Part of being a convincing actor or writer is understanding not only character motivation, but WHERE that character is coming from — both internally and externally. It may not seem like much, but these details can make your art authentic in a way that glibly using stereotypes never will. For example, my mother gave me a glass pickle as a Christmas ornament. There was a note card attached with a story about how Germans all have a pickle ornament and hide it on their Christmas tree every year. More than just a family tradition, this was a NATIONAL TRADITION. Only problem? None of my German au pairs had heard of this. None of my German friends. Not even the weird guy at my post office who occasionally speaks German to me. Myth #1 DEBUNKED. Here’s some real differences as outlined by my friend Isabel Florian.
Izzy is uniquely qualified to comment on differences because she is fluent in both languages, has attended college in both countries, and has created a life in both places, switching back and forth at will.
We first met “Aunt Izzy” when she worked as an au pair for us in 2009. Since that year she has been back twice for extended visits. Here are her every day observations:
I grew up in a small town in the far south-west of Germany. It’s only a 10min drive to France and my dad drives to Switzerland everyday for work. So I grew up knowing that things work differently in other countries. However, knowing that and actually experiencing it are “two different pairs of shoes” as we would say in German.
I hope you will all enjoy reading this, no matter if you are German or American. I might have exaggerated a little sometimes, but be assured that I don’t want to offend anyone with this. I love them both – Germany and the US!!
- 1. Birthdays: Let’s say it is Wednesday and next Tuesday is gonna be your birthday. You’re at work, the gym, the mall or where ever you like to spend time and you run into a friend. Here is what you think if you are….
….American: “Oh cool, I haven’t seen that dude in a while!! Maybe I should invite him to my birthday party this weekend? Celebrating on my actual birthday would’ve been nice for a change. But this weekend was just so much more convenient and who even cares if it’s a little early?! As if something could happen – haha!! Look at that, he remembered that it’s only a few days until my birthday and congratulated me. I’ll totally invite him to the party, it’ll be a blast!!”
….German: “Oh cool, I haven’t seen that dude in a while!! Wait, I think he knows that it’s gonna be my birthday soon. Don’t wish me a happy birthday!! DON’T!!!! It is not my birthday yet!! Something terrible will probably happen if you do!!!! Aaaaah!! Oh, good thing he remembered to make sure to ask first if it already was my birthday. I’ll invite him to my birthday party in two weeks. This weekend would’ve been so much better, but there’s no way I’ll ever celebrate before the actual day!!”
2. Chips (and BBQs): No matter if Lays or Chio, they come in all kinds of flavors and are an all time favorite in both the US and Germany. Yet they’re treated very differently….
America: “We’re gonna have a BBQ later. Ribs, Hot Dogs, Cheeseburgers – can’t wait!! Let’s check what we got here – potatoes…, lettuce….screw that. Oh yeah and chips. That’s perfect for a BBQ (and lunch)!! I gotta remember to go to the store though tomorrow to get something for movie night…. maybe popcorn? Or nachos?”
Germany: “We’re gonna have a BBQ later. Steak, all those different sausages and grilled feta cheese – can’t wait!! Let’s check what we got here – nothing but chips. Not like they’re gonna help me with a BBQ!! At least that’s perfect for movie night. But now I better go to the store and get some potatoes and lettuce so I can fix some salads for the BBQ (and lunch)!!”
3. Staying/Leaving: You’re at the movies and just saw a really good film. Or you’re at a restaurant and just had a great dinner. Different location, same reaction. If you are…
….German you will stay in your seat. The thing was great. Why get up and leave right away? Then it’ll be over. It’s been great, so you should totally keep sitting for a while and savor it. What’s the rush anyways?!
….American you will get out of your seat. Immediately. The thing was great. But it’s over now so what’s the point of staying anyways?! It’s not like anything else will happen.
4. Bumping into people: You’re at the grocery store and you’re concentrating on picking out one of the thousands of tooth paste flavors. (You’re wondering why there are so many different flavors, a total of 5 would be more than enough for you.) But anyways, you’re standing there thinking about nothing but toothpaste when a random stranger, bumps into you. As….
….an American YOU say sorry even though the other person ran into you. (They’ll probably apologize, too.)
….a German you stare at them until THEY apologize. (And if they don’t you mutter something under your breath about how rude people are nowadays – just loud enough so you can be sure the person who ran into you can hear you. A glare always helps, too.)
5. Silverware: No hot meal without the help of fork, knife and spoon. Right?! If you are….
….German you don’t really need the spoon. Well, except for soup maybe. But other than that there is no food you can’t and won’t eat without a fork and a knife.
Pizza, salad, mashed potatoes,… you can and have eaten all of them with a fork and a knife. Ever since you we’re a kid. And you will keep doing it!! Why else would silverware even have been invented?!
….American you don’t really need the knife. Well, except to cut meat maybe. But other than that you can eat every food with only a fork or a spoon. What the heck – if you’re not at a restaurant you can just put your meat on the fork and take bites of it (at least if you’re under 16). What’s the big deal?! You’ve done that ever since you we’re a kid and you’ll keep doing it. Why did God give you ten fingers anyways?!?
6. Socks: Everybody wears them, no one really thinks about them. But….
….if you are German there is absolutely no way that you would ever pull your socks any higher then to the top of your shoes. If you know nothing else about fashion – for you that is the ultimate fashion faux-pas. Socks should never be seen!! (Except maybe you’re older than 35. Then apparently something seems to change and for some weird reason you decide that it’s okay to wear socks with sandals.)
….if you are American (especially if you’re a guy) you pull up your socks as high as you possibly can. It doesn’t matter that you’re wearing shorts and that it’s summer and 100F/37C outside – you pull those socks all the way up to your knees. That’s how they were made and that’s how you wear them. (But under no circumstance you would ever wear them with sandals!!)
7. Summer heat: It is summer and it’s hot. Could there be a better place to spend time than the pool, the lake or the beach? If you are…
….American your air-conditioned house is a where you feel best in the heat. But you can’t stay inside all day long, so you pack everything up and go swimming. If you’re a girl and younger than 16 you’ll probably wear a one-piece. Maybe even a swim shirt, also if you’re a boy. That way you don’t even need sunscreen. You swim for a little while but when it’s going towards the late afternoon you can’t wait to get back to the coolness of your air-conditioned house.
….German you got up early in the morning to close all the windows so the nights coolness won’t be pushed away by the outside heat. You decide to go swimming. On the way there you stop by the store to get something but you try to get out of there as fast as you can, because you’re just too cold with the air-conditioning running. At the pool you’ll probably where a bikini, no matter how old you are. If you’re an adult and you try to get a nice tan it’s totally okay to sunbathe topless. Swim shirts? Only surfers wear those. You stay as long as you can. At home it’s hot too and here there’s at least the water where you can cool down.
Do you agree with Izzy’s observations? Comment below and let us know.
12 thoughts on “Those Crazy Germans…”
Fun! I love the comparisons. My son is living in Brazil, and there are a good number of differences between there and the US. For one thing, fast food places like Burger King and McDonald’s are sit-down (no takeout) there.
That’s interesting! When I lived in the Czech Republic you had to pay for ketchup packets 🙂 How long has your son been living there?
My dad was stationed in Germany twice and I never heard of then pickle! And my wife says I very much need to learn the art of lingering if I want of go to Europe
This pickle is very suspicious. Maybe the ‘story’ was manufactured in the same factory that manufactured the Christmas ornament. Either that, or one family somewhere decided to hang a pickle…maybe that is a short story waiting to happen.
Or mom was trying to start the tradition. Years from now we will,all have a pickle!
Hah haa this is funny Sherri! The one piece bathing suit applies to all females all ages in US. I remember Maya in the pool with only the bottom of her bikini when she was three and we did get stares… Here in Turkey, totally cool until you are like 8. And if you are a baby boy then bathing suit is optional. Gotta display the goods that God bestowed upon that lucky child 🙂
And McD and BK have home delivery in Turkey.
Home delivery? That would totally take off in American — although the pizza guys would get mad.
Haha I think acutally this is totally true in all points! 🙂 There is no better way to describe the differences between the cultures 🙂 Also a difference for example: You want to visit your aunt..she lives 10h drive away. As an american: Cool let’s go over there for the weekend. As a german: We have to plan at least a 7 day stay over there otherwise it would not be worthwhile 🙂
That’s a good one, Fabienne. You’re right, I drive up to visit my sister in Pittsburgh (5h drive) for the weekend.
At times I think there is a greater difference between Austrians and Germans than Germans and Americans. Germans are more willing to help the environment (public trans is an example) than Americans and Germans are more willing to accept other ideas as long as they are seen as being “German.” I enjoy the German culture and way of life much more than the American-I enjoy a good beer and not being judged about it! I also enjoy the German news being actual NEWS and not just a bunch of people talking about nothing, all day, everyday.
I think it is better to focus on what is common between us because our differences are few and not so great.
I have to say that the sock thing is entirely regional. I think only Southerners really tend to wear long socks that are visible. We Northerners do wear long socks in the winter when you can’t see them but want to be warm, but in the summer, we’re all sporting ankle socks just like the Germans.
Also you’re very right that Americans see it as strange/inappropriate for anyone to be topless sunbathing or swimming, even for young girls, and most kids will wear a one-piece, but I would say the bikinis start coming out at about age 12 rather than age 16.
And as to the pickle thing, I have heard that same story in America that people’s European ancestors started the tradition of hiding a pickle on a Christmas tree, so maybe it was a tradition a long time ago in Europe that traveled with immigrants over to America and has since disappeared in Europe? Just a guess.
I really liked your descriptions of how people think about their birthdays, bumping into people and staying or leaving at the end of a movie or a dinner. I would also add that there is a big difference in the checkout lines of grocery stores in Germany versus America. And American in a German grocery store will freak out a little at first, realizing that the cashier is sitting down and still scanning everything 4 times as fast as you have ever seen before. And you’re supposed to have enough time to pack all of it into your bags by the time he is finished so that you can then pay! Impossible! I’m guessing that when Germans come to America they are similarly frustrated by how long you have to wait in checkout lines even though there are so many more cashiers.
I love american grocery stores. After I came back to Germany it took me at least 4 months to get used to that paying and packing thing again. And at first I always forgot that I had to bring my own bag so I always ended up trying to fit everything into my arms because I refused to pay the 10 cents for the bag there 😀