In recent years, I have spent quite a bit of my time in Germany, both in a professional and a private context. And in that period, a number of things have struck me as anything on a scale ranging from “a bit awkward” over “amazing” down to “simply too baffling for words”.
Buckle up for a list of the most striking ones:
- The obsession with privacy, and the resulting tendancy to make things twice as complex as they could be – nicely illustrated that time when I specifically requested to communicate with the tax authorities via email… only to receive a request to confirm with a signed paper document that they could store my email address in their database to allow them to use this format of interaction
- The preference to use cash money for everything. At first I thought this was due to a distrust of digital or online payments (and perhaps banks in general), but later I figured out there’s an important privacy aspect to this as well: cash leaves no traces, and any digital payment does (just imagine what might happen if the information that you paid 12,43 EUR in the local supermarket last Thursday would fall into the wrong hands!)
- A quite conservative view on electric cars: as electric cars have way fewer parts than cars with a traditional combustion engine, it takes way fewer workers to produce those electric cars, which means way fewer jobs in the automotive industry; conclusion: it is better not to focus on electric cars and keep producing combustion engines. As if the rest of the world would care in the least bit about those German automotive jobs (there’s this country called China, ever heard of it?). Especially with an increasing number of countries setting a date when cars with combustion engines will simply no longer be allowed – where do the Germans think they will keep exporting their continued production of those?
- An extraordinary high level of politeness. Being polite as such is obviously not a problem, and one could even wonder “Is there such a thing as being too polite?” Well, yes. Most often I highly appreciate it, but in my experience as a student of the German language, who is using the learning-by-doing method, it has turned out to be somewhat of a problem: Germans are simply too polite to correct you when you make a mistake, even in cases where you are clearly struggling – the eyes suggest that you made a mistake, but nothing is said, as it is considered to be rude to point out that you are wrong. Schade.
- The assumption that you will want to file a printed version of any letter or document sent to you by mail (postal mail is meant here, of course). This is best illustrated by the fact that more or less all letters that you receive are already pre-perforated, making it easy for you to file it in the proper ring binder (Germans usually have at least a dozen of those, which will easily fit 500 pages each, but in real life contain an average of 20 leaves). Another telltale sign is the sheer astonishment you can get if you ask if it would be possible to send the document by email – especially when you add that no paper verison is needed and email only will do.
- Some fax machines are actually still in use (quite often mostly as copiers, though, so if you are handed a copy of a document, don’t be surprised if it curls up).
- A lack of consistency throughout the country. A nice illustration: different regions have different bank holidays, which makes it tough on the helpless foreigner spending time in different regions (‘Why on earth are all the shops closed today?!’). But also little aspects of daily life are impacted. Take the color of the screw caps on top of placstic water bottles: in some areas red means water with gas and blue water without gas, in other areas I’ve seen exactly the opposite. Or light blue vs. dark blue. Or pink (yes, you have read that right: pink). Admittedly, there is one color that I have seen to have the same meaning everywhere: green means “with a little gas” (but then again: there’s plenty of regions in Germany that I have not yet visited).
- At any time of any day you can expect to see an episode of the police television series Tatort. That word, by the way, is a good indicator of the grasp you have on the German language: based on your knowledge of other languages, you might assume that the word is split as Ta-tort, but only if your German has approved sufficiently will you realize that it is in fact split as Tat-ort (meaning crime scene).
- I’ve kept the best for last: machines for slicing bread that you find in supermarkets. In most countries bread is sliced using a machine that has 20 or so small saw blades mounted vertically where the bread is inserted on one end of the machine and then passed through the machine horizontally, with each of the small blades slicing the bread in a way that a perfectly sliced bread comes out the other end. Very important: apart from moving a bit up and down to slice the bread, those saw blades stay where they are during the entire process. Not so in Germany. There, the machines are conceived in a completely different way. It is a 4 step process. First you put the bread into the machine and close the see-through lid, then you choose the thickness of the slices you want, by pushing one of 3 buttons. This starts step three, the actual slicing process, which can only be described, the first time you witness it, as pure horror: in the back of the machine a door slides open and out comes this gigantic circular saw blade that starts hacking away at your bread, which is pushed forward in steps to make sure you get slices. The final step, after the saw blade has been retracted and the door in the back has closed again, is that you open the see-through lid and reach into the machine to take out the sliced bread. In other words: put your hands where seconds before a saw blade was hacking away. I’ve watched horror movies that provided less of an adrenaline boost.