Thursday, June 5, 2014

Germans Traveling to the U.S.

I have written some advice for American travelers coming to Germany, and since some friends of ours are going to spend part of the summer traveling through the U.S., I started thinking about what glitches Germans could face because of different cultural norms. Some of this may be common knowledge, but a reminder can't hurt and it's always good to try to avoid awkward situations.

What might Germans find strange or unexpected while visiting the United States? (Remember I'm from Smalltown, Wisconsin and did my best to avoid the big cities, so some of my points may not apply to places like New York City or downtown Los Angeles.)


  1. How friendly and helpful most people are. If you look lost or confused, it's likely a perfect stranger will stop and ask if you need help.

  2. Public restrooms (WCs) are found all over - in shopping malls, gas stations, parks, large stores, libraries, etc.) - and there is no charge to use them. It's not called the "WC", however. That term/abbreviation is not used in the U.S..

  3. Americans are uncomfortable with the word "toilet" and don't use it. The sign for a public WC will say "restroom," "Ladies' room," "Men's room," or (less commonly) "Lavatory", or simply show an obvious pictogram. In Americans' homes it is called the bathroom even when there is no bathtub in it.

  4. Most things are cheaper in the U.S. - dining out, drinks, clothing (especially jeans!), gasoline, energy/electricity...

  5. American flags fly everywhere and you'll see them on t-shirts and jackets, as stickers stuck to cars and windows, and flying on poles at private residences and on lampposts in the streets of cities and towns. Nationalism and patriotism are big in the U.S..

  6. The typical dress in the summer = t-shirts or tank tops, shorts, flip-flops and baseball caps*.
    Typical in the winter = jeans, sweatshirts, boots, and baseball caps.
    Men/boys do not wear capris or fashionable scarves.
    *baseball caps are a guy thing.

  7. The price you see on a menu or on signs and tags in a store is always less than you will actually pay. Local and/or state sales tax is added at the time you pay, and can be up to 9.75% (though it's usually 5-7%).

  8. It is unusual for people to pay with cash these days for anything costing more than $10, though you're perfectly able to do so. Even at McDonald's, where your bill might be only $5.28, you can pay with VISA or Mastercard.

  9. Americans appreciate, and in fact require, plenty of personal space. Keep about an arm's length distance from strangers wherever possible and try to avoid brushing against or bumping into people.

  10. Most buildings, homes, stores, businesses, and vehicles are kept very cold in the summer (by air conditioning). No matter how hot and humid it is outside, if you plan to be inside anywhere during the day, I recommend bringing a sweater or sweatshirt along.


  1. If you order water in a restaurant it will be full of ice cubes, flat (uncarbonated), and free.

  2. Most restaurants offer free refills of most non-alcoholic drinks (soda, lemonade, iced tea), including coffee!  In most fast food places you fill and re-fill your own drinks from a machine.

  3. No matter what you order to eat, you will likely be faced with many choices: what side dish you would like, what kind of dressing you want on your salad, how you want your meat or eggs cooked, which kind of bread you'd like for toast (though it's all basically Toastbrot), and if you would like anything additional (ketchup, mayonnaise, butter, sour cream...)

  4. Waiters interrupt your meal at sit-down restaurants to ask how everything is and if you want anything else (free refills, for instance) about every 5-10 minutes. They are not being rude - Americans expect this kind of service when they dine out.

  5. The tip is not included on your bill. An additional 18-20% tip is recommended, and you may leave the tip on the table. Do not leave coins smaller than quarters (25 cents). It is not necessary to include the cost of drinks in the 18-20% tip; you can figure it just on the food.  If you pay with a credit card, there is always a line on the receipt you sign where you can write in the tip and add that to your bill.

  6. You may be surprised by unnaturally colored and flavored food and drinks: Pink lemonade, bright blue sweet drink ("blue raspberry"), yellow soda (Mt. Dew), and bright red or pink sweet n' sour sauce in Chinese restaurants are several examples. Americans like to sweeten their iced tea, water, and coffee with flavors like various fruits (cold drinks) or chocolate, vanilla, nuts, or fruit (coffee). Most drinks are much sweeter in the U.S., so prepare for a sugar-shock if you order flavored water, tea, or lemonade.
  7. These are flavored mixed drinks (Whiskeyschorle-supersüß).
    I don't recommend them despite the price ($1.00/€0,74 each).

  8. Food is generally sweeter as well (yogurt, cereal, applesauce, baked goods), and deep-fried food is very common and popular. In Wisconsin we even deep fry balls of cheese (cheese curds), and they're delicious!

  9. Most pubs, bars, bar-restaurants, and hotel bars have a "Happy Hour" from around 17:00 to 20:00. During Happy Hour drinks are especially cheap - often you pay for one beer or vodka gimlet and get two.

Beach & Swim Culture

  1. Guys: do NOT wear Speedos at a beach or pool (or anywhere else) unless you are a professional competitive swimmer at a competition. Swim trunks (Badehosen) for guys should reach or almost reach the knees and look like shorts.

  2. Your toddlers/children must never be naked in public, including at beaches, pools, in fountains, play areas, or in private yards. In the U.S., nudity = pornography and/or perversion.

  3. Keep your swim suits on in saunas.

  4. Women are not allowed to go topless on beaches - or anywhere in public or where they could be seen by non-family members (such as patios, balconies, and back yards).

  5. Do not change into or out of swim suits except in a locker room, changing room (Umkleidekabine), or bathroom.


In case you plan to rent a car...

  1. Road rules are pretty relaxed compared to in Germany.

  2. It's best to pass on the left on the freeway (Autobahn), but it's not illegal to pass on the right and many people do it.

  3. You don't need to worry about the "Rechts vor Links" rule because most of our intersections have stop signs, yield signs, or traffic lights. It's "First come, first served" at 4-way stop intersections: whoever arrives first at the intersection goes first.

  4. The stop signs in large parking lots are serious; yes you do need to stop at each one.

  5. "Right on Red": At an intersection with a traffic light, if you are turning right and there is no one coming from the left, you may proceed after stopping even if your light is red - unless you see a sign saying "NO TURN ON RED."

  6. Few people actually drive the speed limit. It is generally accepted to drive up to 9 mph over the speed limit on highways and freeways and up to 5 mph faster in towns. That doesn't mean you should, just that it's unlikely a policeman will stop you for doing so. In parts of Illinois (between O'Hare airport and the Wisconsin border, for instance), the speed limit is 55 or 65 mph, but if you "go with the speed of traffic" you'll find yourself driving about 85 mph - which is still only 137 km/h. Just remember that neither the cars sold in the U.S. nor the roads were designed for the speeds allowed on the Autobahn in Germany.

  7. If you see flashy lights (ambulence, fire truck, police car), pull over. If they are behind you in your lane or in front of you in the oncoming lane - PULL OVER. Stop until the vehicle has passed you. Martin would like to add that if you do not do this, your American wife will panic and start shouting at you. On the highway or freeway, just pull into the furthest right lane until the vehicle has passed. 

  8. You will see police cars all over, just watching traffic, waiting for violators - in towns and cities, parked on the sides of highways and freeways, in parks and waysides, and on bridges and exit ramps and on ramps. They might be taking a coffee & donut break, and they might be waiting to find someone to pull over for a violation.

  9. On the freeway if you see someone stopped on the shoulder (emergency vehicles, a broken-down car, etc.), merge into the left lane if you can safely do so to allow extra space. If you cannot merge, slow down.

  10. Helmets are not required for motorcycle drivers over age 18 (at least in Wisconsin). Many motorcyclists wear shorts, t-shirts or tank tops, and sandals when riding.

  11. Pedestrians do not stick to crosswalks and do not adhere to red crossing lights. They cross streets and roads whenever and wherever they want to. It is still illegal to hit them with your car, motorcycle, or bike.

Remember, these differences in cultural norms are not weird or dumb. They are just different. Andere Länder, andere Sitten.  Different strokes for different folks!

No comments:

Post a Comment