Well, it’s official. I’ve been living in Germany for exactly one full month. Not long enough, by any means, to feel like a local but long enough to observe some unique quirks and social norms different from my American companions. My German boyfriend explained a lot of this to me prior to moving here but my stubbornness refused to believe the extent of which these things are true. Quirkiness can be frustrating when you don’t understand where it’s coming from. In an effort to better understand the culture I’m living in and instill some empathy for why things are the way they are I did a little digging on these observations and here’s what I’ve found:
1. Sunday Is the Day of Rest
I knew this going into our move to Berlin but foolishly assumed the corner shops, pharmacies, and grocery stores would surely be open. Nuh-uh. Not true. This can be frustrating if you wake up Sunday morning to an empty fridge or a head cold and in need of some medication.
Yes, there are exceptions. Some Spätkaufs (similar concept to a 7/11 back home but with way better food options and a place to hangout and have a beer before starting the evening) are open on Sundays. We even had the luxury of belonging to a 24-7 gym. But these are rare gems and hardly the norm. Coffee shops and bakeries are more likely to be open as these activities are encouraged for your Sunday recharging.
This Sunday rest day concept came to be, naturally, for religious reasons eventually becoming a strict law throughout Germany. However, since 2006 the laws have relaxed and many states have decided to allow shop owners the flexibility of opening their doors on God’s day or extending store hours throughout the week. Yet, even today, 14 years after the law modifications, in the largest metropolitan area in Germany, Berlin, Sunday is still very much reserved for R&R. It just goes to show that systematically that Germans place a larger value on life’s essentials rather than an opportunity for additional revenue.
While this was an adjustment at first I’ve actually grown to appreciate the mindset Germans have on rest and quiet time. It’s a chance to slow down, enjoy the day without urgency, and spend time catching up with friends and family. It’s a much welcomed change of pace from the fast, consumeristic lifestyle of living in the States and I, for one, am starting to love it. With a little planning I’ve only experience positive benefits of the “mandated” down time on Sundays. As someone who may soon enter the German workforce (pending visa process) I am grateful to join a system that values a work-life balance well beyond consumerism.
2. Eye Contact Is Standard
I’m not talking about a quick glance of acknowledgement before immediately returning to minding your own business. There’s a peculiarly long gaze with direct eye contact that I’ve I’ve noticed in the passersby. Once your eyes lock with another it feels personal, intense and uncomfortable. Almost like a game of chicken to see who will break contact first. But the reality is that most Germans either don’t realize their holding eye contact longer than you’re used to or mean no harm by it. So, what’s the deal?
Well, there’s a few theories out there. One being that the long gaze might have developed out of a relatively recent turbulent history in Germany with totalitarian rule and later communist rule in the east. People became hyper aware of their neighbors to avoid dangerous situations, which in turn, led them to put up walls (quite literally and figuratively), while scrutinizingly watching their neighbors and taking note of their behaviors. The long stare became entrenched in cultural norms with many people, my German boyfriend included, doing it without even being aware of it. It’s just normal to them. Another way to look at the long stare phenomena (yesss, puns) is that the length of time a German holds your gaze is normal in their world. And by breaking gaze too soon or not even making eye contact is seen as rude or shameful. They don’t think twice about it the same way we, Americans, wouldn’t think twice about not even making eye contact with a passerby. It’s just culture.
Last, I think the stare is a form of processing. From what I’ve noticed, Germans tend to internalize a bit more than Americans. Americans are more apt to openly compliment a stranger, smile at a someone cute walking by us and, in general, be more openly expressive in our processing with verbal and non-verbal cues. Maybe this isn’t the case for Germans.
Regardless of the reasons, just know that the stare is cultural and nothing personal. They aren’t judging you anymore than you judge someone else on the street. My recommendation – hold the stare. It’s uncomfortable but there’s something profound in looking someone in the eyes. Even if it’s a complete stranger and it’s expressionless, it makes you feel acknowledged. Give it a try, you might enjoy it! Oh, and by the way – be sure to lock eyes when clinking glasses to a cheers or prost. The origins are quite fascinating!
3. Tap Water Is Frowned Upon
If you’ve ever been to Europe then it’s no surprise that tap water is not a standard table setting like a fork and napkin. And asking for tap water is frowned upon or even seen as rude. But do you know why? This one is kind of multi-faceted but here goes.
The word for tap water, leitungswasser, literally translates to ‘plumbing water’, which doesn’t sound too appealing. This could help explain why many of the local’s have (plastic) bottled water at home. If we’re going to save the plant (I know, it’s probably too late) then we gotta tackle this issue!
Asking for tap water may be seen as cheap, an image concern that might only be a boomer thing. Yes, it’s true – many of the millennials and Gen-Xers I know and see throughout Germany don’t care whether or not you drink tap water but the older generations that lived through rough economical and political times might have seen access to bottled water as a class thing; frowning down on those who couldn’t afford it.
Another reason behind the tap water conundrum is that restaurants make a majority of their profits from drinks, not food, particularly bottled water. One article even sites the markup being upwards of 500% on bottled water, more than booze. You’ll also notice that meals are generally cheaper and even with the added drink to your tab, your bill will still be lower than a meal out back home.
If you’re like me, and think tap water is a basic human right, then this probably irks you. Someone making a profit from something you can obtain right from the sink?! Not to mention Germany is known to have some of the best tap water around. But to ease your frustration it might help to look at this as a source of fair wages and tip for the waitstaff. Tipping is not standard in Germany and if you do it’s only around 10%. But that’s not always the case. Building a profit margin through beverages keeps the restaurant in business and allows the waitstaff to pay for frivolous things like food and rent. But if you truly only drink water and don’t want to pollute the planet any further with more plastic water bottles, my suggestion is to bring your own water bottle everywhere and throw a few extra euros on the table when you leave.
4. Children Are Self-Sufficient
That’s not to say that American children aren’t able and competent, but German children can be seen walking to and from school everyday on their own – some as young as five or six years old! And, this was in Berlin – a metropolitan area where stranger danger, erratic drivers, pedophiles, and drug dealers all live. Okay, that sounds extreme but I just can’t imagine my nieces walking to school in a couple years on the streets of Chicago. I didn’t even walk to school on my own at that age and I grew up in one of the safest suburbs.
We’ve gone to dinner several times with a friend (German-native) and she brings her three-year-old kid. She lets him wander throughout the restaurant, keeping one eye on him and one eye on the table conversation. She is more concerned about him bothering someone else instead of someone else snatching him. I’m not saying these concerns don’t exist but they certainly don’t seem to be as prevalent as back home.
Maybe it’s a sense of trust in the community or the lack of guns, but parents seem to be more confident in their child’s independence and safety. I get it, as a woman living in Berlin I feel safe. Sure, it’s unfamiliar still and the I don’t fully understand the language yet but I generally feel safe. I can’t say the same for Chicago. I wasn’t living in fear but I’d be lying if I said the thought of rape, mugging, and gun violence while walking the streets didn’t cross my mind from time to time.
5. The Club-Mate Obsession
It’s not quite soda. It’s not quite tea. And it’s not quite your standard energy drink. But somehow Club-Mate (pronounced mah-tay) seems to be all of those things in one. The drink is derived from a yerba mate plant found in the South American region. How it managed to bypass the US market and make its way all the way over to Germany – I have no idea. Although, over the last ten years it is starting to appear in some local markets like New York and the west coast.
Nonetheless, it’s a carbonated, caffeinated drink that tastes like dirt – yet somehow, the more you drink the better it tastes? I’m still not even sure what to think of it. Okay, dirt might be a bit strong but it definitely has an earthy, smokey flavor. It’s certainly an acquired taste but nowhere near the same way one might acquire a taste for a fine scotch or caviar. After all, the slogan – “you get used to it” – doesn’t indicate any rank or class one might need for the finer things in life. What started as the hacker’s drink of choice, seemingly grew to the EDM crowds and becoming a cult following.
Before you turn your nose up at it I recommend trying it. Have it plain or go for the well known cocktail version, known as a Tschunk, which involves some lime juice, brown sugar, rum and – of course – Club Mate.
6. They Take Their Recycling Very Seriously
Please make no mistake. I’m not poking fun at Germans for this one. If more countries followed suit the environment might stand a chance. But it is one of those idiosyncrasies that doesn’t totally make sense with the rest of the country. Restaurants can refuse you tap water, employers are allowed to ask your age during an interview, and public way-finding and signage is hard to come by, but got forbid you don’t separate colored glass bottles in the recycling bin. ::shakingfist::
My first time running trash out to the dumpster/recycling area wasn’t just a quick toss the bag over the bin situation. There were five large dumpsters all clearly marked for separate contents. One for regular trash, two for glass (one for brown/colored glass and one clear), one for plastic, and one for paper/cardboard. For a minor inconvenience of separately disposing of these items my conscious feels much less guilty.
And it’s paid off. Germany leads the EU, and pretty much the world, when it comes to recycling. Back in 2017, Germany had a recycling rate of 79%. Germans take pride in their recycling culture and even embrace it, which is why you’ll find people at grocery stores depositing empty bottles into a machine or that plastic bags are virtually non-existent here.
No place is perfect by any definition of the word and living somewhere foreign is always an adjustment, but despite these quirks I’ve grown to love this country and all that it has to offer. When visiting (or moving here) I think it’s important to have a framework of the differences in culture and behaviors and embrace them with an open mind. Don’t try to berate the differences because if you dig a little deeper you might find value in the origin of these quirks and maybe develop a better understanding and empathy for the place you are in.