For members


Seven German habits that foreigners really struggle to cope with

We all like living in Germany - why else would we be here? And by and large the people are wonderful, but some things they do still make us hot under the collar.

Seven German habits that foreigners really struggle to cope with
Waiters sometimes forget the "service" part of restaurant service. Photo: DPA

1. They are very direct

Don't expect British levels of small talk. Photo: David Goehring / Flickr

Some cultures wind everything they say into convoluted sentences, for fear of being thought rude. In China, saying 'no' to people directly can cause terrible offence. That great ambassador of Britishness, Hugh Grant, can't finish a sentence without stuttering “I’m so terribly sorry.”

Germans are quite the opposite: cut the small talk, and say it straight. “Pass the salt” will do nicely and won’t come across as impolite. In our book they even make the Dutch look shy.

And it’s not just trivial conversation either. You can meet someone in a bar, and rather than exchanging niceties, the first question (especially if you're American) might be: “Do you think Trump will get elected again?” 

It may take time to get used to it, but you do eventually realize it’s not impolite to get straight to the point. In fact, you'll soon realize it saves quite a lot of time!

2. They still have a correcting culture

Germans still sometimes take discipline into their own hands. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Americans, Brits and Canadians are often struck by the reprimands they receive when they first arrive in Germany and don't abide by societal norms.

If a kid has his shoes up on the seat on the bus, it's quite normal for a fellow passenger to lean over and ask him to put them on the floor.

This willingness to discipline other members of the public is particularly strong in the more traditional areas such as Bavaria. There, you may well be confronted by a local who will set you straight. In Berlin, by contrast, the correcting culture is much less apparent.

In Germany people often have no qualms about telling you you’re doing something wrong, regardless of whether you’re a young child, or a grown adult. One particular bugbear of Germans is crossing roads when there’s a red light, and they will often give you a piece of their mind if you decide to jaywalk.

3. They make you pay in cash

Germans don't like using these much. Photo: DPA

Germany is a country famed for technology: its high-spec BMWs, Audis and Porsches, or its efficient transport system. But many foreigners will soon realize that this is in many ways a bit of a myth.

Sometimes it seems that no one is more technophobic than the Germans. The most surprising example is how rarely Germans use debit or credit cards, even though this is starting to change in big cities such as Berlin.

With contactless technology and apps such as Apple Pay now available in almost every shop in Britain or the US, it seems bizarre that many restaurants in Germany are cash only.

READ ALSO: Will the German love affair with cash ever end?

It can be pretty embarrassing when trying to pay for something and the staff say they don’t accept card. The result is all too often a humble apology as you ask the waiter the way to the nearest cash machine. They’ll sigh and shrug their shoulders.

4. Terrible service

Karl Garff and Eva-Maria Keller performing the iconic “Dinner for One” in Hesse, which although it's a British sketch has become a German must-watch on New Year's Eve. Photo: DPA

If you’re American, you probably find British restaurant service pretty dismal, but you clearly haven’t visited a Berlin restaurant recently.

To tar all with the same brush would be unfair, but there are a whole host of restaurants to choose from if you’d rather feel like a naughty child than a paying customer.

The “customer is always right” rule just doesn’t really apply here. You can't be in a rush in many German restaurants, as the waiter will often pay you zero attention – and expect them to argue back if they get your order wrong.

You won’t believe the reactions you get when you ask for a glass of tap water. The Local has received a range of responses in Berlin from “We don’t have any here” to “If we give you free tap water, we'll have to give it to everybody” (The horror!). 

5. They waste no time in sending threatening, Kafkaesque letters

Don't panic if you get a letter from a German bureaucrat threatening the absolute worst. Germans love making everything official by what many foreigners may consider to be an outdated system – postal mail – and they love even more writing terrifying letters.

So if you miss part of a rental payment, don't be surprised when instead of a knock at your door or kind phone call, your German landlord decides to deal with the situation by sending a letter threatening immediate eviction without warning.

And if you're a bit behind on paying your German public broadcaster fee, they'll soon start threatening to seize your car – even if you don't in fact own one.

READ ALSO: Compulsory broadcast fee is legal, Germany's highest court rules

A simple phone call or – of course – letter explaining that you've already made the payment online will always diffuse the situation, perhaps much to your surprise after receiving such startling threats.

6. They smoke indoors, but do everything else outdoors

A man smokes in a pub in Bremen. Photo: DPA

This is another one that will affect people in Berlin most, but Germany’s smoking ban is much more relaxed than most other western countries.

Germany has a federal smoking ban in place. Yet apart from in Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia, and Saarland, it is still possible to smoke in some restaurants, bars and clubs depending on the state regulations.

READ ALSO: Why German needs to take the smoking ban more seriously

So for non-smoking Brits or Americans, the often very public smoking seems completely alien. After sitting in a smoke-filled bar you may well return home at night to find your clothes reek. These days, even France is less smokey than Germany.

Even on train station platforms, Germans are often happy to light up, and once they’ve had a couple of drinks, the underground stations can become smoking zones too. They just don’t seem to take the ban as seriously as we do.

But it's equally strange to us that they also love being outside. Maybe it's their tolerance for colder weather, but even when it's freezing you'll see families at the playground and children running around in sub-zero temperatures.

7. Political incorrectness

Perhaps because the US and Britain have such long histories of inward migration, the words Germans use can seem outdated to us. 

For example, German citizens whose parents or even grandparents came from Turkey are still often referred to simply as “Turks” rather than Germans.

And Americans who find costumes like “Red Indian” and blackface offensive may also be surprised to find these readily available in dress-up shops in Germany, where the cultural significance is clearly different.

READ ALSO: Why a Kita in Hamburg celebrated Carnival without Native American customs 

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Reader question: Can I get a retirement visa for Germany?

Unlike in EU countries such as Portugal or Spain, Germany does not have a visa specifically for pensioners. Yet applying to live in the Bundesrepublik post-retirement is not difficult if you follow these steps.

Reader question: Can I get a retirement visa for Germany?
Two pensioners enjoying a quiet moment in Dresden in August 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Sebastian Kahnert

Due to its quality of life, financial security and health care, Germany snagged the number 10 spot in the 2020 Global Retirement Index. So just how easy is it to plant roots in Deutschland after your retirement?

Applying for a residency permit

As with any non-EU or European Economic Area (EEA) national looking to stay in Germany for longer than a 90-day period, retirees will need to apply for a general resident’s permit (Aufenthaltserlaubnis) under which it will be possible to select retirement as a category. 

READ ALSO: How does Germany’s pension system measure up worldwide?

This is the same permit for those looking to work and study in Germany – but if you would like to do either after receiving a residency permit, you will need to explicitly change the category of the visa.

Applicants from certain third countries (such as the US, UK, Australia, South Africa, Japan, South Korea, Israel, Canada, and New Zealand) can first come to Germany on a normal tourist visa, and then apply for a residency permit when in the country. 

However, for anyone looking to spend their later years in Germany, it’s still advisable to apply at their home country’s consulate at least three months in advance to avoid any problems while in Germany.

Retirement visas still aren’t as common as employment visas, for example, so there could be a longer processing time. 

What do you need to retire in Germany?

To apply for a retirement visa, you’ll need proof of sufficient savings (through pensions, savings and investments) as well as a valid German health insurance. 

If you have previously worked in Germany for at least five years, you could qualify for Pensioner’s Health Insurance. Otherwise you’ll need to apply for one of the country’s many private health insurance plans. 

Take note, though, that not all are automatically accepted by the Ausländerbehörde (foreigners office), so this is something you’ll need to inquire about before purchasing a plan. 

READ ALSO: The perks of private health insurance for expats in Germany

The decision is still at the discretion of German authorities, and your case could be made stronger for various reasons, such as if you’re joining a family member or are married to a German. Initially retirement visas are usually given out for a year, with the possibility of renewal. 

Once you’ve lived in Germany for at least five full years, you can apply for a permanent residency permit, or a Niederlassungserlaubnis. To receive this, you will have to show at least a basic knowledge of the German language and culture.

READ ALSO: How to secure permanent residency in Germany

Taxation as a pensioner

In the Bundesrepublik, pensions are still listed as taxable income, meaning that you could be paying a hefty amount on the pension from your home country. But this is likely to less in the coming years.

Tax is owed when a pensioner’s total income exceeds the basic tax-free allowance of €9,186 per year, or €764 per month. From 2020 the annual taxable income for pensioners will increase by one percent until 2040 when a full 100 percent of pensions will be taxable.

American retirees in Germany will also still have to file US income taxes, even if they don’t owe any taxes back in the States. 

In the last few years there has been a push around Germany to raise the pension age to 69, up from 65-67, in light of rising lifespans.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Could people in Germany still be working until the age of 68?