Thursday, March 5, 2015

Getting Along with Germans

I've heard and read from many different sources that Germans are cold, distant, unfriendly, and inflexible, that the German language is harsh and scary, and that life in Germany is stiff and over-regulated.

Well, enough.

I shouldn't speak for all Germans, but I shouldn't speak for all Americans either and I do that often enough. What's the saying? "All generalizations are false, including this one." That's attributed to Mark Twain, appropriately enough (favorite American writer and all that).

Anyway, it's just not that hard to get along with Germans, folks. It's just not. Do you work with a German? Do you have a German neighbor? Exchange student? In-law? Are you thinking about marrying a German? Lucky you! I have a couple of tips for you, gleaned over the last 25 years in my interactions with Germans: exchange students, host parents, colleagues, a supervisor, friends, relatives, strangers, salespeople, students' parents, friends, someone for whom I did freelance work, my husband, his business partner, and his employees. I'm not an expert, but I often have an easier time dealing with Germans than my own Landsleute.

I've done my research, but most of what follows
is from practical, real-life hands-on experience.

Be yourself, but...

Mean what you say.

Germans lean more toward subtle understatement than gross exaggeration. Mostly they are realists, though. Americans go for superlatives ("That was the best movie/meal/concert ever!") and loaded words that lose their effectiveness because of the exaggeration.

Don't say "I hate my boss" to a German as a way to indicate that your boss made a decision you didn't like. "Hate" is a loaded and powerful word and is best saved for murderers, thieves, and brussel sprouts (which I happen to love like quite a lot).

Likewise, don't say "I love swimming/chocolate/Russell Crowe." Love is also a powerful word best saved for your children and spouse. You enjoy swimming and you like eating chocolate, but you don't even know Russell Crowe. 

My tip is to choose your words consciously and avoid excessive exaggeration when speaking with Germans. "I'm dying of starvation!" sounds ridiculous to German unless it's said with an ironic tone. In all likelihood, you're hungry, not starving.

Update: I need to change what I wrote about using "love" above. Watching various TV programs during the last few days, I have heard both kids and adults say "Ich liebe..." quite often. I still don't hear "hate", so I'll stick to that one for now, but I guess you can love whatever you want, even in German. :-)

Don't make empty promises.

Don't promise you will accomplish something if you do not know for a fact that you can accomplish it. If you have agreed to tackle a project and find it's too much for you, don't just drop the ball. Tell him you weren't able to do it or that you need help, and don't wait for him to call you for a progress report.

Don't promise something you cannot deliver.

Don't promise a German that someone else will do something. Don't tell your German friend, "My sister's English is really good. I'm sure she'd be happy to translate that document for you." Don't volunteer others; let them volunteer themselves if they wish to do so. And for heaven's sake, don't volunteer a German without first asking him if he's willing to help.

If you have said you will do something, do it.

If you say, "I'll send you that document on Tuesday," then write yourself a note in your calendar and make sure you follow through on Tuesday. If a German has to write to you with a reminder, he has already written you off as unreliable and insincere.

If you say, "I'll call you next week," do it. If you might not have time next week, don't say you'll call then. If you are creating your own "deadline" anyway, give yourself more time than you think you need, but do what you said you would do. We all have unexpected conflicts that arise or find ourselves busier than we expected to be. In that case let the German know things have changed.

Be punctual

This is a matter of respecting other people's time. If you are choosing a time to meet a German, be realistic and plan to arrive early. If you plan to arrive 15 minutes early and you are slightly delayed by traffic or whatever, you'll still be on time.

For three years running I have been involved with an exchange program in Esslingen, and each year in January we have an informational meeting for all families who have applied. There have been around 20 families each year, and our meeting starts at 19:00 in the Rathaus (city hall). Not one family in three years has been late for that meeting. Not one.

Skip false or exaggerated praise

Getting all bubbly over a gift or going overboard praising a German for doing something he said he would do comes across as insincere. "Danke, das ist sehr nett" (Thank you, that's very nice) is sufficient to show you appreciate a gift, and the German equivalent of "Great job!" ("Tolle Leistung") sounds completely stupid unless you're talking to a four-year-old child.

Germans don't need praise for doing what they said they would do, or for bringing a gift to a birthday party. A calm and sincere "thank you" is appreciated.

M and I were watching a fun game show once (Das ist Spitze!), and after one pair of celebrity contestants finished a task having done an ok job, the audience erupted in very un-German crazy applause and cheering as if they were cued to do so. M said, "That's a bit inflationary, don't you think?"

The other side of this is that if a German pays you a compliment, it is sincerely meant. They do not dish out compliments just to be polite or conversational.

Don't talk about money

Germans are not impressed by big houses, fancy lifestyles, and expensive vacations. They enjoy talking about vacations, but not when every other sentence is about how expensive something was, how ritzy the hotel was, or how much money you won or lost gambling. When you are invited to a German's home, you will not get a home tour. If you are dining with a German do not comment on the cost of the food. If you just bought a new car, do not brag about how expensive it was. And for heaven's sake do NOT ask a German what he makes for a salary! It may even be in his contract that he is not allowed to discuss his salary outside of his immediate family.

Don't use an invitation as a good-bye

"Let's have lunch one of these days!" is American for "See ya!" or "Good bye!" Use "Let's have lunch" with a German only when you are actually prepared to look at your calendar and schedule a lunch date. Americans see this vague, noncommittal lunch invitation as a polite way to pretend they want to spend more time with someone. Germans see it as insincere and superficial after they realize the speaker had no real intention of getting together. I have seen this advice in books and articles about how to deal with Americans - "'We must get together' may not be an invitation but [rather] a polite way to bring closure to a conversation." (Culture Smart: USA) The same book describes a recently arrived expat who "like many visitors [to the U.S.], misinterpreted the warm, open, American communication style for an indication of friendship."

Conversely, if a German extends a verbal invitation to you, he means it. He's not just being polite when he says "My birthday is next Thursday and I'm having a few friends over; stop by anytime after 16:00,." He really wants to you show up!

When greeting a German, give eye contact and a handshake

I'm terrible at the second half of this. Of course I look a person in the eye when I'm saying hello, but I often forget the handshake. I'd prefer not to shake hands during the Grippewelle (flu season), especially with strangers, but it's just what's done here. When arriving at a meeting (on time, of course!), shake each person's hand, look her in the eye, and say hello. The American "Hi!" while waving across the room is dismissive, but acceptable here if you've already arrived late for the meeting. This is usually done at parties as well, as a person leaves. Yes, you shake hands with guests you don't even know - not just the host and hostess - so plan ahead and start saying your good-byes a good 10-15 minutes before you actually want to leave.

Have I ever "broken" one of the above guidelines? Of course; more than one. But - except for the handshake - it's been a good number of years since then. Everyone understands that public transportation can throw a wrench in the "Be punctual" one, which is why it's a good thing most of us have cell phones. Everyone forgets now and then to do something he said he would do. Apologize and make it right. And just stop telling people (Germans) that you'll do something unless you are willing to do what it takes to follow through and do it.

I'll say it again - it's just not that difficult to get along with Germans. They are genuine, sincere, serious, and industrious, and they appreciate foreigners' efforts to learn and join the flow of life in Germany.


  1. I like the sincerity of Germans that you mention. The directness took me a while to get used to, especially from my German teachers. As for punctuality, I start getting antsy if we are running a tiny bit late!

    1. I'm actually having trouble with my own directness now when interacting with US-Americans. I'm just tired of all the over-emphasis on being sugary sweet when there's a job to be done. That German directness leads to efficiency, but not everyone sees that to be a good thing. :-)

  2. Ha, my boyfriend is the worst German ever! He'd be late for everything if it weren't for me. Meanwhile, I'm a product of an army upbringing... I'm ALWAYS on time, if not early.

    The party one may be a generational thing. Everyone I know seeks out the hosts to shake hands, but then just says bye to the room at large without any handshakes. Also, when coming in to a room full of people (like at a meeting), it's acceptable to knock on the table to say hi rather than going round shaking each individual hand. Not that I've ever done that... knocking on tables is just weird to me!

    1. I'm glad to know that about meetings - I haven't been to many! I actually had my students in the U.S. knock on their desks instead of applauding after a classmate's presentation (for instance). They were far less obnoxious that way, since applause in a classroom quickly turned to hootin' and hollerin' and trying to outdo each other. If they knocked hard, they got sore knuckles but it still wasn't loud!

      Your boyfriend can't be the worst German ever! I've been told many times that Germans are sometimes late as well; I just haven't met any of those yet.