What (Else) Makes People in Germany Tick?

What We Vote for (in Life): Current Issues in Politics

Every four years, Germans are called upon to cast their votes in the federal elections (Bundestagswahl). In 2017, 76.2 percent of all eligible voters (i.e., German nationals above the age of 18 years) answered that call (ARD-aktuell/ 2017). However, it took almost half a year (!) until a new government was formed.

So far, in reunited Germany, it has not happened yet that one party has won the majority of seats in the elections for parliament (Bundestag); therefore, it is a standard procedure that the strongest party invites other parties to discuss forming a coalition. Looking at the election outcomes since 1949 (in West Germany), the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), along with their Bavarian counterpart (sister party), the CSU, in most cases had the upper hand; since 2005, under Chancellor Angela Merkel—a doctor of physics and child to a protestant priest and a schoolteacher who, shortly after their daughter’s birth in 1954, moved from Hamburg to the German Democratic Republic. From 2005 to 2009, and yet again from 2013 to 2017, an alliance between the CDU/CSU and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) held office. The years 2009–2013 saw a coalition between CDU/CSU and the Free Democratic Party (FDP).

In September 2017, the CDU/CSU again won the most votes (32.9 percent, as compared with 41.5 percent in the previous elections); this time, however, only minutes after the (preliminary) election result was broadcast, the SPD candidate for the German chancellorship, shooting star Martin Schulz, a bookseller and former President of the European Parliament, categorically ruled out being part of a grand coalition with the CDU/CSU. Although both parties had lost considerable electoral approval (SPD only gained 20.5 percent as compared to 25.7 percent in 2013), gaining the majority of the seats in parliament should have been plain sailing for another grand coalition. A majority in parliament is required to pass legislation.

What followed were weeks-long exploratory talks between the CDU/CSU, the liberal FDP (10.7 percent), and the Greens (Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen: 8.9 percent) to form what the media, referring to the party ­colors of black, yellow, and green, called the “Jamaica-coalition;” discussions that the FDP leader, Christian Lindner, finally, and quite abruptly, broke off. As the SPD kept insisting on being the strongest power in the opposition, for some time, it seemed likely that the Germans would be called back to the polls; something that Merkel and other high-ranking politicians wanted to avoid at all costs. As far as I remember, only a few representatives of the democratic socialist party, the Die Linke (9.2 ­percent), for a short while, publicly argued in favor of new elections.

Another option, not exactly seriously considered, was that a minority government could be formed. A setting in which the government needs to form many small issue-based coalitions to pass legislation (a common practice in Denmark, for example) is, with minor exceptions in local politics, a constellation yet unseen in Germany. Merkel and senior members of her party argued that a minority government would be too unstable, slowing the country’s ability to pass legislation. Another concern many people articulated was that reaching out to different parties on different issues could also lead to teaming up with the right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which had entered the Bundestag (with 12.6 percent) only four years after the founding of the party in 2013 (Bleiker 2017).

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier repeatedly spoke to the parties who had surpassed the 5 percent threshold to enter the parliament (as aforementioned) and appealed to them to reconsider their positions. Finally, the SPD agreed to consider dropping their idea of forming an opposition and discussed with their members the pros and cons of forming/being part of a coalition government instead. Only after a member survey, in which 66 percent of the elective 463,723 comrades voted for an alliance with the CDU/CSU, was the formation of a grand coalition finally announced in March 2018 (Albrecht 2018).

What do the aforementioned parties stand for, and how are their positions even similar when it comes to topics they find especially important? A team from the public broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk used a learning algorithm to analyze the election programs of the major parties, published in advance of the September 2017 elections. Using machine learning, the team automatically evaluated 810 sections of text and sorted them into categories; this allowed them to juxtapose and compare the parties’ positions, arriving, among others, at the following conclusions (Kühne, Schnuck, and Schöffel 2017).

All perused parties attached the greatest importance to welfare and quality of life. This included, for example, statements on the welfare state, environmental protection, (gender) equality, and promotion of culture (funding for theaters, museums, libraries, and so on). The headline of the CDU/CSU’s party program spelled that out as “Für ein Deutschland, in dem wir gut und gerne leben” (For a Germany in which we live well and with pleasure). The FDP, calling for new/fresh thinking (Denken wir neu!) attached above-average importance to statements on the economy, while the SPD, who had headlined their political governance program “Zeit für mehr Gerechtigkeit” (it’s time for more justice), put extraordinary emphasis on external relations.

The broadcast team analyzed the three most frequently addressed topics for each party; it did not come as a surprise that the Greens, appealing to Germans to more courageously shape their future (“Zukunft wird aus Mut gemacht” / “The future is made out of courage”), attached great importance to environmental protection, while the SPD, the Die Linke (“Die Zukunft, für die wir kämpfen” / “The future we fight for”) and the AfD (“Programm für Deutschland” / “Program for Germany”) very often addressed social issues. In addition to its traditional topics of freedom and civil rights, the FDP focused on investment in education. The CDU/CSU government program, in many passages, addressed questions of infrastructure and technology, including statements on digitization. All parties argued in favor of increasing pensions and promoting education and culture.

The three most frequently addressed topics of each party have been:

  • CDU/CSU: Infrastructure and technology, expansion of the welfare state, and expansion of international relations
  • SPD: Social justice, importance of welfare (upgrade), and infrastructure and technology
  • Die Linke: Social justice, importance of welfare (upgrade), and environmental protection
  • Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen: Environmental protection, social justice, and freedom and civil rights
  • FDP: Freedom and civil rights, investment in education, and social justice
  • AfD: Importance of welfare (upgrade), social justice, and freedom and civil rights

The Greens and the AfD, in the aforementioned analysis, were found to be on the far right; the latter called for a guiding German culture ­(Leitkultur), a limitation of immigration, and a repeal of the climate protection plan. The fact that (in this analysis) the Greens also tended to move to the right, compared to other parties, was attributed, for example, to the demands for a child and family-friendly policy; positions that political science tends to assign to a conservative policy line. When the Greens talk about family, however, they do not necessarily mean a traditional constellation (opposite-sex married couple with a child/children), but would also consider “Patchworkfamilien” (blended families), and so on. The Die Linke speaks more boldly in favor of more investment in education and social security systems than other parties, thus positioning itself even a bit further to the left.

The Bayerischer Rundfunk found the positions in the political field of economics also lying closely together. The CDU/CSU, the FDP, and the AfD were all calling for a balanced state budget. The SPD committed to maintaining Germany as an industrial location and highlighted the importance of small and medium-sized businesses. The Die Linke often made classic left-wing statements about the regulation of the financial markets or a halt to privatization.

The most striking differences could be observed in external relations politics. For example, the Die Linke and the Greens argued clearly in favor of disarmament and peace policy; these issues were not quite as important for the SPD, even though they also made demands for disarmament. At the same time, the SPD wanted to modernize the armed forces (Bundeswehr). The CDU/CSU and the FDP were also in favor of more investment in defense. The AfD even wanted to reintroduce compulsory military service, which was suspended in 2011, and to fundamentally reform the Bundeswehr.

What I remember most vividly are the (ongoing) discussions about the social texture (Gesellschaftsgefüge). Security and the fight against crime played a major role in the election programs; however, the perspectives greatly varied: The Die Linke showed itself especially concerned about right-wing violence, while the AfD explicitly regarded, and still regards, violence by foreigners against Germans as a problem.

What I am now observing, and this is one year after the elections, is the harsh tone of voice that has taken hold in the Bundestag, especially when it comes to the “refugee issue,” or “refugee crisis,” as the influx of migrants that currently dominates the political and social debate, often is referred to.

Now that we have talked about what the Germans worry about (as reflected) in politics, let us take a closer look at what concerns the “average citizen” on a more individual level.

What We (Like to) Take for Granted: Security, Structures, and Status

Some years ago, while doing research for my master’s thesis on intercultural children’s and young adult literature in Germany, I came across Rena Dumont’s autobiographic novel Paradiessucher (Paradise Seekers). A writer, filmmaker, and actress living and working in Munich, Dumont was born in (former) Czechoslovakia. In 1986, when she was 17 years old, she and her mother fled to Germany, the supposed ­paradise. What I found exceptional about the book, apart from the gripping story and her unique style of writing, was the unparalleled way in which Germany is described—from a (former) “outsider’s” perspective. For example, on the occasion of visiting a boyfriend’s family in a small town in Bavaria:

Da ich ausschließlich mit dem Auge wahrnehme, offenbaren sich mir die Gewohnheiten, Launen, Rituale und Sitten unserer ­Gastgeber wie von selbst. Es ist interessant zu beobachten. Vielleicht liegt das gerade an der Sprachbarriere. Wortspiele, Phrasen und Papierkorb­sätze vernebeln nicht meinen Geist. Ein Spürhund bin ich, der die Außenwelt aus einer anderen Perspektive betrachtet. ­Kleinbürgertum, Spießigkeit, Selbstgerechtigkeit treten deutlich zutage. (Dumont 2013, p. 156)

(Since I perceive exclusively with the eye, the habits, moods, rituals, and customs of our hosts reveal themselves to me seemingly involuntarily. It is interesting to observe. Perhaps this is due to the language barrier. Wordplays, phrases, and wastepaper basket sentences do not cloud my mind. I am a sniffer dog who looks at the outside world from a different perspective. Petty bourgeoisie, philistinism, and self-­righteousness clearly come to light.)

Why do I tell you about the novel when it is not (at least, not yet) available in English? In my opinion, one of the best ways to learn about your own country (and culture) is to discover the view(s) from outside and contemplate the (similarities and) contrasting perspectives. Dumont, through the novel’s heroine Lenka, does that too: “Diese Eigenschaften,” the book continues, “sind mir nicht unbekannt, weiß Gott, davon kann ich ein Lied singen. Allerdings sind die Tschechen gemäßigte Betonköpfe” (these qualities are not unknown to me. God knows I can sing a song about them. However, the Czechs are moderate dinosaurs / reactionary die-hards). And, off she goes, listing some (not-so-pleasant) character traits she sees in her (former) countrymen (ibid. pp. 256–57).

Collecting ideas and material for this book, I thought it would be nice to also include some “outsiders’” perspectives and stories. To find out what others find typical (or exceptional) about Germany, I asked people in my network—that is, mostly international business people or ­Germans who travel frequently or have been working abroad for at least some time—questions like “How can you make a German happy?” or “What do you struggle with when it comes to what Germans think is normal?” The answers were overall very much in line with what I had expected (e.g., hinting at certain cultural dimensions or cultural standards that have been discussed extensively in other works1); however, some aspects of (mainstream) Germans’ “code of conduct” for me now appear in new, or at least clearer, light.

This is how Dumont answered my question on how to make a ­German/Germans happy: “Du gibst ihnen Sicherheit und Ansehen. Und ein tolles Auto” (you give them security and prestige. And, a great car). In saying this, Dumont touched upon several concepts that are (generally) very important to the (average) German: risk-aversity and the avoidance of uncertainty; a certain preference for hierarchical structures, status, and depending on one’s personality, maybe also “being higher up in the pecking order;” and the desire to possess (material) things.

“Schaffe, schaffe, Häusle baue” is a saying that originates from the south of Germany, and as a demand or appeal, describes an attitude to work hard, and even harder, to build (or buy) something; in this common phrase, a wee house. In front of the small house, which is ideally surrounded by a neatly mowed lawn (and maybe decorated with some garden gnomes), and obviously, a fence, you can park your fancy, polished-to-a-shine car—“der Deutschen liebstes Kind” (the Germans’ dearest child), as yet another saying goes. I spent my childhood in the countryside, and there at least, that was the case in the 1980s…the buying of new cars was closely monitored in the neighborhood: If the Müllers bought a new car, the Meiers down the road would gossip about how Mr. Müller (!) could afford it, while the Müllers’ neighbors, living in the adjoining house on the other side of the fence, would feel growing pressure to soon upgrade their fleet as well.

Political scientist Herfried Münkler, in his book Die Deutschen und ihre Mythen, argues that in post-war (West) Germany, “verlagerte sich das Bedürfnis nach mythischer Narration und symbolischer Repräsentation von Politik und Staat auf Markt und Konsum” (the need for mythical narration and symbolic representation of politics and state shifted to market and consumption). Münkler, in writing about the Germans and their myths, explains that “[d]er Volkswagen wurde zum Zeichen des Dazugehörens, und der Mercedes war das Symbol des gelungenen Aufstiegs” (the Volkswagen became a sign of belonging/inclusion, and the Mercedes was the symbol of advancement/career, the confirmation of success). ­“Überspitzt gesagt, löste der Mercedesstern das Eiserne Kreuz der Kriegsgeneration ab” (to exaggerate, the Mercedes star replaced the Iron Cross of the war generation), he adds (Münkler 2010, pp. 10–11).

While the relevance of certain status symbols might have changed over time, and while particular items might be of greater or lower importance in certain milieus or age groups, and even if “share economy” is certainly not an alien concept (when it comes to sharing music, holiday apartments, or even cars), I would still suggest that the average German has a great preference for calling things his or her own. And, if I am saying “my own,” I mean I either want to personally possess an item or it should at least belong to “me and my spouse” or, as a rare exception, “me and my brother / sister / son / daughter.” Germans greatly respect private ownership and rarely borrow or lend items. Over here, you better do not use your colleague’s personal (motif) office mug without his or her express permission! If, during a meeting, you borrow a pen, even if it is an inexpensive one, make sure you don’t forget to return it. It could otherwise leave a bad taste, and you could be considered careless or, in the worst case, not trustworthy.

I remember when my cousin’s wife Aarti, in India, told me about how she once learned about her son’s habit of eating from his kindergarten best friend’s snacks. The friend’s mother had already developed the habit of preparing an extra portion for little Sachin. My instant thought was that Aarti must have felt very embarrassed when she found out; however, Aarti replied: “No, not at all! This is how they learn to share!” Well, I don’t think the average German parent would have seen the matter from this perspective.

Germans, when at a restaurant with friends or colleagues, have the habit of splitting the bill in a way that everyone pays for what they ordered (plus the tip). Some people would quickly get nervous if someone were to suggest sharing a bottle of water (which, in Germany, can easily cost up to seven euros), and rarely would anyone suggest just splitting the bill equally among the number of heads at the table.

The average German does not only value private ownership, but also puts great emphasis on titles; at least when he or she has one. I was once returned a letter which I, as part of a mailing campaign, had sent to a baron or monarch with a very long, complicated name and several titles of nobility. He, or maybe his personal assistant, had marked in red how I should have addressed him properly (regarding the order of the salutation). Thank God, barons and monarchs are not part of my target group anymore! However, I try to never forget to use the doctoral degree when I talk to someone with a “Dr.” in their name. Maybe not every child of an academic with a doctor’s degree would be reminded to add the parent’s title on a postcard being sent from summer camp (I was!), but a patronizing or dismissive “für Sie immer noch Herr Dr. Schmidt!” (to you, I am still Dr. Schmidt, rather than just “Mr.” Schmidt) is a phrase an inexperienced apprentice or trainee might still have to listen to at the beginning of his or her career. When watching Tatort, the popular German Sunday evening crime series, I am always impressed with how the police inspectors put great emphasis on introducing themselves and greeting each other with the appropriate ranks (or correct each other when they are, sometimes in a provocative fashion, up- or downgraded by salutation).

Participating in a TV discussion about the latest trials and tribulations in the grand coalition, political scientist Prof. Dr. rer. pol. habil. Dr. phil. Karl-Rudolf Korte (a simple “Professor Korte” should suffice as salutation if you meet him) recently stated that “[w]ir sind natürlich in ­Deutschland auch Angst-Weltmeister. … Kein Land hat so viele ­Krimiserien, ­Angstlust am Abend treibt uns um. Und manchmal auch solche apokalyptischen Talkshows, die manchmal auch Angst ­unterstützen” (in ­Germany, of course, we are also world champions of fear. … No country has so many crime series. Fearlust in the evening haunts us / keeps us occupied. And sometimes, also apocalyptic talk shows, that also support fear) ­(Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln 2018). I am not sure if Korte is right about our supremacy in crime series, but I am almost certain he is right about the pessimistic talk shows. And, I do not doubt for one moment what he says about the almost proverbial “German Angst.” “Die ­‘German Angst’ steckt tief in unseren Genen” (the “German fear” is deep in our genes) headlines an article discussing the possible causes of the phenomenon (Czycholl 2014): “Unsere Nachbarn wissen es schon lange: Wir Deutschen sind ein Volk von Bedenkenträgern, durchleben kaum einen Tag ohne Existenzangst und hassen Veränderungen” (our neighbors have known it for a long time: We Germans are a people of doubters; we hardly live through a day without a fear of existence and we hate change), reads the text:

Die Deutschen sind von einem Gefühl der permanenten ­Bedrohung getrieben. Um dem entgegenzuwirken, haben sie schon den Sozial­staat erfunden, nehmen Dinge wie einen ­Reformstau billigend in Kauf und geben Milliarden für Versicherungen aus, um sich gegen ­praktisch jedes Risiko abzusichern, das das Leben theoretisch mit sich ­bringen kann.

Ob streitwütige Nachbarn oder Einbruch, Handyverlust oder Zahnersatz, Leben und sogar Sterben – für sämtliche Eventuali­täten stapeln sich die Policen in deutschen Regalen. Ausländische ­Kommentatoren haben für dieses Lebensgefühl längst einen Begriff gefunden: “German Angst”. (Czycholl 2014)

(Germans are driven by a feeling of permanent threat. To address this, they have invented the welfare state, accept things like a backlog of reforms, and spend billions on insurance to protect themselves against virtually every risk that life can theoretically present.

Whether it’s quarrelsome neighbors or burglaries, loss of mobile phones or dentures, life, and even death, policies are piled up on ­German shelves for all eventualities. Foreign commentators have long since found a term for this attitude to life: “German Angst.”)

“Sicherheit” (possible translations of the word are safety, security, and certainty) currently ranks fifth in the value index (Werte-Index), as researched by Peter Wippermann and Jens Krüger, and has moved up two ranks as compared to 2016. Since 2009, these regular studies, and their respective research outcomes, reflect the significance and relevance of the values of German web users (79 percent of all Germans above the age of 14 years are active users), while also highlighting developments and trends. Table 4.1 shows how often, and in which contexts, 10 basic values were discussed in German-language social media (Wippermann and Krüger 2017, p. 6).

Table 4.1 Value index 2018 (Werte-Index by Wippermann and Krüger)

Rank in 2018

Value (German)

Value (English)

Rank in 2016



















Safety / security / certainty








Community / ­companionship












Justice or fairness


The authors of the study explain that, alongside “Familie” and “Natur,” the relevance of the value “Sicherheit” has been increasing in the researched context, and they have especially observed an increase in articles / contributions that have a political security context. The focus of these texts or contributions has been on the role of the State, especially in connection with the so-called refugee crisis. As the authors explain, the focus has been both on issues of internal security and on the security of refugees, which must be guaranteed. “Freiheit” has been declining, and the term has been discussed in the context of personal freedom (lifestyle, and so on), rather than political freedom. “Erfolg” has seen a steep decline, from rank three to rank number six. “The era of heroes seems to be over,” conclude Wippermann and Krüger (2018, pp. 6–7), contemplating that Generation Z, youngsters born between 1995 and 2010, would rather count on hard work than heroism. “But this is accompanied by a great desire for predictability,” they add.

What We Trust in: Plans, Rules, and Clear-cut Directions

I agree that, overall, Germans like things to be foreseeable, and they would rather avoid uncertainty. We (quickly) tend to feel uneasy when things are either unpredictable or they are not going as planned; making detailed plans makes us feel (more) comfortable, even if we picture ourselves in worst-case scenarios. Great focus is put on problem analysis, and for a German, it is often more important to know why things went wrong, rather than to (quickly) fix a problem. For example, when I once complained (yes, I did …) that a newspaper was not delivered to my room in the morning—as promised in the hotel’s special offer—the receptionist consulted her computer and made several attempts to find out how that could have happened, before offering me an issue just from the newspaper rack in the lobby. And, I truly appreciated her efforts…

When dealing with a German for the first time, Katharina Bömers, Project Manager Training International at a local chamber of commerce’s academy, suggests being flexible, “because ‘the German’ is often not flexible.” We are not very used to coping with the unexpected; since everybody pretty much sticks to the rules, most of the time, things are “under control.” The standard German household does not employ a driver who might not show up in the morning because of some personal issues (we do not have drivers at all!). Only very rarely would heavy rains or snowstorms foil our plans—and if it happens, we are in a perceived state of national emergency, and the weather conditions are all over the news. Even our mothers-in-law have limited power … hardly anybody would show up late to a meeting because she requested a favor.

Travel writer Cal O Cal, who spends quite some time each year in Munich, where I met him, summarized his best practices for dealing with Germans as follows: “Make a plan, explain the plan to them, and stick to the plan. Then, invite them for a beer. Any changes to the plan will confuse them. Germans like planning.”

Munich-based Senior Project Manager Hasan Syed remarked to me that he sometimes struggles with how Germans plan for social meetings, or even business meetings, months in advance. “I understand why, as it is efficient,” he says, “but last minute social or business gatherings are common in other countries, including the UK, where I am from.”

When asking people who travel a lot or work internationally to share their respective experiences, it didn’t come as a surprise to me that the Germans’ direct way of communicating was mentioned several times. However, I was shocked to learn how irritating some styles of behavior can seem for many foreigners; “When dealing with Germans for the very first time, it was challenging to understand why they are so serious, humorless, unfriendly, and rude,” Manoj Barve, a consultant from India who has been living and working in Germany for some years, said to me. What Barve still struggles with are the (what he describes as) cold, or less-emotional, relationships with neighbors and colleagues. However, he adds that “you will realize that Germans are extremely self-critical, down-to-earth, egalitarian, socially conscious, and environmentally responsible people. They are also friendly, helpful, and humorous, but it may take a couple of years to realize that.” A gentleman from the United Kingdom finds it difficult that “Germans are also often eager to offer their personal view of things, even when not invited to do so, at times.” Kuldeep Saraswat, a nationalized German, who works as a supply chain manager, told me how sometimes, in Germany, he struggles because of “too much directness. In these situations, I find Germans too technical-thinking, lacking the emotional part of situations,” he said. According to artist Rena Dumont, Germans do not rely very much on their gut instincts, but would rather approach things intellectually.

Germans like to spell out things and prefer to put, or have things put, in writing. “No matter how small the matter is, the minutes are mostly taken!” an Indian CEO observed, about his business meetings with Germans. An alumni participant of an international exchange program for managers (whom I had interviewed for one of my e-books on trade shows) observed that, in Germany, the “responses from companies are very straightforward.” The managing director from Indore said that “it’s good to be straight to the point but sometimes, it takes a longer discussion to convey objective.” People from so-called high-context cultures (such as Asia or South America) typically put more emphasis on relationships (more than Germans, the Swiss, or people from Scandinavian countries). They generally have great antennae for how something is said and need much more contextual information, which I would assume, can take more time to convey or gather. They generally would want to know: Who are they talking to? How is the person related to them, their company, or their colleagues? What role does he or she play in the organization?

Germans, however, have been socialized in a low-context culture; we are generally interested in facts and procedures. We rely on the professional expertise the other person has and tend to take words literally. We do not rely on contextual elements (i.e., the speaker’s tone of voice or body language) to communicate information and speak clearly about what is important to us. Clear messages are generally expected and appreciated; ambiguity makes us nervous. German native Tina ­Oreskovich recommends “communicating clearly and directly—otherwise, we get confused.” Englishman Adam Fletcher, who is living with his German girlfriend in Berlin, explains in his book How to be German: “English is not about what you say, but how you say it. German is both, but more the former.” He elaborates: “[W]hat Germans say tends to be direct and prepared with minimal ambiguity. Ruthlessly efficient, if you will. In English, for example, if you want someone to do something for you, you do not merely go up to that person and ask them to do something for you …[Germans] just say ‘I need this, do it, by this date. Alles klar?’ then walk off” (Fletcher 2015, pp. 27–28).

Germans distinguish between a professional and private sphere, and that (also) makes them less vulnerable to criticism. For instance, if someone told me that a major aspect was missing in my book, I would not feel he or she is criticizing me as a person; people are just commenting on my work and helping me to improve the outcome! And, since we are on the subject, several people in my network have been pointing out how Germans (think they) “know everything better than other people,” as someone with a bi-cultural background (half-German) put it. The following subtle criticism inherent in the quote from a gentleman from the United Kingdom might not be so evident for those Germans who are (generally) not trained to read between the lines: “Ever since I first started dealing with Germans, I have found them to be a highly educated, culturally interested people who have a (sometimes unhealthy) portion of self-confidence and who are always willing to give people their opinions.” Typically, Germans convey any doubts very frankly, not trying to cover anything up or thinking about how their comments might be (perceived as) tactless or insulting. Not to tell the other person what they think would make them feel like they are being dishonest. Wouldn’t the other person deserve to hear the (i.e., their) truth? However, many ­Germans would still be hesitant to tell their bosses that their Christmas party was boring or inform their clients that they find their constant queries annoying! I will talk about how Germans (like to) communicate at greater length in Chapter 5.

Another British gentleman pointed out how, even after having lived in Germany for 25 years, he can never get used to the use of (the more colloquial) “Du,” that you, in connection with first names, would address your friends and family with, and (the formal) “Sie” that, as a thumb rule, is appropriate for addressing (other) grown-ups that you are not especially close with—like your boss (Frau Drescher), new colleague (Herr ­Raudschus), your child’s teacher, the vegetable vendor, or a ticket collector on a train. “I still confuse ‘Sie’ with coldness and distance,” he wrote, “although I know it is a matter of respect.” On the other hand, he finds it irritating that people assume “that you are a ‘friend for life’ just because you have invited them into your home (or vice versa).”

Stephan Janouch, a senior business development manager, who has worked extensively with people from the United States, has observed similar misunderstandings: “Germans often claim that Americans are superficial; that is, acting super-friendly without actually meaning it. Germans, on the other hand, are quite often accused of being unfriendly and brusque,” he says. “This perceived social incompatibility can have a severe negative impact when trying to build a business relationship,” he adds. In Janouch’s experience, it generally takes a similar amount of time for Germans or Americans to befriend someone within their own community. However, getting to the state of viewing someone as a friend, in his understanding, follows different paths. In the early phase, Americans may already be acting very open and friendly (which may make Germans mistakenly believe they are already seen as friends), while Germans will remain in a more neutral behavioral state (which, for foreigners, may be incorrectly interpreted as rudeness). At a later stage, when an American might only make minor changes to his or her behavior, the German may (emotionally) open up as well, eventually being ready for real friendship.

In many cultures, people would especially (or only) trust their friends and family and may consider people in their extended network—that is, friends of friends of friends—especially trustworthy. That is not (so much) the case in Germany, where people tend to put (more) emphasis on other aspects: For Germans, credibility and reliability are the fundamentals of trust. We believe in institutions; people generally obey rules and adhere to norms and standards. “Qualifications on paper are often worth more than the actual skills that a person has,” a gentleman from the United Kingdom working in Germany told me.

For Hasan Syed, “sticking to the rules, by the book, in all situations, especially in business,” is another concept that is hard to understand. He has observed that “Germans tend to follow rules, in any context, with great discipline.” Germany is a country with a strong rule of law, a low level of corruption, and low political and economic risk. People living in such environments are generally more trusting of others than those in countries with the opposite conditions (Buchan 2009, pp. 392–97); we (think we) act rationally, and in making trust judgments, affective (one could also say emotional or intuitive) influences do not (to a great extent / as compared to other cultures) take priority over cognitive influences such as professional credentials (competence). We tend to make trust decisions based on a rational weighing of cost and benefits.

What We (Try to) Teach Our Kids: Manners and Common Habits

A popular saying goes: “was Hänschen nicht lernt, lernt Hans ­nimmermehr;” this translates literally to “What (little) Hänschen doesn’t learn, (grown-up) Hans never learns either,” meaning that whatever ­(habits) you don’t learn as a kid, you will never be able to understand/adopt. The connotation is rather patronizing, does not target grown-ups like the “you cannot teach an old dog new tricks” saying does, and is not as harsh as “A tree must be bent while it is young.” The Hänschen quote is often used in the context of “proper behavior.”

If Hänschen doesn’t learn to say “please” and “thank you” (on every possible occasion), he will never learn. “What is the word?!” (Wie heißt das Wort?!), parents would remind Hänschen or Gretchen, when he or she requests something. “Bitte” (please) is the proper answer. “How do you say?!” (Wie sagt man?!), the parent would add, if Gretchen forgot to say, “Thank you!” In Germany, a smile or an approving gesture is generally not considered an adequate reply to express gratitude or thankfulness; if you do not utter a “Dankeschön,” you might be considered unappreciative or ill-mannered.

If you wish to enter a room or borrow a pen, better (knock on the door and) ask permission. Even if you, as a guest in a small group and as the first person at the table to do so, wish to open one of the little bottles at a conference table, it is maybe not really expected, but still considered polite to first ask, “May I?”

Look the person you are talking to in the eye, no matter if it is a man or a woman, and no matter if he or she is the most senior person in the room or someone serving at your table. Maybe it is not a good idea to keep constant eye-contact with the service staff (that could be misunderstood as distraction or flirting), but when you are served the first cup of coffee, an appreciative “Thank you” and short eye-contact wouldn’t harm the impression that you are considerate and appreciative. Looking the other person in the eye is a demonstration of honesty; it shows that you are paying attention, that you are self-confident, and that you are a sincere individual showing respect for the other person. What you consider “long” or “short” eye-contact depends on how you have been socialized, and the difference can be a split second. Observing how your German business partners handle such situations might help, especially with the following service-staff situation: even when Germans are somewhat hierarchical (more than their Nordic neighbors but less like, for example, people socialized in China or India), it is considered bad manners to (openly) order people around. Better to speak (what might feel for you) especially politely if you are used to using a different (maybe more dismissive) tone when speaking to service staff in your home country. Remember that you won’t get a second chance to make a first impression, and you don’t want to be misjudged because of your manners (that might be or are appropriate at home).

And, that includes table manners. Very likely, as kids, your German business partners were (constantly) reminded to avoid making sounds when drinking or eating; today, they would rather die from stomach pain than burp in public, and would easily get annoyed when someone slurps his or her drink, or sniffles. We consider it normal to blow your nose, even at a conference table or in the restaurant (I know, you might find that disgusting).

And, while most people know that (and admire how) people from other cultures, at home, might skillfully be using hands or chop sticks to consume their food and would, therefore, not frown upon a certain potential clumsiness when they use a fork and knife, the “American way” of cutting the entire meal into bite-sized pieces, to be eaten with a fork only, could cause some irritation. Over here, we use both fork and knife, cut the bites one by one, eat slowly, and do not talk with a full mouth (“Nicht mit vollem Mund sprechen!”).

People usually do not share food; Herr Schneider will order his plate of schnitzel and expect you to choose a dish of your own. If Frau ­Friedsam offers you one of her French fries, that would imply a very relaxed (by German standards), almost intimate, relationship between the two of you (don’t worry—just grab the potato stick!). You do not have to leave any food on the plate to let the host know that you are satisfied; we tell our kids that, if they do not finish their food, the next day’s weather will be bad. Or parents would remind their children that “in Africa, children are starving!”—which might, to some extent, explain our one-sided view of the continent. When you have finished eating, leave the cutlery on the plate (knife parallel to the fork).

If you do not want to try something offered to you, you don’t need to worry that you might hurt your hosts’ feelings. You can either tell them that you just do not like Käsespätzle (cheese noodles) or Saumagen (stuffed pig’s stomach) very much, or on the very rare occasion when you are invited to a house (refer to Chapter 7) and you cannot invoke religious reasons or some food intolerance, tell the host that your stomach is slightly upset from the journey. Only start eating when all the guests are seated. And, be prepared to make conversation. Try not to litter the table. If you accidently spill sauce on the tablecloth though, you do not have to feel embarrassed; still, as always with Germans, an “oh, I am so sorry!” will do no harm.

Although things are changing, as our society does, as a thumb rule, you should begin with the premise that Germans appreciate a calm and quiet environment; in the standard German house rules (Hausordnung), you will always find at least one paragraph stating the hours of the day (and night) in which you are not supposed to let your children or your stereo system play loudly, use a drilling machine, vacuum clean the floor, take a shower, or use the washing machine. I have heard of residential communities where you are not allowed to use the toilet flush at night! So, when you are, for example, waiting in the entrance hall of a company, better keep it down.

When talking to others, take care to let them finish their sentences. Germans are very used to sequential speaking (other than like, for example, people who converse in Spanish and do not seem to mind everyone speaking at the same time). Interrupting or talking over someone when the other person hasn’t finished his or her sentence can, on many occasions, be considered rude. However, taking notes is always a good idea and indicates that you are listening closely and that you are interested. Depending on your counterparts’ age group, preferably use paper and pen; if you use your (muted!) phone for taking notes, people might think you are distracted.

Germans show their emotions less than people from many other ­countries, whether it is joy, excitement, or sadness; however, we are quite free with expressing our frustration. “Ein Indianer kennt keinen Schmerz” (an American Indian doesn’t know pain) is some nonsense many (still) like to tell boys when they cry. A woman who cries after a quarrel with a colleague is considered unprofessional and weak. Men are not supposed to cry at all!

During office hours, we “talk business” and are (more or less) focused on getting things done. That doesn’t mean that we don’t exchange some pleasantries or wouldn’t congratulate our colleague for his or her birthday or work anniversary (sometimes the department would even make the effort to buy a joint present!); however, it is a common understanding that work should always come first. “Erst die Arbeit, dann das ­Vergnügen” (business before pleasure) is the directive.

Now and then, colleagues may go out for a drink after work, while still generally taking care not to tell their workmates too much about their personal lives. It is possible to befriend a colleague, and as far as I know, there is no such thing as labeling or banning affairs at the workplace as “illicit” (unless you work for the Catholic Church). However, it is (still) considered more advisable to separate the private life from the business sphere: “Dienst ist Dienst, und Schnaps ist Schnaps!” (business is business, and booze is booze).

When you leave the office, you wish your colleagues a nice ­“Feierabend;” the term cannot really be translated, and over time, has come to mean that the evening is for leisure and recreation, and that now is the time to rest and be yourself. Only then would a (mainstream) German show certain (maybe more cheerful or down-to-earth) aspects of his or her personality.

Some other core principles that we were all (generally) taught are to be on time and to stick to what you promise or commit to. The sticking to (former) decisions or statements might sometimes come across as inflexibility. While somewhere else people may make decisions, bearing in mind that those decisions may need to be altered or adapted along the way, Germans typically view a decision akin to a promise that has to be kept, no matter what happens. “A clear communication on which decisions are meant to be solid versus ‘intermediate’ decisions which are made based on limited data sets and will probably need refining is key to avoiding a poisoning of the hopefully fruitful business relationship,” Senior Business Development Manager Stephan Janouch advises.

While, for my friends from France, philosophy was a mandatory course at school, where they could debate the countless facets of life and its truths (at least, that is what I imagine), I had to endlessly write expositions/considerations (Erörterungen), listing the pros and cons of certain matters (e.g., “Should cigarette advertising be completely banned?”) to arrive at (final, cast in stone) conclusions. The better you could argue in favor of one right (or wrong), the greater was the applause. And, we were taught that it is better not to use a conjunctive in letters and reports. For example, instead of “I would be delighted to welcome you to my ­birthday party,” one should rather write, “I look forward to welcoming you to my birthday party,” because that sounds much more convinced and convincing!

And, we are told to do one thing at a time (“Eine Sache nach der anderen!”) and “alles zu seiner Zeit” (all in good time). And, for us, it is “normal” to be on time. People who tend to be late are “abnormal,” and based on a very common understanding, need to be admonished or avoided. Having understood that, it might not come as a surprise to you that Germany ranks as one of the top countries worldwide when it comes to the stress we put on punctuality (“Pünktlichkeit”). In business, arriving even a few minutes late (without a very good excuse) will create a bad impression. If you think a “Sorry, I was held up at another meeting!” is a very good excuse, forget it! Also, telling me that when coming from the airport during rush hour, it had unfortunately taken you more than the anticipated 10 minutes to arrive in the city center won’t make things better.

Normally, in business, I would expect you to arrive at my office some five to 10 minutes before the fixed timing (and ask my assistant to let you wait until the clock strikes whatever hour we have agreed upon). On the other hand, at a trade show, while people would expect you to show up at 10:00 a.m. sharp, for example, a delay of five minutes would usually not be frowned upon. However, if you are running more than five minutes late, better give your appointment a call and inform him or her of where you are and confirm that you are on your way. Maybe they will offer to reschedule or try to meet you halfway.

“After coming back from a long business trip to India, where things might not go as you want or not always as planned,” a German gentleman recently told me, “I was waiting for a train in Germany. It was fascinating to see how a delay of two or three minutes made everyone completely nervous, or even anxious, that they might run late for something.” He continued saying “the reactions were also very interesting, as many became angry within these few minutes and started complaining. First world problems, I’d say.”

1 I do not go into explaining the cultural dimensions as described by Geert ­Hofstede, Fons Trompenaars, or Edward Hall. For those interested in learning about dimensions of (national) culture, I recommend reading the book Cultures and Organizations—Software of the Mind: Intercultural Cooperation and Its Importance for Survival (Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov 2010) as introductory literature. With Doing Business with Germans. Their Perception, Our Perception, Sylvia Schroll-Machl has published an extensive and highly recommendable treatise on German cultural standards (Schroll-Machl 2008).

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