SHARE
COPY LINK
For members

READER INSIGHTS

From nudity to sandwiches: The biggest culture shocks for foreigners in Germany

The Local asked readers about the biggest culture shocks they've experienced in Germany - from a lack of soup spoons to stripping off in public. Here's what they had to say.

FKK beach
A naked couple sit on deck chairs at an FKK beach. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Axel Heimken

Moving to another country isn’t easy. As well as trying to get settled in your new life, you’re likely to encounter some local customs that may seem, well, a little odd.

Of course, this is totally different for everyone – and many people are surprised just how quickly they end up picking up some German habits themselves that can raise a few eyebrows on their next trip home.

Here are some of the main things that foreigners consider just a little bit merkwürdig (unusual) when they first arrive in Germany. 

The intense staring 

No, you haven’t accidentally left your house in your pyjamas today. What you’re encountering is affectionately known as the German stare, and if you come from a country where it’s rude to stare at strangers, it may feel a little bit uncomfortable at first.

Getting locked in the intense gaze of a German was something that a few of our readers mentioned, and for Sara, 32, from Oregon, it was hard to get used to at first.

“The German stare was really pronounced in Southern Germany and hard to deal with since I have a lot of anxiety anyways,” she said. “It can be hard sometimes, though I’ll do it myself now too.”

READ ALSO: Eight unique words and phrases that tell us something about Germany

A mountain of paperwork

Everyone knows that Germany is a fan of bureaucracy, but nothing quite prepares you for the shock of experiencing it first-hand.

“One of my biggest shocks is how almost everything requires a contract – from cell phones to dating sites,” said Christopher Wilson, 44, who grew up in New Orleans but now lives in Berlin.

“All of these things can be be easily set up and cancelled in the US in a matter of minutes. Here, I’ve learned some very expensive lessons forgetting to properly cancel my contracts.”

Fellow US citizen Nancy Landrum said she was also shocked by the amount of bureaucracy required to get anything done after moving to Leipzig.

“So many hoops to jump through,” she said, adding that the rules in Germany were surprisingly “strict and rigid”. 

… and dark-age digital services

Dealing with a big pile of paperwork is one thing, but sending that same pile of paperwork via fax machine? That’s a bridge too far.

For many respondents, digitalisation – or the lack of it – was a huge shock when they first moved to Germany and still takes some getting used to. 

“Bureaucracy, poor digitalisation, poor online services – I was expecting Germany to be much more efficient on the online services front,” said 37-year-old Michele from Italy. “This includes online grocery deliveries.”

A man with a fax machine

A man from the past (or from Germany) faxes a document. Photo: picture-alliance / gms | Sharp

A lot of people were also surprised by how hard it was to find places that accept card payments, and especially credit cards. 

Siva Prasad Tripuraneni, 28, from India, said he now appreciates the “fast banking system” and “technological advancement” whenever he goes back home, having experienced the complete opposite during his time in Germany. 

Customer service and dining out

Even something as simple as popping out for a meal or heading to the shops can alert people to some striking cultural differences in Germany. 

When Justin, 35, returned to the United States last summer, he found himself marvelling at the fact the restaurants were willing to give him tap water – even though he had been shocked by the lack of tap water given to customers when he’d first moved to Germany. 

For Alison, 54, the bad customer service was one of the first things that she noticed after moving to North Rhine-Westphalia from England. However, the shock of the difference has lessened over time. 

“The customer service is getting better or maybe I can handle it better now I speak German,” she explained. “But the lack of flexibility and willingness by customer service to handle exceptions is still poor in general.”

Other readers pointed out some slightly less obvious oddities in the German dining experience. 

“Has anyone noticed that you can’t get soup spoons in any restaurant?”, asked John Conlon from the UK. “You buy soup and have to use a serviette to wipe it off your chin.”

In this case, the cultural differences led John to an exciting new business idea. “I think I could make some money introducing soup spoons,” he said.  

READ ALSO: Trinkgeld: What you need to know about tipping culture in Germany

Supermarkets 

Think you’re safe from cultural differences in the supermarket? Think again. 

For most foreigners in Germany, the first trip to their local Netto or REWE can be a stressful one, and many people commented at the shock of getting items chucked at them breakneck speed while scrabbling to pack and pay at the checkout. 

This was the case for 35-year-old Sebastian from Australia, who told us he still “gets annoyed” by being rushed to pack his bags while food shopping. 

Netto cashier

A Netto cashier smiles at a customer, shortly before the manic item-scanning begins. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Netto Marken-Discount Stiftung & Co. KG | Netto Marken-Discount Stiftung &

“In general, I find the grocery store compresses many of the etiquette differences between US and Germany into one action-packed experience,” said another respondent from the US. “This sometimes includes being scolded or almost being hit by a car in the parking lot.”

Derald Preston, 55, from Long Island, found himself in an awkward standoff with a cashier at a Braunschweig supermarket as he waited for her to pack his items. 

“She began to give me the death look,” he said. “I couldn’t figure out what was wrong until my colleague told me that I had to bag my own groceries… with my own bag or buy one! How could I be so stupid not to bring my own grocery bags to the grocery store?”

The topsy-turvy world of bread

It’s no secret that Germans love their bread, but the culture around it can be confusing for foreigners. 

“There are a lot of really small things, like not finding a portable container that fits sandwich bread sized sandwiches,” said Sara from Oregon. “They sell sandwich bread, but apparently no one uses it for sandwiches.” 

For fellow American Ben, 25, it’s been hard to get used to dominance of wheat products and the lack of alternatives for people with dietary requirements. 

“As someone who is gluten free, living in Germany in particular has been incredibly challenging,” the Bochum resident told us. “I’ve also lived in Hungary and Austria, and both locations did a much better job of providing gluten free foods. Budapest surprisingly has many dedicated gluten free restaurants, but I have yet to find a single one in the entire Ruhrgebiet.”

Others pointed out that the culture of Abendbrot – having bread for dinner – also seemed strange, especially for people that are used to a hot, hearty evening meal back home. 

READ ALSO: Is Germany falling out of love with Abendbrot?

The love-affair with nudity

Frei-körper-kultur (FKK), or “free body culture”, is a big thing in Germany, but the love of public nudity can be bewildering to foreigners. 

“Why can’t people keep their clothes on?”, muses John Conlon. “One afternoon walking through a park in Berlin I saw a man with a leather jacket, boots but nothing else. I’ve seen a man with his trousers around his ankles, playing the guitar.”

Though the sight of people’s wobbly bits in public spaces does take some getting used to, foreigners who have been in Germany long enough can often come to the conclusion that if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them.

“I’ve been here long enough now, I actually join in with this carefree attitude to nudism,” John says. 

READ ALSO: ‘I took a deep breath’: An American’s first dip into German nudity

German healthcare 

If you happen to need a doctor’s appointment to process the stress of all these culture shocks, you may be in for a nasty surprise: for many of our readers, the healthcare system and practices was one of the biggest shocks they had to deal with. 

Felicity Carter from Sydney, Australia, described “traumatising” experiences of being ill in hospital and dealing with the far less private body culture in Germany. 

“There were no curtains around the beds, doctors doing intimate examinations of other patients in front of me, a patient with diarrhoea being put on a mobile toilet right in front of my bed, no paper gowns for x-rays or other medical exams, and ancillary staff wandering through the room during diagnostic procedures when I was naked,” she said. 

Doctolib app

A man optimistically attempts to book a doctor’s appointment on the Doctolib app. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

Others commented on the fact that women aren’t given gowns to cover up during intimate cancer screenings, while some said the biggest shock was how long they had to wait for an appointment.

Part of getting used to life in Germany is about “developing the confidence that you’ll still be alive when you confirm a doctor’s appointment for 2024 or something!”, joked 42-year-old Prakruthi from India. 

READ ALSO: ‘It works’: Your verdict on the German health insurance system

Rudeness 

Experiencing the full force of German directness is a major culture shock for many foreigners – almost regardless of where they come from. 

“I find Germans so hostile and rude sometimes,” said 33-year-old JJ from the Philippines. “I’ve never been shoved in the US or in Asia but Germans are willing to shove you out of the way if they think you’re in their way or walking too slowly. I’ve never been manhandled like that before but it’s happened multiple times now.” 

Edward from Cornwall, England, said the “rudeness” and “bluntness” of some Germans had been hard to get used to when he moved to Berlin – even when he attempted to speak German and be accommodating.

“The worst is checkout staff barely saying hello and throwing my stuff through at lightning speed,” the 30-year-old explained. “Neighbours who just stand and stare blankly and don’t respond to a simple ‘Moin’/’Guten Morgen’ is a close second.”

READ ALSO: OPINION: Germans’ love of criticising English skills is an unappealing national habit

The good stuff 

Of course, living in Germany isn’t all bad. A lot of people actually found they were pleasantly surprised by a lot of things they experienced after moving here, from lower levels of poverty to cleaner, safer streets. 

Dan from New York enjoys how much safer he feels in Erlangen than he does in the US. “I miss the confidence we have here in Germany that there is little to no threat to well being, when visiting from the US,” he said.

Fellow New Yorker Craig, 68, was similarly amazed by how clean, efficient and cheap Germany is. “A public transit system that works, beautiful parks, low cost of living and smooth streets” were all among the positives he noticed after moving here.

Munich Englischer Garten

People bathes in the river in Munich’s Englischer Garten. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Felix Hörhager

Other Americans pointed out how amazing it was to be in a country with no guns – and how much reverse culture shock they felt when they returned to the US – while some marvelled at the unbelievable amount of paid holiday their German friends were given at work. 

“When I first moved here German friends would say they were absolutely broke then once drunk, after I’ve paid, talk about a vacation they were soon taking to Morocco, Greece, Mexico, etc.,” said Shon Abram from LA. “I was a freelancer and never realised German contracts allow up to 40 days of vacation.”

Chicago-born Emma, 28, said the German work/life balance was admirable but still a bit of a shock to the system. 

“The commitment to their free time is great, but still very difficult for me to fully wrap my head around,” she told us. 

Thanks to everyone who shared their experience with us. Although we weren’t able to include all the submissions, we read each of them and are sincerely grateful to everybody who took the time to fill in the survey.

If there’s anything you’d like to ask or tell us about our coverage, please get in touch.
 

Member comments

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

READER INSIGHTS

‘It works’: Your verdict on the German health insurance system

Getting to grips with German health insurance can be tricky for foreigners. We asked readers what they think about it, and what improvements they'd like to see.

'It works': Your verdict on the German health insurance system

Along with registering as a resident, another task you have to check off when you move to Germany is setting up health insurance. 

In fact since 2009, getting health insurance has been a legal requirement for every person with a permanent place of residence in Germany.

Most people in Germany – around 86 percent of the population – are part of the statutory public healthcare system (Gesetzliche Krankenversicherung, GKV). It means that contributions are split between the employer and employee, and are deducted from employees’ salaries automatically.

People with private healthcare insurance (Private Krankenversicherung, PKV) usually pay contributions to the health insurance firm directly. 

In our recent survey on attitudes to German health insurance, almost 87 percent of around 40 respondents said they were insured via the statutory system. 

But just how does the whole system stack up in the eyes of foreigners?

READ ALSO: The three new services covered by health insurance in Germany

‘As good as the best’

Our readers painted a mixed picture. But most of the respondents to our survey – 65.8 percent – said they were largely satisfied with their German health insurance provider, while 23.7 percent said they were not happy. Just over 10 percent said they weren’t sure. 

David, 74, in Hechingen said the German health insurance system works well. “I have lived in the UK, the US, NZ and various other EU states,” he said. “The German system is as good as the best. Much better than the US system, less creaking than the UK NHS.”

Another reader Rebecca, 49, who is based in Berlin, praised the system. 

“I recently had to be referred to see a consultant and it was quick and easy,” she said. “I can also get doctor’s appointments relatively quickly.”

A doctor's waiting room.

A doctor’s waiting room. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Karmann

Others took a slightly less enthusiastic view.

Eric Cloutier, 40, in Berlin said: “Like everything in Germany, (health insurance) is needlessly involved, comically bureaucratic, and involves a mountain of paperwork in the year 2022, but… it works.”

Some respondents said the system was a lot better for people in employment, but was stressful and expensive for the self-employed. 

Rosemary Hardy, 72, in Hamburg, said: “It’s fine as long as you’re employed, but the minute you turn freelance it becomes a bureaucratic nightmare.”

Another reader said they wished Germany had a system more like the NHS in the UK, which is free to access at the point of contact. 

Thumbs up for English-language services

One theme that came up a lot was services in foreign languages. Some of the larger Krankenkassen , such as Techniker Krankenkasse (TK) and AOK, offer advice in English. 

Andrew Walker, 53, who lives in the Karlsruhe district, said: “TK has English speakers accessible by phone. They helped me navigate the system when I needed an urgent specialist appointment.”

He gave the health insurance system the thumbs up but said: “It is more expensive than many think, especially if you are a freelancer”.

For a 29-year-old reader in Berlin, the struggle to find an English speaker has been difficult. 

“Being an international guy, I need an English-speaking partner, but AOK always says their special English-speaking staff are busy,” he said.

On its website, AOK says it offers 24/7 “expert English-language support”.

Several readers urged health organisations to expand their English advice service.

Jaton’ West, in Berlin, who is with private insurer DKV, said: “As a foreigner, it would be helpful if they offered support in English. They were perfectly happy to converse with me in English when selling me the policy, but not in giving me service. Since it is a private insurance, that means there’s a greater likelihood that they will have foreign customers and many speak English, so it would be useful.”

A 42-year-old in Frankfurt also said he’d like to see all health insurance apps enabled so that they can switch to English as well as German. 

Wlademir, 32, in Offenbach said he would like to see “more services and more English providers”.

What doesn’t work about the health insurance system in Germany?

Several respondents said they were unhappy about the access to services through insurance.

One reader flagged up how hard it has been to get mental health support with their insurance. 

READ ALSO:

Others mentioned gender issues – for instance contraception is generally not covered by insurance in Germany because it is viewed as a lifestyle choice. 

“I paid hundreds of euros for my IUD, and am just about to pay 50 for an internal ultrasound due to pain, additionally I have to pay for a pap smear screening,” said one reader.

A health insurance card.

A German health insurance card. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/BKK Mobil Oil | gettyimages/Lothar Drechsel

Luna, 41, in Berlin who has private health insurance, said women’s healthcare in Germany was “shockingly conservative”.

“I am required to use a plan with maternity cover (I’m child-free by choice), yet birth control is not covered and I have to pay out of pocket for that because it is considered a lifestyle choice,” she said.

“It has a more expensive monthly premium than the plan without maternity cover. Isn’t having a child in today’s world just also a lifestyle choice? I’m a non-EU citizen on a visa, and was told I was required to have the maternity cover included in order to qualify for a visa renewal. So I am paying a little extra each month and also for my contraception.”

READ ALSO: Do Germany’s planned changes to abortion laws go far enough?

Albina, 29, in Hamburg said the queues for getting appointments with specialists were too long and “doctors don’t prescribe medicine very willingly”.

A few other readers said they couldn’t work out why some services were not covered by health insurance.

“I don’t understand how they decide what should and shouldn’t be covered by insurance. You pay so much health insurance that you expect basic things like treatment for skin infections to be covered,” said a 33-year-old reader in Frankfurt. 

One reader said he wished basic health insurance included dental cover. 

What else could be improved?

Along with the points already mentioned, a few readers said they would like to see more holistic services.

Eric Cloutier, 40, in Berlin said: “Evolve a little to include some of the more holistic things, but also expand in to acupuncture and osteopathy a bit more.”

Andrew in Karlsruhe also wants to see improvements: “It is still lagging behind in its accessibility online and non-traditional means. It’s very hard to get access to health records using the TK system and I’ve heard its no better with other providers.

READ ALSO: Why more than 20 million people in Germany face higher health insurance costs

According to readers, public insurance works better than private, particularly because private insurance can end up being super pricey in the event of illness or as you get older. 

And once more, the issue of paperwork cropped up being a problem.

A 35-year-old in Berlin said: “Private insurers do not have the level of integration that the public ones have. If you have a private health insurer, you have to do a lot of invoices back and forth.”

Dell, 30, in Nuremberg said public health insurance works well because it doesn’t “break your bank”.

“Also private health insurance will be very costly,” he said. “So it is very wise to stick with public health insurance if you want to live Germany for long term.”

Judy, 73, Rheinland-Palatinate said there are positives to being private but in the end it is very expensive. 

“If you are not privately insured, waiting times to see specialists are incredibly long,” she said, adding that it is “almost impossible” to change over to the public system if you are private. 

“This possibility (to change) is urgently needed as the rates for private insurance rise every year,” she said. 

*******

Thanks to everyone who shared their experience with us. Although we weren’t able to include all the submissions, we read each of them and are sincerely grateful to everybody who took the time to fill in the survey.

If there’s anything you’d like to ask or tell us about our coverage, please get in touch.
SHOW COMMENTS