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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Are Germans really rude or just avoiding politeness overload?

Germany is not known for its sparkling customer service or friendly small talk. But is this really a bad thing? The Local's Rachel Loxton investigates.

Are Germans really rude or just avoiding politeness overload?
Don't expect great customer service all the time in Germany. Photo: Depositphotos/Creatista

I once found a chapter in an English language text book called: ‘How to avoid saying no directly.' I burst out laughing when I saw it. Is there anything more stereotypically British?

I came across it at the language school where I used to work, where English language teachers regularly teach the art of small talk and politeness to students, mainly from Germany. Things like: how to apologize for everything and hide your true feelings – you know, the British way of life.

Although stereotypes can be overegged and unhelpful, I have to admit that I’ve definitely come across a few of them since moving to the German capital Berlin a few years ago (and faced the fact that I am very much a walking stereotype of my home country at times, too).

It’s undeniable that there are cultural differences and different ways of doing things depending on where you are in the world – and this is just as important to learn as the language.

For example, it’s true that Germans communicate more directly – believe me, you grow a thicker skin living here – and I actually think they’re quite proud of this fact. “Why not?” they’d probably reply if you asked why they always got straight to the point.

I’ve grown to quite like this because I know I’ll always hear the truth and be told if I have food in my teeth.

READ ALSO: Seven German habits that foreigners really struggle to cope with

Are Germans rude?

But there are some aspects of everyday life in Germany I can’t get to grips with no matter how hard I try.

Take the lack of eye contact, customer service and general human connection between strangers here in Deutschland.

I've lost count of the amount of times I’ve had a door slammed in my face because the person in front of me didn’t hold it open. Similarly, I rarely receive a smile, a “Danke” or even a nod when I hold the door open for others.

Seraphine Peries, a freelance German and English teacher in Berlin who includes cultural teaching in her lessons, tells The Local many of her non-German students feel it's difficult to make connections with others in Germany, perhaps because of this tough outer shell that many people seem to have.

“A lot of people say it’s hard to get to know Germans,” she says. Yet once you do get past the initial toughness, I've found German people to be some of the most loveliest and supportive people I know.

So what does it take to get some eye contact in Germany? Are people going out of their way to be unfriendly or disconnected to strangers? Are Germans needlessly rude – or what's going on?

Let’s look at some other situations: I actually think going to the supermarket is some kind of cruel game for the non-German.

Paying for food at the supermarket can be stressful. Photo: DPA

I’ve been ignored by shop workers when I’ve asked where the tomato sauce is, sighed at for handing over a €20 note to pay for my €3.17 bill (who knows what would happen if it were a €50 note) and stared at with sheer contempt for taking too long to find my wallet or pack my shopping bags.

Then there's that stressful moment when a new till opens up and other customers behind you run in front like the world is about to end, without even acknowledging that there's a queue.

If someone is that desperate to go in front of me, I don't mind letting them do it, but please just ask me first!

Quite frequently I leave stores feeling a mix of shame and annoyance.

It would be unfair to tar all shops with the same brush (and even my local store has its good days) but there definitely seems to be an unwillingness to engage and to check in on each other in Germany.

This kind of behaviour is also evident in some cafes and restaurants where you will struggle to get a thank you from a waiter or waitress sometimes, let alone a smile.

I’m at the stage where I get nervous to ask for a glass of tap water in some places for fear of the server staring at me like I have spat in their face (Leitungswasser is not regularly given out in Germany).

Frankfurt Oder-born Peries says the situation is known to be worse in the capital where attitudes are generally a bit harsher (perhaps it’s made worse by the addition of the famous Berliner Schnauzer which keeps you on your toes).

“In my experience Berlin is ruder than the rest of Germany,” Peries tells The Local. “In Brandenburg (the state outside Berlin), for example, I’m always surprised how nice people are there. They wish you a nice day or say something about their day.”

It's fair to say there are a variety of experiences out there. But it's not just me. Plenty of my foreign friends across Germany have experienced similar encounters, while Google searches bring up tons of message boards with lots of perplexed foreigners asking why they can’t get a smile in the supermarket in their town or city.

'Servicewüste Deutschland'

But are us cheery-faced non-Germans going about this the wrong way? Do we have to change our way of thinking?

Peries says it’s well-known among locals that customer service can be nonexistent at times, so it definitely shouldn't be taken personally.

“Even Germans complain that there is not good service in Germany,” she says.

Peries brings up the saying “Servicewüste Deutschland”, which translates to “service desert”, meaning a complete lack of good customer service.

But Peries argues that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“I think in America and other places if you’re not all smiles then you can easily lose your job because there’s this ‘firing culture,'” she says. “But I think in Germany we don’t have that so much.

“People know they will keep their job even if they’re a bit rude sometimes. So if they’re nice to you then they mean it. But they don’t need to be as nice to you as in Great Britain or America because they are safer in their job.”

READ ALSO: How dropping the small talk helped me make friends with Germans

This results in, Peries argues, more sincere interactions.

Good customer service isn't guaranteed in Germany. Photo: DPA

'Thank you, driver'

This can only be positive. Restaurant workers are there to serve us food and drink, not keep customers entertained. Still, I can’t help thinking that Germans might actually enjoy it if they got involved in a little more friendly banter day-to-day.

In Aberdeen, the city in Scotland where I’m from, people say: “Thank you, driver” when they’re getting off the bus. Cashiers, as well as cafe and restaurant servers, will often ask you how your day is going, what you’re doing later on, or they might even inquire what you’ve been buying at the shops.

A complete stranger might stop and have a chat with you for no particular reason at all. Note that this happens in cities, not just in the countryside with smaller populations.

These little interactions can help make you feel warm inside on days where you’re feeling a bit down. They help you remember that you are a part of the world or the community.

For many people who don't have family nearby or don't go to an office regularly, this public small talk could be lifesaving.

Superficial conversation

So do Germans just not get small talk?

The fact there is no exact translation of “small talk” from English to German is telling. One of the translations – oberflächliche Konversation, meaning superficial conversation, signals how this concept is viewed here: a bit meaningless.

But Peries says it comes down to the different way of communicating in Germany: if someone starts a conversation with you, they want to talk to you and get to know you.

That's not always the case with English-language small talk: sometimes it's just polite to ask someone how they are, even if you don't care about the answer.

Cafe culture in Stuttgart. Photo: DPA

“I think for Germans it’s hard for them to realize that small talk is a thing on its own and it’s not used to get to know someone better,” says Peries. “When I lived in the UK people would ask how my day was and then they’d leave the room and I’d think: 'I haven’t even answered yet.'”

And if cashiers and restaurant servers began talking to customers in a more intimate way, then a German person might feel that they were being favoured.

“If somebody did small talk with me I'd feel like the person liked me more than the other customers,” says Peries.

But if there's one topic that's guaranteed to get everyone talking, it's the weather.

“Germans really do like to complain about the weather,” says Peries.

On that note, perhaps we're not so different after all.

Now we want to hear YOUR experiences. Do you have anything to say on the topic of cultural differences? What's it been like in Germany compared to your home country? Any surprises or do you want to get something off your chest? Tell us by emailing [email protected] and we'll get in touch with you or include your story in an upcoming article.

Member comments

  1. …..hmmm……………we were in cologne and berlin last may for the first time and found the locals to be friendly and actually quite chatty, especially in restaurants and bars…………….

  2. German restaurants make most of their money from the drinks not the food. If you ask for tap water then you’re being a real cheapskate and that’s why they react that way. Just PAY for a drink.

  3. Oh, the stories I could tell! I’ve lived in Berlin for 10 years and the rudeness never ceases to amaze me. I agree it is better outside of Berlin and especially in southern Germany. I really do think Berlin Germans need to be taught manners! They SHOULD be fired for being rude, unfriendly and often times racist. The odd thing is their reactions when you try to do a good turn, for example, a new queue opens up and you say to the people in front of you, “Do you want to go first?” and they look at you as if you’ve lost your mind. And yes, ordering Leitungs Wasser should be okay and I too get the hard stares. I have noticed that the Turkish businesses are much more polite and friendly. To mrdano – the locals might be friendly but the waitstaff and service people are not.

  4. A few years ago I was travelling towards Frankfurt-am-Main in a bar on an ICE train. Next to me were are delightful young couple who were both in love and had not known each other for very long.
    He was an Australian from Melbourne, whereas she was German with an extended family in Frankfurt-am-Main.
    She had great plans for him in Frankfurt, including visiting her parents, her cousins, and her grandparents, before delivering him to the airport precisely two hours before his flight to Melbourne.
    While exhibiting a teary stare, he uttered: “You’ll cause me to miss my plane!”
    She immediately exploded: “How dare you accuse me of doing such a thing to you.”
    “What on earth did I say that was wrong to you?”
    “You accused me of trying to cause you to miss your flight.”
    By now they were virtually shouting at each other.
    “No I did not!”
    “Yes you did!”
    “Oh, now I realise what has gone wrong. What I meant to say was I would be very happy to forget about the flight altogether.”
    They then fell into each other’s arms and wept.
    I really do hope that in 2019 they are still together, because the chemistry between them was really beautiful.
    There was a lesson for everyone in that train bar: whereas Germans tend to mean precisely what they say, we English speakers often say virtually the opposite of what we mean, with the true message coming via body language.

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CULTURE

German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Walk around the German Alpine village of Oberammergau, and the chances are you'll run into Jesus or one of his 12 disciples.

German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Of the 5,500 people living there, 1,400 — aged from three months to 85 — are participating this year in the once-a-decade staging of an elaborate “Passion Play” depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Dating back to 1634, the tradition has persisted through four centuries of wars, religious turmoil and pandemics — including the most recent Covid-19 crisis which caused the show to be postponed by two years.

“I think we’re a bit stubborn,” says Frederic Mayet, 42, when asked how the village has managed to hold on to the tradition.

Mayet, who is playing Jesus for the second time this year, says the Passion Play has become a big part of the town’s identity.

Oberammergau Passion Plays

Posters for the 42nd Oberammergau Passion Play – which was originally scheduled to take place in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmth

The only prerequisite for taking part in the five-hour show, whether as an actor, chorister or backstage assistant, is that you were born in Oberammergau or have lived here for at least 20 years.

“I remember that we talked about it in kindergarten. I didn’t really know what it was about, but of course I wanted to take part,” says Cengiz Gorur, 22, who is playing Judas.

READ ALSO: REVEALED: The best events and festivals in Germany this July

‘Hidden talent’ 

The tradition, which dates back to the Thirty Years’ War, was born from a belief that staging the play would help keep the town safe from disease.

Legend has it that, after the first performance, the plague disappeared from the town.

In the picturesque Alpine village, Jesus and his disciples are everywhere — from paintings on the the facades of old houses to carved wooden figures in shop windows.

You also can’t help feeling that there is a higher-than-average quota of men with long hair and beards wandering the streets.

Religious figurines Oberammergau

Religious figurines adorn a shop window in Oberammergau. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

An intricate image of Jesus graces the stage of the open-air Passion Play theatre, where the latest edition of the show is being held from mid-May to October 2nd.

“What has always fascinated me is the quality of the relationship between all the participants, young and old. It’s a beautiful community, a sort of ‘Passion’ family,” says Walter Lang, 83.

He’s just sad that his wife, who died in February, will not be among the participants this year.

“My parents met at a Passion Play, and I also met my future wife at one,” says Andreas Rödl, village mayor and choir member.

Gorur, who has Turkish roots, was spotted in 2016 by Christian Stückl, the head of the Munich People’s Theatre who will direct the play for the fourth time this year.

“I didn’t really know what to do with my life. I probably would have ended up selling cars, the typical story,” he laughs.

Now, he’s due to start studying drama in Munich this autumn.

“I’ve discovered my hidden talent,” he says.

READ ALSO: Nine of the best day trips from Munich with the €9 ticket

Violence, poverty and sickness

Stückl “has done a lot for the reputation of the show, which he has revolutionised” over the past 40 years, according to Barbara Schuster, 35, a human resources manager who is playing Mary Magdalene.

“Going to the Passion Play used to be like going to mass. Now it’s a real theatrical show,” she says.

In the 1980s, Stückl cut all the parts of the text that accused the Jews of being responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, freeing the play from anti-Semitic connotations.

“Hitler had used the Passion Play for his propaganda,” Schuster points out.

Stückl

Christian Stückl, the director of the Oberammergau Passion Play, holds a press conference announcing the cancellation of the play in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

The play’s themes of violence, poverty and sickness are reflected in today’s world through the war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic, say Mayet, the actor playing Jesus.

“Apparently we have the same problems as 2,000 years ago,” he says.

For 83-year-old Lang, who is playing a peasant this year, the “Hallelujah” after Christ has risen for the final time in October will be a particularly moving moment.

“Because we don’t know if we’ll be there again next time,” he says, his eyes filling with tears.

By Isabelle Le Page

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