Jerk or German?

Warning: this post contains some generalizations and affectionate “roasting” of the Germans based on my frustrations living there as an expat & struggling to adapt but also on my love for the country and its culture.

I created a game called “Jerk or German?” Before anyone takes offense at the title, please allow me to explain:

I’ve already alluded to the two years I spent living in Dresden (2007-2009) as an often unpleasant time in my memory. In 2006 I met a German guy at my university and then agreed to move to Germany with him after quickly squeezing two German language classes into my course load. While I don’t regret meeting this man (now my husband!) or going to Germany with him, I do have many regrets about how ill-prepared I was and the decisions I made while there. I don’t think I was mature enough or in any way prepared for the challenges of living abroad.

As Americans I think we look at a lot of Europe and imagine that it can’t possibly be that different from us. We just speak different languages, but otherwise the differences are minuscule, right? Sure, they wear socks with sandals and separate their trash and drink lots of beer. No big deal! Well, the cultural differences that I have experienced while living in Germany are a lot sneakier than that. They crept up on me until I was feeling completely depressed & alienated and couldn’t really put my finger on the cause.

Jerk or German
I was depressed because I was constantly feeling offended and hurt by the behavior of the Germans around me. I alternated between thinking that everyone there was being a big jerk and between thinking that I must be overreacting or imagining it. The reality was that both explanations were sometimes true.

Why did I think every German was being a big jerk? Like I said, when I went to live in Germany I wasn’t prepared enough for the cultural differences I would encounter and I was also still very young and not sure of myself. It has taken me a lot of time spent immersing myself in the language and culture over the years since then, but I like to think that I’m better able to put things in perspective now. However, I’m pretty sure that as an expat I will still have to ask myself from time to time, is this person being a jerk or a German?

Here are some of the cultural differences I experienced in Germany that had me asking: Jerk or German?

  1. Customer service I think we’ve all experienced the artificial friendliness one often encounters in the US from customer service staff “My name is ____ and I’ll be helping you today. Is there anything else I can get for you, hon?” It can feel fake and it can be, at times, irritating. But you would not believe how much I missed it after living in Germany. When we came home briefly to the US for a visit and dined at an IHOP I almost cried real tears at how quick, efficient and friendly the service was. I’m not asking for everyone to put on a fake smile and pour it on thick like they sometimes do in the US, but surely it is not too much to ask to be greeted & dealt with pleasantly, and to be acknowledged when you walk into a restaurant and are waiting for something instead of ignored? The customer is most certainly not always right, but we do have the right to be treated decently. This is one cultural difference that I firmly think could use some adjusting.
  2. Slow to make friends The stereotype is that Germans are cold and distant, hard to get to know. Like most stereotypes it is based on some amount of fact but it definitely does not describe everyone. In my experience, Germans come across as less friendly than Americans because they tend to make less small talk and they tend not to promise things that they don’t mean. I’ve heard from many Germans that become confused when an American tells them “let’s hang out!” or “I’ll see you later” and doesn’t really mean it or commit to plans. Even linguistically Germans hold their friends to higher standards than acquaintances! The German word for friend Freund/Freundin is reserved for people who really have earned it, while acquaintances (or people we’d probably easily refer to as friends in the US) are called Bekannter/Bekannte. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but it can make it feel very hard for an outsider to break into social circles and make friends.
  3. Reaction to language learners This cultural characteristic of Germans struck me most when I spent some time in Poland. Any weak attempt I made to speak Polish was applauded and praised by them, which made me feel really great and want to learn more. On the flip side I don’t think I can recall a German ever complimenting my language skills even though I have been studying the language for almost a decade and teaching it for over three years. Instead of praise, when I speak German the conversation is usually switched to English. When I speak to strangers I get furrowed brows or rolled eyes. I have to confess that this is still very discouraging, but I am coming to realize that it isn’t going to change. What needs to change is my courage and my attitude. I made a grammar mistake? Big flippin’ deal! I have an accent? Too bad! I shouldn’t let this stop me from putting myself out there.
  4. Eagerness to correct Germans love to let you know if you are doing something incorrectly! If you are jaywalking, walking in the bike lane, biking in the walk lane (?), walking on the grass or parking incorrectly I promise someone will very quickly inform you of your error! I have to confess I don’t fully understand the root of this compulsion, but the Germans take rules very seriously and I can respect that. However coming from the American southwest it can sometimes feel like these people are meddling and should mind their own business! This tendency also falls under the reaction I get when speaking German. I had to convince my husband that it was not helpful when he corrected my German every time I spoke. He meant well & probably thought he was helping me but instead it made me feel afraid to say anything! So be prepared to have total strangers telling you off for doing something incorrectly, just brush it off or perhaps they are right and you should take their advice!
  5. Brutal honesty Germans can be very blunt. You need to lose some weight. Your shirt is ugly. Your opinion is wrong. Whereas in the US most of us would try to sugarcoat any negative comments or resort to little white lies instead in order to spare the feelings of others, the Germans don’t seem to see much value in these strategies. There are times in life when brutal honesty is necessary and important and there are times when it is just plain rude. I admit, I err a bit too often on the side of niceties instead of voicing my real opinion if it saves any conflict, but I feel this is a good guideline: will the honesty do some good or will it just hurt someone’s feelings?

So are Germans all jerks? If you’ve been paying attention, the answer is NO! Just as there are plenty of jerks in the US, there are plenty of jerks in Germany. And just as Germany has its cultural oddities, so does the US. Obviously I bring to Germany all of my own strange cultural behaviors such as my over-sensitivity and you could easily write a book about the weird behavior of Americans.

The point of this post was not to malign or hate on Germans but to work through some of the things that made it so hard for me to adapt to life in Germany the last time in the hopes of being better equipped for it this time. And while there are some things I’m still convinced are just rude, I am working on changing how I let these things affect me because obviously that’s all any of us can do!

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