Guide to Germany & the Germans

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Please don’t get me wrong! I really do love to live and spend time in Germany! It is, in so many positive ways, very different from living in my native Denmark. There are, however, quite a few areas where I could have used a little “heads up” in order to better understand the Germans. Here’s my list in no particular order:

1. Germans are informal outside of the office hours. Very forthcoming and friendly. In fact, much more so than my fellow Danes. But during office hours the tone is very formal. You are on last name and “per Sie” - You in the formal form. Should you have a university- or even doctors degree you better put that title on your business card and in the phone book. Even the younger generation! The necktie is still omnipresent. It is considered inappropriate to wear casual clothes in the office. Jeans have absolutely no place in the working environment! Not even on a Friday! Casual Friday does not exist!

2. In Denmark (and most of Scandinavia) we are used to a more “hands on” and “down to earth” approach to many professional challenges at work. In German the approach is extremely process focused. To an un-educated Danish punk like me, who uses 20 years of experience and what by now is a fairly fine tuned gut-feeling, this is in fact a bit of a cultural shock and you will need a fair amount of patience to work happily with the Germans. Particularly in bigger organizations, where hierarchy, bureaucracy and formalities are in order. On the other hand you can easily read up on all procedures of the company in the thick manuals that you find in the bookshelves in most HR departments. To many Germans the strict procedures for EVERYTHING are, in fact, what they find most comforting because they eliminate all unpleasant surprises.

3. Job applicants will have to get used to automatic screening. So forget about that individual, creative application! If you do not tick off the right boxes on your on-line application, you will automatically end up in the “rejection-pile” before anyone even looks at your papers. When applying for jobs in Germany you should write your expected annual salary in your application and also include a formal (conservative) photo of yourself. Your resume should not have too many “holes” in the timeline, which should also maintain a certain “continuity” - all the way from ground school to present day. Whether you are 45 or 55 years old. You may get an invitation to an interview, but expect an “attack” on areas where you have tried to hide things or “polished” the dates! You should also include all written references or recommendations that you might have. “Zeugnisse” - recommendations from previous employers are a MUST. Even if they are over 25 years old! If you do not have them or provide them, you are considered “not serious” and will be rejected. It is NOT common policy to simply call former managers and employers for a statement. And certainly not if those managers are sitting abroad and the conversation will have to be made in English. This is, in fact, a bit of a challenge to many foreign applicants, as written references or recommendations are not common in all countries. In other words: In Germany EMPLOYER is king! Unfortunately, because of this, the tone towards applicants often has a slight arrogance...

4. Education is THE thing in Germany. An “Abgeschlossender Ausbildungsverlauf” - finished studies - preferably with a diploma and degree, is the way forward. If you come from abroad with an education, it is certainly to your advantage if it can be compared to something they can easily recognize in Germany. “Berufs Deutschland” (Working Germany) draw comfort in titles and doctoral degrees, and they prefer to be able to put people in well known boxes and groups. The Germans very much identify themselves through their professional life and title and if you spend too much time “fooling around” as a young student, before you find your own little niche, you will have a hard time establishing a serious career. Particularly on a higher level. Germans often start as simple trainees, sometimes even without pay. This may also apply when they have a degree from a business school.  

5. Germany is “Cash Country”! As innovative and progressive as the Germans normally are, just as old fashioned they seem to be when it comes to their financial transactions. Everywhere in town, in convenience stores, in bars, restaurants and in taxi’s payment in cash is preferred, Especially when it comes to smaller amounts. You CAN pay with your credit card in department stores and high street shops if we are talking about larger amounts. But do expect a stern face with a stiff upper lip! The stores are NOT willing to pay for any fees the credit card companies may apply, and then simply add them to all the prices in the store - as they do in most other countries. If the customer wants to buy anything on credit, they must pay the fees! The German EC-Karte is, however, an accepted payment method. NOT in taxi’s - they will rather carry cash onboard! The EC-card is a debit-card and cannot go in minus, unless you have a prior agreement with your bank. Only problem is that in order to get an EC-card you will need a German bank. Most normal tourists do not have that!

6. When it comes to all general banking-business the Germans are just as conservative as  when it comes to electronic payments. Everything that has anything to do with the bank, takes place in the bank, logically! NOT at home by the computer or on a smartphone app! Especially by month-end you will see a long queue of people in the front-halls of the banks. This is where the bank-machines and dispensers are found, and this is where the Germans go to get their monthly account statements. The menus on these machines are identical to the ones on the internet-banking menus, that all customers have access to from their computers at home. But they prefer to go to the bank and queue up! Go figure!

7. On-line security and fear of electronic supervision is the reason why many Germans are simply not on-line at all - outside office hours. The official numbers say that 83% of all Germans are on-line. But this is mostly at work. Therefore, you should not expect to be able to maintain your network through the social medias. Many Germans do not have a facebook, twitter or google+ account, and would never even dream of creating one! Only professionally they may use the so-called Xing-network, which is something similar to LinkedIn. The only problem is that Xing (which is actually a great platform with many cool features) is almost entirely used in German-speaking countries. E-mail is a commonly used way of modern communication. But do not expect an answer within a short period of time. And never during the weekend!

8. Abroad it is often claimed that German highways have no speed limits. And even though this is actually true on many, many stretches, I can only highly recommend staying below the speed limits where those may apply. There is a certain “buffer” where the police will give you some slack, but you can never know how much room you have to “play” with. You may risk to get pulled over and asked to pay an instant fine, or you will receive a “greeting card” with a black/white photo by mail in the near future! Usually there is a good reason for any speed-limit!

9. The Germans are great drivers. They are friendly, respectful and considerate. However, they cannot ride a bike! I simply did not believe you could find any worse bike-riders than in Copenhagen. But all over Germany you find just that! In Germany biking is mostly a “leisure-thing” - done just for the exercise. And they have a lot of great and EXPENSIVE equipment. Only, it doesn’t help the slightest bit! In Denmark we have “Sunday drivers” - in Germany they have “Sunday bikers”!

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10The time period from 1980 up until apprx the time when Denmark beat Germany at the European Soccer Championship (1992) was a great time for Germany! Particularly the fashion and music industry still bears a significant influence from this period. Germans LOVE orange! Also in other areas, like interior decorating and train station architecture! On German TV you often see the highly beloved (and slightly over-proportioned) hand-held microphones in orange (the “ZDF”-station) and blue (the “Das Erste”-station) - even though most other TV stations in the world has long switched to the more modern and small “clip-on” microphones. Apprx. 70% of all music played on any radio station is released BEFORE the year 2000. The Germans LOVE 1980’s music. And yes, melancholic electro-pop is considered a national treasure! 

11. In Germany most houses and residential buildings are equipped with roll-down shutters. In most homes these are shut down around 7 pm and the world outside is completely forgotten until the next morning, when the shutters are once again opened to let in some daylight. Particularly for someone like me, who has been living in a few modern flats in Copenhagen, with floor-to-ceiling windows and thin see-through curtains, this is a bit odd. The Germans are PRIVATE people and whatever happens inside the four walls of the home stays there. In Copenhagen nobody bothers to stand and glare into other peoples living-rooms or bed-rooms. First of all it is rude, and secondly, if the neighbours live lives just as boring as one self, this would indeed be a complete waste of time. That is not how Germans see things. Personally I do not understand why they roll down the shutters when they leave for a three-week holiday as well. In fact this only makes it easier for any intruder to identify where the easy targets are, or? Having said this, I am a big fan of our own shutters in the children’s bedroom, as they give us an extra hour of undisturbed sleep in the morning. In fact, as I write these lines I have to ask myself why we do not have shutters in Scandinavia?! Or everywhere on the northern hemisphere for that matter...

12. Contrary to what many people believe, food is actually a big thing to the Germans. They care about WHAT they eat and even though the range of junk-food is just as big as anywhere else in the world, a good and carefully prepared meal, based on quality ingredients is always highly appreciated. All areas of Germany have a local kitchen/cuisine that they are proud of! Even on the highway service areas you can now get a very good meal, way better than its reputation. Of course you hear about the occasional meat-scandals, bad hygiene cases and sloppy chefs. But careless or even cunning suppliers mostly die a fast, cruel and merciless death once they are caught. It is simply bad business!


13If you say Germany, you say beer! Or is it vice versa? The Germans know how to enjoy beer! Particularly in Bavaria the tourists may have a bit of a struggle consuming the classic 1-liter “maß” (pronounced “mass”) “a measure” (of beer). It is an old term. If you are visiting you should not get shocked to see locals drinking 2-3 liters of beer during a whole evening (several hours) in the Biergarten. Nobody will frown at this. Appearing visibly drunk in the streets is, however, frowned upon, and it is only just barely tolerated. Well, these drunks are mostly tourists anyway!

14 .In most of the larger Biergärtens there are playgrounds available and sometimes even staff on site to entertain the children. Sale of any alcohol to children is of course illegal. But apple juice served in a glass mug does have a certain resemblance to beer-mugs. It took me some time to get used to this! 

15The Germans like to mix their beverages. Beer and lemonade is the most common combination. If it is a normal beer it is called “Radler”. If it is a wheat beer it is called a “Russn”. Fanta and cola are often mixed into a “Spezi” and there are even some people that like to mix cola into their red wine. I simply have no word for such a thing! Fruit juices are often mixed with mineral water into a so-called “Schorle”. This can also be done with white wine. “Radler” and “Russn” are, by the way, popular among women as it is mixed 50/50, meaning that the alcohol percentage is only half of a beer. Hence you will often see the wives behind the wheel, when the cars are leaving the parking lot. The men are forced to the passenger seat!

16. The combination alcohol and driving is just as unacceptable in Germany as anywhere else. It is simply considered “un-cool” and the fines are substantial!

17. 99,9% of everything that the German TV-stations are transmitting is - of course - in German. Very often foreign movies are even re-made into German versions. But with more than 80 million local viewers I guess that there is a certain market and justification for this...?

18. In the German movie theaters the trend is the same as on TV. You CAN find theaters playing the movies in their original language, but you have to look for them.

19. The Germans actually do know how to speak English. But as they are not overly exposed to any foreign language, it may be fairly rusty to begin with. I smile every time I enter the local “Abercrombie & Fitch” store in central Munich and they greet me with the carefully rehearsed “Hi, what’s going on?” - always with a broad Arnold Schwarzenegger accent!

20. Yes, the Germans ARE generally very decent people and they prefer it nice and clean everywhere they go. Houses and gardens are well maintained. On most residential properties there are “house-rules” and in Germany they are in fact followed! No noise after 10 pm. Quiet between 12 pm and 3 pm and stuff like that. No bikes along the house walls. And certainly no hammering or drilling on Sundays! You are not allowed to dispose glass bottles into the recycling bins on weekdays after 7 pm or on Sundays. Apart from that there are no time-slots for recycling and separating your household garbage, which is, by the way, something all Germans like to do. Please remember to always greet your neighbours! It is considered “good practice” to small-talk and and it is considered rude if you don’t!

21. Oh yes, the German cars! The Germans certainly know how to build them! It is such a pleasure to enter a car-dealership offering either BMW, Audi, Porsche, Mercedes or Volkswagen, without being measured from head to toe by the sales agent, trying to gauge the sincerity of your interest and whether you can actually afford a car of THIS class! The Germans LOVE their cars, but they are not religious about them! Like in any other decent store a car sales agent will greet you nicely and sincerely. Needless to say he/she is interested in commission, but the thorough German family upbringing prohibits anyone from treating a customer with nothing but common decency and respect. Even AFTER the papers are signed and the day comes when you pick up your car by the garage, you can expect full value and service for your money. They will take as long as it takes to give you a proper introduction to your new car, in order to make sure that you leave as a satisfied customer. If you bring your wife with you, she might even get flowers! A cheap trick, maybe, but rest assured it buys loyalty!

22. The second World War is still a bit of a burden to present day Germans. They are painfully aware of the horrors of the past, but on the other hand they are also getting tired of being confronted with things that happened while their grandparents and great-grandparents were young. The young generation of Germans learn a lot about WWII because they believe it is important not to forget. But they do no longer feel that what happened back then has much to do with modern Germany and they reject any comparison. As in most other modern democracies Germans have the freedom to say whatever they want, with the exception of Nazi propaganda and the show of swastika signs or flags. The Germans find Nazi-jokes extremely inappropriate and offensive!

23. Sport is an important thing to many Germans. They love any type of exercise and they have sports-teams in the absolute world elite in many, many sports disciplines. Football (Soccer) is by far the most prominent one. The German “National-11” (the national team) has won the Soccer World Championship four times, the latest in 2014. In most cities they have a local “Mannshaft” - a local team/club, which is supported by loyal fans for better and for worse. You do see the occasional hooligan, like you do in so many other places in Europe, but mostly players and fans are very “gentleman-like” in all aspects. You meet and leave the games in good spirit. It is just sports!  

24. German humor is often up for a funny debate abroad. The Germans have a reputation for having no humor at all, which of course is not true. It is just a little different. Where I come from, in Denmark, just on the other side of our common “Bundesgrenze” (Country-borderline), we are used to using self-irony as an integrated part of our daily tone and humor. Stereotypes are used constantly when we try to make fun of each other. This is not at all amusing to the Germans. They do laugh at most of the same jokes as people everywhere else, but to use yourself as an example of something embarrassing or comical is simply not “German style”.

25Commercials in German medias are mostly not deliberately funny. But for foreigners there are some amusing moments to find. Moments that the Germans did not think of themselves. Literally ALL products are presented by some kind of “professional authority” - a doctor, dentist, surgeon or someone else with a diploma and doctorate degree. Or a housewife! This person should be above a certain age, wear conservative glasses and preferably grey-haired. And then he/she should have a friendly smile, kind eyes and wear a white laboratory coat. The housewife should be young and attractive - but not too attractive! This will provide some comfort to the Germans, and thus they are able to sell anything from toothpaste to pillows, laundry detergent and medicine. Even candy commercials should have this authoritative person. Remember the “Werthers Original” commercials? Or those for Lindt Chocolate? No coincidence there! The manufacturing of “Qualitäts Schoko” (Quality Chocolate) in the Ruhr Industrial District is not taken lightly!  


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