Saturday, September 23, 2017

Making Friends with Germans

I have read often from other expats living in Germany that it is really hard making friends with Germans. A common stereotype English speakers have of Germans is that they are cold and distant. There's a bit of truth in most stereotypes, and the whole du-Sie thing (the Sie part, anyway) surely creates a distance that at least Americans aren't used to.

[Sie and du both mean "you," but Sie is formal - like "You, Sir" or "You, Ma'am - and is used for all adult strangers, service personnel, neighbors, and even colleagues until the older or higher-ranked person suggests the switch to du and first names. Until then it's "Mr. or Mrs. Dingsbums."]

So when there is such a wall between you and your neighbors and colleagues and an expected distance between strangers, (strangers sitting next to each other on the train in Germany generally do not chat with each other even if they commute on the same train every day), how can you make friends with Germans? I'm not going to address the pub and night life scene because I'm way too old for that and have never in my life made a friend that way. I'm also not going to address networking with other expats, because the point is to make friends with Germans.

Sometimes it is quite literally a wall or hedge that separates you
from the Germans around you (this is our street). Some go a long way to avoid
accidental interaction at their homes.

The first thing you need to accept is that Germans tend to be more reserved than Americans, and friendship doesn't happen quickly. For Americans, meeting someone at an event and talking with them for 30 minutes turns them into a friend if they generally agreed on the topics they discussed. For Germans the term "friend" is reserved for long-term relationships, and one goes through several stages between Fremder (stranger) and Freund (friend). You'll be a Bekannte  (acquaintance) for years, most likely, before a German will begin to consider you a friend.

This is the Oberbürgermeister (Lord Mayor) of Esslingen.
We look like friends, don't we?
We're not. We are Bekannten at best, and even that is going a bit far.
I spent a few hours with him as a translator the day this was taken.
My Syrian friends who have integrated the most successfully could offer some helpful advice. They don't talk about making friends or not. They talk about the importance of Kontakte knüpfen - making contacts with Germans and interacting with them. Friendship may or may not develop, but if you're feeling lonely and want to get to know locals, look for ways to make contact rather than looking for friends.

Here are my tips:

Start Learning the Language

The German language is challenging, without a doubt. But it's learnable, as millions of people have proven. Take a class at a language school or the VHS in your area, and get ready to work hard. An intensive course meets for four hours every weekday, and if you want to be successful you will also spend a minimum of two additional hours outside of class learning vocabulary (at least 20 new words a day - and review them as well), doing homework, practicing pronunciation, reviewing what you learned in class, listening to German music, watching German TV, reading German (children's books at first are great!!), and looking for opportunities to speak German with Germans - at the store, the bank, the library, the Bahnhof...

This is our current book, and it is without question
the worst one I have ever had the misfortune to have to use.
I'm meeting with the rep next week. Should be fun.


Your German does not need to be perfect in order to help people. It doesn't even need to be good. I volunteered with Lebenshilfe for a while by accompanying a group of children with disabilities once a week after school for various activities. A friend of mine was in charge, and I was one of her assistants. One of the boys helped me with my Schwäbisch, and I taught him a little English! We went for walks, to parks and playgrounds, went therapy riding a few times... 

Most towns (at least in the Schwabenland) have a "clean-up day" once or twice a year, and they advertise the meeting time and place on a Saturday. Villagers tidy up the streets and public areas under the direction of a leader, and afterward the volunteers are treated to refreshments. What better way to meet people than to let them know you are willing to help out in your community?

Get involved with the local Freundskreis-Asyl. You will meet local Germans who are also volunteering, foreigners who are also working on their German skills, and your ability to speak English will be an asset to the group! Many foreigners arrive in Germany having some grasp of English, and it's the common language of communication until their German gets good enough.

What I did to get involved with my community here in Germany was to go to the Ausländeramt (Foreigner's Office) because they already knew me, and I asked them what I could do and where I could go to help. Give that a try.

Join a Verein

A Verein is a club, and every German town is full of them. Whatever your interests and talents, you'll be able to find a group to join. There's usually a membership fee and sometimes you're expected to provide services as well - like manning a concession booth at a fund raiser, etc.

In our small town (population 25,000 if you include all the little surrounding villages) there are more than 33 Vereine for activities such as: horseback riding, motorcycle enthusiasts, karate, dance, archery, all sports, small animal lovers, judo, music and singing, chess, hiking, Fasching, gardening, etc. If you can't find a Verein of interest, you're not looking hard enough.

Especially in the Sportvereine, the language barrier is not huge. My students who play soccer with a Verein say it has helped them very much with their language skills - as well as getting comfortable with the local dialect!

Join an English-Speaking Circle

Although the goal should be to improve your German and interact with locals in German, an English-speaking circle is a great way to get your foot in the door and meet people! And you can be of help to them, too, since often they have questions about English best answered by a native speaker. I did attend one meeting and enjoyed it, until they started singing at the end. Not my thing, though I can totally understand how it's enjoyable for such a group. 

Within such a group you might also be able to find a Sprachpartner - someone who wants to practice his or her English and also help you practice your German. You can meet as often as you want to, and speak half the time in English and half the time in German.

Take a class or two at the local VHS

The Volkshochschule in your area offers many interesting classes on a wide variety of topics. Some courses are just a few hours or one day long, and others are longer term, once or twice a week for several weeks. You and your classmates will all have at least one thing in common (the topic you're learning), and it shouldn't be too hard to suggest meeting for coffee after class some day.

Read the Local Newspaper and Amtsblatt

Right after I moved here M asked me if I would like to subscribe to the local paper for another way to work on improving my German. I decided to try it for a while, and now I'm nearly addicted. I would miss SO much if I didn't get the paper, and I read or at least skim it cover-to-cover almost every day.

We also get a weekly Blättle (like a newsletter), which lets us know what is going on in Horb and the surrounding area, as well as the insert for our little village. The church services and activities are listed here, local festivals, social evenings - this Tuesday there's a stamp collectors' exchange and info evening, as well as a PC-Stammtisch for women - and musical performances, many of which don't charge for admission.

Be Open-Minded about Age

Don't dismiss a possible connection just because the person is 10+ years older or younger than you. I have enjoyed many hours chatting with people who have become friends or nearly friends who are my parents' age, as well as making some younger friends in their 30s. In our Blättle I see a Senioren-Spielnachmittag at a community center. I'll bet they don't mind if younger people come and play games with the older folks.

Offer to Help

Do you have an elderly neighbor who could use a hand now and then? If you're an American you might not be able to keep up with your older Swabian neighbors in the realm of yardwork (Swabians work until they are physically unable to walk anymore), but if you have time, what about offering to mow her lawn or, in the winter, shovel their sidewalks? If you're going to the store anyway, perhaps you could pick up a crate of water or beer for him - those crates are heavy and no one helps you at the store. It's possible you'll get an invitation for Kaffee und Kuchen some day, and probably they have adult children who visit now and then whom you could meet.

The main thing is, you cannot be lazy passive if you want to make friends with Germans. They will likely not be the first to step forward, even though a neighbor of ours and my good friend and Sprachpartnerin did reach out to me first! Most likely you will need to go out in seek of contacts and opportunities to meet people, and there are plenty in Germany! And even if it's awkward at first and you don't feel like anyone went out of their way to welcome you like a prince or princess (they don't do that), try again. You'll find your niche, but you have to go out and look for it. 

What other ideas do you have for making friends with Germans?


  1. Well said, Beth! Even after 4 years in Germany (wow, has it really been that long?!), I still find it hard to make friends here. I finally pushed myself to join a fitness class earlier this year and am taking 2 VHS classes this fall. It can be hard to put yourself out there but as you said, more likely than not, you as the 'newcomer' will have to make the effort to introduce yourself to people and try to meet others.

  2. I originally made friends in Germany by living with them in a student residence. After that I either met people through the friends I already had or through work (one good friend is our former intern). Germans are easy compared to the Swiss though! Apparently Swiss people rarely move around so they have the same friends for their entire life and rarely make (or want to make) any more. SO while they might be friendly with their colleagues, it's just a "work friendship" and they wouldn't dream of inviting them to meet their "private life" friends.