recycling sorting system you have at home, your neighborhood will also have extra facilities. One of these will be for glass recycling, with different slots for the various colors and types of glass. You must recycle all glass without exception.
If you don’t have a paper and card recycling bin or bag at your home, you should be able to find one in your neighborhood. You must flatten all card and remove any plastic film.
Items that don’t fit into your household categories could still be recycled, with a trip to the Recyclinghof. This local recycling center has many vast bins containing different types of recycling and waste. You can take your rubbish here as well as your recycling. You will find workers available to direct you towards the correct bin, should you find the system confusing.
You won’t need to visit the recycling center to dispose of large items (Sperrmüll) as these can be left on the pavement outside your home and taken away. If you can’t donate your Sperrmüll to a charity shop, you can request for a large item collection instead.
While living in Germany, you will need to be as active about recycling as possible, and ensure you are reducing your waste. It’s not a subject to take lightly; Germans are serious about saving the planet!
8. No Noise on Sundays (don’t even bath)!
After a long week at work, you might be looking forward to the weekend to catch up with all your chores. This is fine on a Saturday, but not on a Sunday.
Germans enjoy their peace and quiet; there are laws in place to guard against any excess noise, which occurs between 10pm and 6am. On Sunday, these laws apply for the whole day because it’s Ruhezeit – quiet time.
You may already be familiar with Sunday as a “day of rest” and this is the case in Germany. Shops close and very few people work, but Ruhezeit covers more than this.
You must not do any activity which is loud or disruptive to others. This includes:
- Washing your car (although you can use a car wash)
- DIY such as drilling or hammering
- Playing loud music
- Do noisy chores such as vacuuming
- Visit the glass recycling bank
- Have a party, BBQ or other social gatherings
- Any activity which may disturb the peace and quiet for your neighbor
These rules may sound restrictive, but they are taken extremely seriously. If you breach them, you will have to pay a fine or be taken to court.
As a very loose rule of thumb, you should be OK to do any activity which cannot be heard outside your home. In the past, you could not run a bath on a Sunday because the water’s sound could disrupt others! The rules have now relaxed slightly but running water must only be for a maximum of 30 minutes.
You won’t get in trouble for breaching the rules if no complaints are made. If you desperately need to do an activity on a Sunday, which is a bit noisy, approaching your neighbors and asking for permission is the solution.
9. Look After the Planet, Stay Fit – Cycle
As we have already established, Germany is a country that cares deeply about the environment. This attitude is not restricted to enthusiastic recycling, it also extends to modes of transport.
Public transport in Germany is excellent but many Germans also cycle. Cyclists’ infrastructure is far better than in many places, with over 40,000 km of biking trails accessible.
More than 80% of Germans use a bike, and almost half use one regularly. The German government and all the municipal authorities are keen to encourage and increase this, and there are initiatives in place, such as the National Cycling Plan.
As well as regular bikes, you will also see a rising number of cargo bikes. The national and local governments back this as a means of easing congestion and improving the carbon footprint.
If you aren’t sure about cycling, there are many places where you can rent a bike. This provides the ideal opportunity to discover the delights of pedal power before splashing out on your own set of two wheels.
Bikes are a precious commodity in Germany, so when you do buy a bike, make sure you protect it. Bike insurance protects against theft and vandalism and is available at a very reasonable cost. Unlike general insurance which may include some cover for bikes, bike insurance covers the individual parts rather than just the overall bike, so it offers far better protection.
Incidentally, if you really can’t face the effort of cycling, why not trying an e-bike? Boosted by battery power, it’s still a green way to get around, but it is just easier on the legs! Bike insurance is crucial for e-bikes as the battery is expensive to replace if stolen.
10. Expect Nudism
With the strict rules and love of structure, it would be very easy to get the wrong impression of Germans. Although they love life to be in order and methodical, they’re also a very open-minded bunch.
Nothing demonstrates this better than their approach to the human body and nudity. There are many areas in Germany where it’s OK to be nude. These include beaches, spas, saunas and clubs. While you won’t encounter nudism everywhere, it’s far more prevalent in Germany than in many other countries.
Nudist areas are clearly marked with FKK. This stands for Frei-körper-kultur and translates into English as free body culture. The FKK acronym has been in use since 1898 and represents a group of people who believe it’s healthy and liberating to perform daily activities in the nude. They believe this helps them to feel closer to nature. FKK is not a sexual movement and the desire for nudity is pure.
The German Nudity Association has approximately 40,000 members who engage in all sorts of activities naked. This includes hiking, swimming, volleyball and boules – all without a stitch of clothing. Therefore while it’s usually possible to spot nudist areas because of the FKK sign, there is a possibility that you could bump into a group of naked hikers while out for a walk!
Aside from the FKK movement, Germans are generally very comfortable with their body. While you must wear bathing suits in swimming pools, in saunas and steam rooms, it’s common to be naked. These areas are typically unisex so the nudity can be a bit unsettling for newcomers. However, you’ll quickly realize that no-one is even the slightest bit self-conscious and once the steam starts to rise you won’t be able to see much anyway!