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CULTURE

12 mistakes foreigners make when moving to Germany

When moving to Germany, you're bound to make a few Fehler (mistakes). Here's a dozen common ones to avoid.

12 mistakes foreigners make when moving to Germany
Photo: DPA

Take heed of the following advice and you’ll be fitting in like a local in no time. 

Think we’ve got it wrong? Being a Besserwisser (know-it-all) is a very German trait, so please let us know in the comments. 

1. Disregarding punctuality 

There are several German stereotypes which arrivals will realise remain just that: stereotypes. 

In real life Germans are funny, vegetarian fare is available and tasty (at least in cities) and efficiency is a pure myth (more on that later). 

But punctuality is one of the few German stereotypes which rings true. 

Whether in a business or personal context – and especially when travelling – being on time is a must. 

No matter the traffic or train delay, Germans will arrive on time. So must you. 

If you don’t, you won’t be perceived as disorganised, forgetful or lost – your lateness will be viewed as intentional, a direct product of an attitude which says ‘my time is more valuable than yours’. 

Just be on time. 

Make sure you’re on time so you can engage in the popular German sport of ‘complaining about the punctuality of Deutsche Bahn’. Image: DPA

2. Making friends with expats only 

Germany has the highest foreign-born population of any country in Europe – and the second-highest worldwide after the US. 

In states such as Berlin, Bremen, Hesse, Hamburg and Baden-Württemburg, more than 15 percent of the population is foreign-born. 

This means it’s easy to make friends with foreigners – or indeed expats from your home country. 

In maps: Where do foreigners live in Germany? 

And while familiarity is a great antidote to homesickness, failing to get to know locals will mean you never really integrate. 

From restaurants to holiday tips – and of course getting a grasp of the language – getting to know locals will broaden your horizons and help you blend in.

Which brings us to…

3. Not learning German

It’s difficult. It’s tough. There will be moments when you have your der, die, das corrected by a five-year-old child. But if you want to live in Germany and make the most of it, you absolutely need to learn German. 

It might surprise some arrivals to Germany but in larger cities – particularly Berlin, Frankfurt and Hamburg – it is actually possible to get by with English. 

Most Germans speak excellent English and they’ll want to speak it with you. But resist the temptation, push ahead with your German and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. 

A German dictionary. Image: DPA

4. Thinking you can pay with your card

Unlike any of its northern and western neighbours, Germany has failed to fully embrace card payments. 

Although the coronavirus pandemic has made a slight change to payment habits, cash remains king in Germany. 

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

So much so that people even use it for large transactions – like this story from 2019 about a pensioner who lost an envelope containing €20,000 in cash he was carrying to buy a new car. 

While we’d hazard a guess that most car dealerships have an old card reader lying around, if you’re going to a restaurant or bar you’d be best placed to stay safe and carry cash. 

5. Going grocery shopping on Sundays

Even in the biggest cities, supermarkets in Germany are closed Sundays. 

There are some exceptions – large train stations will often have open supermarkets on Sundays – but by and large you’ll need to do your shopping from Monday to Saturday. 

This can be tough for people who work long hours – in some parts of the country supermarkets are not only closed on Sundays but they won’t open after 8pm – so be sure to be prepared. 

6. Forgetting to carry painkillers

Another puzzling experience for new arrivals is that you can buy a refrigerated one-litre bottle of Jägermeister from the gas station while you fill up, but you’ll need to travel to a pharmacy to buy paracetamol, aspirin or ibuprofen. 

Not only will that be hard – they’re not open evenings or weekends, remember – but each time you ask to buy a packet, you’ll be lectured by your pharmacist on the dangers of taking painkillers and asked if you’ve ever taken them before. 

This in itself is a very German phenomenon – slightly annoying, but ultimately responsible and well-intentioned – so if you’re prone to headaches, muscle or period pains, think ahead and stay prepared. 

7. Standing up to pee 

This might appear only relevant to 50 percent of the population, but as both male and female Germans will tell you, it concerns anyone who has to use a toilet. 

In public toilets and at bars and restaurants urinals and pissoirs will be common place. Peeing outside against a tree is more socially acceptable than in many other countries. 

But at home, all men (and of course women) will be expected to sit down to pee, no matter how good you think your aim is. 

The sooner you get used to it, the better. 

Know when to sit down to pee – and when not to. Image: DPA

8. Believing in the myth of German efficiency

So in point 1 we covered the very real and accurate German stereotype of punctuality. 

In point 8, we move to the very mythical German stereotype of efficiency. 

While some German businesses can occasionally be accused of at least trying to be efficient, when dealing with government things are likely to take a long, long time. 

Getting your internet connected? Months. Appointment for a visa? Months. A doctors appointment at any kind of specialist? Months. 

No matter what you’re doing, be ready for it to take a long time.

Although anyone who’s been to a restaurant in Berlin, Hamburg or anywhere north and east will have experienced the service staff being very ‘efficient’ with their smiles, the origin of the myth of German efficiency remains a mystery to many. 

Editor’s note: German efficiency – or lack of it – has become a big topic during the coronavirus pandemic with regards to the slow vaccine rollout. Check out our recent opinion article where our writer argues that the vaccination debacle exposes the myth of German efficiency.

9. Jaywalking

It’s 11 at night. There’s nobody around, least of all traffic. You want to get home. The Ampelmännchen (pedestrian signal) is red. You decide to walk across. 

Other than a few dirty looks and perhaps the vocalised protests of older Germans, you’re also likely to get a ticket if there are any police in the vicinity. 

Ampelmännchen: Germany’s funny obsession with little green men

Germans like rules and they like following them. 

Nowhere is this clearer than at pedestrian signs, where German parents will see you cross and loudly explain to their children why they should never follow your bad example. 

10.  Failing to validate transit tickets

Even if you’ve bought a ticket, don’t forget to stamp it at any of the machines marked “bitte entwerten” on the platforms, otherwise it will be deemed “ungültig” (invalid) and you will be hit with a hefty fine.

Unlike in other countries, where ticket-munching barriers separate people from the trains and platforms, in Germany you’ll be able to walk straight off the street and onto a train. 

Make sure you validate before you travel. Image: DPA

As a result, it’s easier to forget to validate your tickets. But if you don’t you’ll be Schwarzfahren (riding without a ticket) and you’ll be liable to pay a penalty. 

And with ticket controllers in some German cities paid a commission by how many people they catch, they’re unlikely to listen to you when you say “you didn’t know”. 

Just stamp your ticket and ride in peace. 

READ: Why Berlin’s public transport payment system might just be more modern than London’s 

11. Walking into the bike lane

Germans may not bike at the level of their Dutch and Danish neighbours, but they’re not far behind and nor is the cycling infrastructure (mostly). 

Bike lanes weave their way through cities and towns across Germany, mostly running parallel to sidewalks and traffic lanes.

Sometimes they’ll be a different colour or marked with a sketch of a bike, but other times they’ll be harder to work out. 

But with some cyclists travelling at a rapid speed – and others keen on a bit of road rage – keep your eyes peeled and stay out of the way. 

12. Small talk 

On second thought, perhaps the German stereotype of efficiency comes down to their attitude towards small talk. 

Germans love going on long examinations of seemingly unimportant things – “Why would you shop there when the vegetables are 12 cents cheaper next door? Why would you buy a monthly ticket when you can save €4 by buying a yearly ticket? Would you like to hear the names of each highway I used to drive here and why I selected the route? No? Well I’ll tell you anyway.”

Yet asking your long-time supermarket checkout worker “Wie geht’s?” is likely to be met with puzzled looks which imply “Wer sind Sie denn, die Polizei?”

When it comes to small talk, Germans don’t understand it, don’t like it and won’t engage in it. 

Unless of course it’s about the weather and you feel like complaining. In fact, there’s nothing more German. So let loose. 

Member comments

  1. A lovely summary of some basic do’s and don’ts. The one that gets me is the insistence that men should sit to pee. I’ve even visited private houses where they have little warning signs above the cistern. What is the basis for this tradition? Presumably that a man’s stream tends to splash. But even the most domineering host is unlikely to insist on checking what one is doing behind the closed toilet door, so personally, wild dogs would not force me to sit to pee. The answer is simple, gentlemen visitors .. . lift the seat, and wipe up any splashes you make.

  2. Well, the answer is simple you say nothing would make you sit down and pee. … this could have come from living, working,on boats and sailing…(an obvious reason to sit). my Mann always sits down and gives the order repeatedly to non Germans who travelled with us or visit. It does sometimes become a humorous discussion but I believe they respect the tradition of a country they are visiting or guests of. Obviously you do not.

  3. I wish I had read this article a couple of weeks ago, why? So I had another good reason to cancel my subscription,maybe. I understand these stereotypes have existed for a long long time and are routinely rolled out here in ‘The Local’, but honestly does the editorial staff/article writer still think they apply to all of Germany and all Germans, and are the limited comparisons with ‘elsewhere’ really valid? I doubt you do and I recognise it’s not really serious stuff and it’s just another space filler to get a giggle or two. However, for me- someone who has lived here for 8 years and not in one of the major cities and has not involved himself in any ex-pat communities, is married to a German… I’m tired of the inconsistencies and whining relating to each and every one of the 12 points (why is it always 12?). Perhaps a polite time for a change in style.

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For members

GERMANY EXPLAINED

Why are shops in Germany closed on Sundays – and will it ever change?

Germany's strict ban on shops opening on Sundays can be a shock to foreigners. We looked at the culture around it, and spoke to one of the country's largest trade unions to find out if things are ever likely to change.

Why are shops in Germany closed on Sundays - and will it ever change?

It’s Sunday. You’ve invited people for dinner, but you’ve forgotten the most important ingredient. Tough luck – you’ll either have to do without or wait until Monday because your local shops are shut. 

Most of us are familiar with this inconvenience, and perhaps you’ve even found yourself screaming: “Why?” in frustration in front of a locked-up supermarket. 

But it’s something us adopted Germans have had to get used to. We decided to take a look at the reasons behind Germany’s ban on Sunday shopping – and to find out if it might change in future. 

Where does the rule come from?

The Sonntagsruhe or ‘Sunday rest’ principle is an integral part of German culture, so much so that it is enshrined in the German constitution (Grundgesetz).

Article 140 of the law, which has remained unchanged since 1919, says: “Sundays and state-recognised public holidays remain protected by law as days of rest from work and spiritual upliftment.” 

But the practice of not working on Sunday has been around for much longer. The idea that the seventh day of the week is a day of rest dates back to the old testament and was declared a general day of rest across the Roman Empire as early as 321, by Roman Emperor Constantine.

In the centuries since, however, most of Europe has gradually relaxed the strict ban on commercial activities on Sundays. 

But in Germany, the rules remain restrictive. It’s unlikely to change anytime soon partly because of religious reasons, and also in relation to the interests of workers.

Germany’s biggest trade union Verdi spelled out their view. “It’s not ‘modern’ to work seven days a week,” they told The Local. “That’s the Middle Ages.” 

What exactly does the law mean?

On the face of it, the German law forbids all forms of work on Sundays and public holidays, though numerous exceptions are laid out in the Working Time Act. 

As well as emergency and rescue services, hospitals, nursing and care facilities, exceptions include cultural and sporting activities, and the hospitality sector. 

Another notable exemption to the rule is bakeries, which are allowed to open for three hours on Sundays – which is why you may often find a long queue at your local baker if you want to get your freshly baked Brötchen on Sunday morning. 

A saleswoman reaches for a loaf of bread in a bakery.

A saleswoman reaches for a loaf of bread in a bakery. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Mohssen Assanimoghaddam

Illustrating how seriously the rule can be taken in Germany, there have even been cases of bakeries being sued for selling bread for too long on Sundays.

Shops, however, aren’t exempt from the rule and, the only way they can legally open on a Sunday is on a so-called verkaufsoffener Sonntag – Sunday trading day.

In most federal states, shops are allowed to open on between four and eight Sundays per year, and the States can decide when these should be. The chosen days must, however, be linked to a relevant occasion – such as a local festival, a market, a trade fair, or a similar event. 

Sunday openings also have to be recognisable as an exception to the general rule and Sunday openings that have already been approved can often be later overturned by the courts.

How strictly is the rule enforced?

Retailers who break the rules and open for business on Sunday can face fines ranging between €500 and €2,500.

The strictness of enforcement can vary widely between different regions.

In Berlin, for example, you can still find lots of Spätis (late night shops) open on Sundays. Although this is technically illegal, the authorities in the capital seem to take more of a relaxed approach to enforcement than in other states. 

A "Späti" late-night shop in Berlin.

A “Späti” late-night shop in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Florian Schuh

In the traditionally Catholic state of Bavaria, for example, the law is much more strictly guarded and enforced.

READ ALSO: Why Germany has strict shop opening hours

Is the law likely to change?

A survey by Spiegel in 2017 showed that 61 percent of Germans wanted to be able to shop on a Sunday, and this desire is shared by the trade industry.

The German Trade Association, for example, which represents around 400,000 independent companies, has strongly criticised Germany’s refusal to budge on the issue of Sunday openings on several occasions and argued that Sunday opening is also popular with staff, with many shop assistants appreciating the work in a more relaxed atmosphere.

In its latest statement on the issue, the association stated that, especially after following the economic impact of the pandemic, many retailers would benefit greatly from being able to open on Sundays. 

READ ALSO:

“It is remarkable that in no other EU country Sunday opening is as restricted as in Germany,” the association said. “Even in strongly Catholic EU countries such as Italy and Poland, shoppers can generally shop on Sundays. The same applies to France, although they place great value on culture and socialising.”

However, even if there is a widespread desire in some quarters to allow Sunday trading, an amendment to the constitution would require the consent of two-thirds of the German parliament. Also, there remains strong opposition to changing the rule from many workers’ groups and trade unions.

Trade union Verdi, which regularly files complaints against states and organisations which seek to deviate from Sunday trading restrictions, said that Sunday rest is still very important for workers.

A sign reads “Spring for Frankfurt – Sunday trading day” in front of a shoe shop in Frankfurt.

A sign reads “Spring for Frankfurt – Sunday trading day” in front of a shoe shop in Frankfurt. Photo: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb | Arne Dedert

A spokesperson said: “We have just one day a week when employers can’t stop us from going to football together, meeting friends, attending cultural events, or spending free time with the whole family.

“And we want to keep it that way. There are six days a week when we can go shopping, take the car to the garage, do our banking, or get the package delivered from the online retailer. On Sunday, there has to be peace and quiet.”

The Verdi spokesperson added that it’s important to think about “work-life balance, and not about being available 24/7 for a company”.

We also asked the union if the law looks set to change in the near future.

The spokesperson said: “Sunday, which is a non-working day for most people, has so far been protected by the majority of political parties in Germany.

“Verdi, with its almost two million members, continues to work to ensure that working on Sunday does not become an everyday occurrence.”

So it appears that the culture shock for many non-Germans of shops being closed on Sundays won’t change anytime soon. 

READ ALSO: From nudity to sandwiches – the biggest culture shocks for foreigners in Germany

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