We’ve all heard that Germans love order and rules, clearly stated in black and white. These processes and procedures can be complicated enough to learn and follow, but what about all the rules that we cannot read or see, but are very much part of life in Germany?
In this post I’d like to share with you all the unspoken rules I’ve broken (mostly inadvertently) since moving to Hamburg two and a half years ago. I should preface this post by saying that I enjoy living in Germany, the country has been very good to me and I don’t mean to offend anyone with my tongue-in-cheek observations.
I did very little research before moving here, which is strange as I’m such a Type A planner. My boyfriend and I had less than two weeks between leaving Rome and moving to Hamburg, with the Christmas festivities squeezed in-between. I assumed things would be quite similar to how they are in England, which has been true for the most part. However there are underlying cultural differences which can be subtle, sweet and strange.
Cross At Your Peril
The first month was mostly spent hibernating, when I wasn’t working or apartment hunting. Moving to northern Germany in January is no joke! One of the few times I ventured out onto those dicey, icy pavements, I committed my first faux pas. Crossing a main road, when there were no approaching cars visible in either direction, I received a loud ‘Tut!’ from an old woman on the pavement opposite. I figured she too was just having a particularly rough winter and forgot about it. Until it happened again a few weeks later (different street, different old lady). I mentioned it casually in an English lesson the next day and my students were aghast. They informed me that jaywalking is actually a crime here. Ooops! One of my students sheepishly admitted she sometimes, occasionally, from time to time, crosses a side street when there is no one else around. However, everyone agreed it mustn’t be done in front of children, who might be influenced by our blatant disregard for the rules. Apparently we should be good role models or risk incurring the wrath of glaring parents, disapproving strangers and police officers who can issue an on-the-spot €10 fine.
Two and a half years later, I must admit that I do cross at the occasional red light but it has become really ingrained in me to wait…and wait. When I’m back in London, I am often the last one left standing at a crossing, waiting patiently while all the other pedestrians have gone on ahead. I should clarify that us Londoners don’t have a death wish, we’re just too impatient to wait at crossings on empty roads and feel confident in our ability to judge the speed of approaching traffic.
Cash is King
This one has taken a lot of getting used to and my boyfriend still stubbornly refuses to carry cash most of the time. England has become a cashless society where you can pay for anything and everything with contactless payment, debit or credit card. In Hamburg, the majority of places prefer – or insist on – cash. You can pay on card in supermarkets and high street stores, but you shouldn’t assume that a café, restaurant, kiosk, bar or boutique shops accepts card. Always ask before ordering and look for a nearby cash machine if need be.
At supermarkets in Germany, you must be ready with your cash or card in easy reach. You should have your own reusable bags with you or have one ready to purchase from the store. Once you’re armed with your bags and means of payment, take a deeeep breath and prepare to be virtually assaulted with the items you wish to buy. Remember – you are responsible for packing your bags; not the cashier or another member of staff. Said cashier will hurl your shopping at you at lightning speed and you have to pack it away as quickly as humanly possible. They don’t care if items drop to the floor, or your eggs are being squashed by your milk carton. It’s a test of human endurance, with an impatient audience who will judge you if you slow down the process. When I first arrived in Germany, I was taken completely by surprise, as cashiers in my local Lidl back home move at a much calmer pace. There were more than a few times when I hadn’t taken my card out of my purse in time and you can actually feel the irritation rippling down the queue behind you.
Hallo, Hallo, Hallo, Hallo…
In Germany, whenever you enter and exit a shop/lift/elevator/dental surgery/doctor’s surgery, you should “Hallo” or “Tschüs” accordingly. You may even throw in a sophisticated ‘Ciao!’ when leaving, if you’re feeling fancy. If you pass someone in an office corridor, you say ‘Hallo’. If you pass someone who is eating their lunch in the staff room/kitchen area, you say ‘Hallo’ and possibly a cheery ‘Guten Appetit!’ Which is all very nice and friendly, and I probably sound like a big grump saying this but…. I could do without it all. I often forget to say ‘Hallo’ first and I never interrupt people when they’re eating. I just want to wolf down my lunch in silence, in the measly breaks I have between lessons. I want to scroll social media, listen to audio books and ignore the world around me. And this is coming from an extrovert who genuinely enjoys being around people!
Beware the Bikes
Hamburg is a very bike-friendly city and most roads have cycle paths, some which are more clearly marked than others. I have made the mistake of wandering onto a faded path and receiving an angry ‘Ding ding ding!’ from a cyclist racing along behind me, ringing their bell frantically. Now I’m much more careful, checking for paths which are less visible, especially at night. Cyclists travel very quickly on the assumption that pedestrians will stay out of their lanes or double-check before crossing over one. They will show you little mercy so best to stay out of their way.
Punctuality is Perfection
There’s a stereotype that Germans value punctuality above almost everything else, and I’d say there is a lot of truth in that. Luckily Hamburg’s public transport system is very efficient so it’s not difficult to be on time here. Although I’m always punctual for my appointments and lessons, I didn’t realise that for many German people (and well-adapted expats), punctuality is just as important for your social events. In Italy, I developed a much more laid-back attitude towards punctuality with my friends, but I quickly had to step it up a notch. There were a few occasions at the beginning, when I started socialising and making friends, that I arrived ‘fashionably late’ to learn that here in Germany I was just ‘late late’. I remember going to my first Book Club meeting, which was scheduled to start at 7pm. When I turned up at 7, I was the last person to arrive and had to squeeze onto the end of a long table of early birds. I’ve never been the last one to Book Club since.
Saving the worst until last! I have
mostly made my peace with the fact that almost all shops and supermarkets are closed on Sundays. Due to the Ladenschlussgesetz (“Store-closing law,”), German vendors are forbidden from operating on Sundays, with very few exceptions like supermarkets at central train stations and airports. My weekly routine has been adapted to ensure that I sort out all necessary shopping and errands between Monday to Saturday. However, as those of us living in Germany are incapacitated in many ways on Sundays, it would be REALLY great if we could use that day to do housework and boring domestic jobs that we have been putting off all week.
But no. “Quiet time” (“Ruhezeit”) takes place between 1-3pm and 10pm-7am during the week, all-day Sunday, and on German bank holidays. During these windows of time, it’s forbidden for both tenants and homeowners to make excessive noise. What activities are considered excessive?’. Things you might expect like playing loud music or having rowdy house guests… plus unexpected things like doing DIY, washing your car, using a lawn mower, washing machine or a vacuum cleaner. Even taking glass bottles to the bottle bank or having barbecues in communal gardens are on the hit list. It’s not just that your neighbours might come over to complain (although I’ve certainly heard of that happening). You could even receive a visit from the police, be fined or taken to court!
Ironically, my upstairs neighbour’s children run around every morning (including on the Day of Rest!), stomping their little feet like they’re wearing concrete shoes. Yet if I dare to hoover my living room rug on a Sunday afternoon, I’m considered the bad guy!
If you can think of any unspoken German rules I might have missed, please share them in the comments! If you’ve moved to another country, what are some of the rules that you have unknowingly (or deliberately!) broken?
Ciao for now
I can totally relate! Your description of the supermarket cashiers on speed had me in splits! When I first moved here, going to the supermarket was always a nerve racking experience. Especially had I dared to fumble with my cash because I barely understood the numbers speedy there snorted at me. In fact every time I come back from holiday, the first trip to the supermarket always catches me by surprise.
A rule I didn’t know existed until I broke it was discussing business over a meal. I once declined an invitation by my boss, to a spontaneous lunch because I had already eaten. My German husband listened in horror and told me it didn’t matter how full I was; eating with colleagues involves more than just the frivolity of food. Oops!
I didn’t know about that social faux pas either (although I’m not invited out to lunch often….hmmm). I’m glad you enjoyed reading it and could relate so much 😉
This was WILD to read! I found so much of it so shocking, and yet it was so interesting to hear about all of the differences. We all have our version of “normal” for sure, but yeah I’d struggle with a few of those. lol
Thanks Chelle – I’m glad you enjoyed it so much! Cultural differences are so fascinating to me – however big and small. They really widen your viewpoint, expose you to different customs, traditions, rules and laws and make you reflect on how things are done back in your home country. It’s definitely part of the fun of living abroad… even if the rules can be baffling at times!
We experienced so much of the same when we went for a holiday to Munich last December! I was nearly knocked down by a bicycle and we drive on the left side of the road, so it took a bit of getting used to. Loved your post!
Those bicycles can be lethal! Thanks for reading, Alma – I’m glad you enjoyed it so much 🙂
I really enjoyed this post and found it very interesting. The first time I and my family had ever seen the red and green men on traffic lights was on a family holiday in Germany when I was a young teenager. We did the usual British routine of “look right, look left, look right again, if all’s clear then cross” and crossed – on the red man – to the consternation of other pedestrians. I do feel that the British way of being taught as a child how to cross a road safely is better training for world travel than the German way. How to Germans cope in cities such as Hanoi or Naples or any city where you are not going to find red and green men on the traffic lights instructing you when it is safe to cross?
In contrast, I do like the German way of greeting staff on their way in and out of shops – the French do this too. A year or so ago I started saying “Hello” or “Good morning” as appropriate when getting on a bus, as otherwise the drivers have no contact with their passengers who all just tap in and out with payment cards. It’s good to acknowledge the person providing you with a service.
Perhaps there are thousands of frustrated Germans, scattered around the globe, standing at unmarked crossings… waiting for a clear sign they can cross the road 😉
I agree it’s nice to acknowledge bus drivers who might not converse with their passengers much in a typical day! Here in Hamburg most people have monthly or yearly travel passes (which they don’t need to show the driver) so interaction is minimal.
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