German and American Cultural Differences 101

While living here in Germany for the past 6 months I have been asked several times by my guest family, new German friends, and also some acquaintances what the cultural differences are between America and Germany. Basically these people want to know how it is different for me to be living in Germany than it would be if I were back at home in America.

Sometimes I actually have a hard time coming up with good, concrete answers because in some ways living in Germany is pretty typical to living in America. Of course there are many cultural differences and I thought it would be kind of fun to describe them here.

***

One of the first things that I noticed that was different here in Germany was the way that families eat, the types of food they eat and also how all other Germans eat out in public. A typical Germany family will all sit down to eat breakfast together and then once again come together at the American lunch time to eat a warm cooked meal. The lunch is the biggest meal of the day for German families and a lot of the time the mother and father are both present with the children. For dinnertime it is very simple and involves only bread and things to put on top of your bread, such as cheese or meat. My family calls our evening meal “abendbrot,” which literal means “evening bread.”

Germans do not eat as much fast food as Americans do and that’s a fact. If a German is in a hurry to eat their lunch, then they will probably go to a bakery and pick up a “broetchen” (roll) or grab something that resembles a hot dog from a stand on the street.

Speaking of broetchen, Germans LOVE bread. You can find a bread bakery on every single street corner here (kind of like a McDonalds on every street corner in America!). Bread falls into one of the 4 major food groups in Germany: Bread, Cheese, Potatoes, Meat.

Within a German restaurant it is completely opposite of how you would find in America. First of all, you generally can seat yourself at whichever table is open instead of waiting on a host to seat you. Then, your waiter will come by once to take your order, a second time to bring your food, and a third time to pick up your empty plate. They are not coming by every two minutes to check on how the food tastes or to see if you need a refill (refills are unheard of in Germany). At the end of your meal you can choose to leave a very small tip (maybe one Euro at the most), but it is not necessary like the normal 15-20% tip in America.

***

The second cultural difference I have noticed is the obvious concern for global warming and being environmentally friendly in Germany. It is noticeable through many things, but mostly through the widespread use of windmills, solar panels, recycling, public transportation, walking, and bike riding. My German family in particular is very concerned for the well being of the planet. We use 100% renewable energy to heat our house during the winter, we sort all recyclables, we walk throughout our city instead of driving the car, we purchase organic foods, and we do not waste a thing!

I just read an article that Hamburg, Germany (the second biggest city in Germany, behind Berlin) was named the greenest European city in 2011. This comes as no surprise to me because Germans have been trying extremely hard the past years to live up to the Scandinavians when it comes to becoming reliant on only renewable energy sources from within their own country. I am very proud to live only an hour away from the greenest European city of 2011!

***

A cultural difference that I find very humorous is the extreme concern of a German person in becoming sick. I had read about this in a German culture book before moving here, but I have seen it in real life while living here. I think it is much more exaggerated for me because I am completely unafraid of germs and if I become a little sick, I just disregard it and go on with my day as usual.

Well, here in Germany if a child has a fever that is 0.1 degrees above the average, then the child will stay home from school. If other children at school are sick, then there’s a chance that a healthy child will stay home to ensure that he or she does not become sick.

Many Germans are also firm believers in homeopathic medicines and other home remedies. If one of my host parents hears me make a sniffing noise, then they will put on a pot of tea and grab the honey before I can even manage to tell them that I’m fine. If I tell them that I’m having a slight headache or feel sick to my stomach then they’ll go to the homeopathic medicine cabinet and drop some strange little medicine balls in my hand to place under my tongue.

***

The way that Germans speak to each other is also very different to me than how Americans speak to each other. I think that the German language in itself is very strict and has many rules that must be followed, but when it comes to speaking one on one it is very simple. All Germans that I know say the exact same phrases over and over and over ad nauseam.

A few examples:

-The word “genau” is generally used at least two times by each person within one conversation. The best way to translate this word is by saying “exactly” in English, but I feel that Germans use it way too often for it to only mean that one thing.

-The saying “Na” is used at the beginning of a conversation between two people that are just meeting up with each other or at the start of a phone conversation. It means absolutely nothing. It’s just a noise. And it’s very funny to hear German people simultaneously saying, “Naaaaa” while first making contact with each other.

-The phrase “Alles Klar” is almost always used at the end of a phone conversation or any other important conversation to make sure that everything was understood in the conversation. It is also used frequently to make sure that everything is okay.

-Another phrase “Pass Auf” literally means “Pay Attention” and it is used before something important is said or if an adult wants a child to shut up and listen to them.

-One more phrase “Hoer Auf” can be translated to mean something like “Stop it!” My two little boys use this constantly when they are getting annoyed with each other. It can be used for any situation in which someone is annoyed.

-One last word that I must comment on because I find it extremely funny is “doch.” This word literally means “but” in English, but when I hear it used in a German conversation I think the best way to translate it into English is by saying the childish and immature phrase, “yeah huh.” It’s like saying, I’m right and you’re wrong. Children will banter back and forth by saying “Nein, doch, nein, doch, nein, doch!” What I find so comical is that all German adults also use this phrase. Can you imagine an American middle aged man saying “yeah huh!?”

***

Well this blog has already turned into a long one so I’ll stop with the cultural lessons for today and probably continue it on another blog another time!

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31 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Natalie
    Mar 01, 2011 @ 03:47:22

    I just love this blog of yours.

    Reply

  2. Sarah
    Oct 30, 2011 @ 18:48:34

    This is a great blog. I have to do a cultural project for my NA class and I found your blog on google. Its really interesting to know. It makes me want to move there.

    Reply

  3. Bob
    Jan 22, 2012 @ 15:27:48

    Great work! I am from Germany and I found your blog while prepairing for an English exam.
    There are many prejudges existing and of course your opinion is a little bit subjective too, but you did your job very well! ;)

    by the way “genau” is mostly the first german word exchange students learn! :)

    Reply

    • Rachel Dent
      Jan 25, 2012 @ 20:24:16

      Thanks, Bob! I’m glad you enjoyed reading this. And I just want to reiterate how much I love Germany and mean no harm when I talk about the cultural differences. I think of Germany as my true home and I love all of the German quirks!

      Reply

  4. Chris Porter
    Jul 24, 2012 @ 08:53:14

    Sorry for commenting on such an old post, but I randomly found your blog through Google and I find it very interesting.

    I’m very interested in Germany, and have been ever since I was younger. I find their culture very interesting. I’ve been studying the German language for awhile now and really want to visit. I plan on studying abroad in Germany in a year or two to see how it is.

    Interesting blog!

    Reply

    • Rachel Dent
      Aug 03, 2012 @ 06:46:23

      Hi Chris,
      Thank you so much for your response! I’m glad that you found it interesting. Germany is such a great country and that’s cool that you’ve been learning about their culture and language. I hope you enjoy your studies there!

      Reply

  5. Tonya
    Sep 09, 2012 @ 21:00:35

    I just moved here and would love to ask you some things about the culture I am working on understanding….

    Reply

  6. Wendy Reynolds
    Sep 13, 2012 @ 02:43:05

    Rachel,
    This reading was interesting. While, I am working on a speech for cultural communication differences, I found this article to be very informative and funny! Though, I have never been to Germany both of my parents have German in them, which is why I decided to do my speech on Germany. Sounds like a great place and keep up the green work!

    Reply

  7. Marcel
    Nov 19, 2012 @ 00:34:27

    I had to comment on this. When I read “drop some strange little medicine balls in my hand to place under my tongue” I laughed and thought “so true!” I’m the opposite of most people here, I moved away from Germany to America. I was reading this because I had a hard time thinking/writing about cultural difference that impact my life in America. Any ideas? (Its for a school essay)

    Reply

    • Rachel Dent
      Nov 20, 2012 @ 19:31:44

      Hey Marcel, thanks for your comment. What are you doing in Germany and what part do you live in? Good ideas for cultural differences that would affect your American life…. I think one big thing that you could expand upon is the simplicity of living in America that most people never realize until they go to live in another country. For instance, in America, when we want to go somewhere we just jump in our car and go there. We can go to a large supermarket and buy 5 bags of groceries because we just stuff them in our trunk and drive home. In Germany, you’re probably biking, walking, or using the train so going places and running errands isn’t so easy or convenient. Therefore I think that Germans adapt better to their environment, whereas Americans have never had to adapt. You could use this “simplicity” topic in many different way. If you want, you can send me your e-mail address and I can give you more ideas! My e-mail is rdent8488@gmail.com.

      Reply

  8. jbariso
    Jan 31, 2013 @ 23:46:11

    Hi Rachel-loved your observations, especially about the German language. I’ve been living here for a year and a half and I laughed out loud when I read what you wrote. You have a nice way of expressing yourself; do you still write? I’d love to hear what you think of my own German experience…check out my blog at http://www.farfromnewyork.com.

    Reply

  9. Doris
    Mar 02, 2013 @ 22:35:04

    I guess things have changed a little since I was a kid, because we went to school sniffles and all, but we only called or went to the doctor in emergencies. Chicken soup and tea for home remedies was the norm. We had recycling since I can remember and I was born in the 60s. When I first came here I was surprised how long it took Americans to implement this system and a lot of them still don’t care. The littering in the US always bothered me. Don’t you care about your country enough to make a small contribution yourself not to litter and not expect the next person to pick up your trash? Reading your blog made me miss Germany, since I don’t have a lot of contacts. And you are correct about the bread. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t eat bread. The bread that we are used to in Germany is hard to find here, so we have to make due with what we have. Anyway! Enjoyed your blog, thanks!

    Reply

  10. Sarah
    Mar 12, 2013 @ 02:33:56

    Hey :)

    I just found this and I think it’s awesome! I have to make a presentation about Germany for school and I am trying to write some differences down. Your explanations are accurate to what I experience and I absolutely agree with most of your points! Maybe I should mention that I am a German exchange student living in the USA right now. I really miss the German food, although I thought that this could never be an issue for me cause I eat mostly everything.. ;) But I love the American Chocolate Chip Cookies! *.* I never thought Germany would be that great in doing something for the environment, but since I am here, I know what you are talking about. I hate seeing parents waiting outside the school in a running car for 15 min, just because it isn’t that warm outside. I am sure that some Germans do that too, but I never realized it the way I realize it now. We are living in such a spoilt society, but so many people take it for granted to have more than necessary.. That applies to both countries! I am just seeing things in a different way now. I think it is funny that you write that your German hostfamily is/was so concerned about people becoming sick, cause here it is exactly the other way round. My host mom tries to prevent every possible germ and I think it is sometimes really hilarious, cause in my German home we just ignore the fact that someone is sick (okay, we don’t hug the person but that’s it.. :D). Here everyone has to sanitize their hands every 10 minutes and the sick person can’t touch anything.. :D It probably depends on the family with which you are living.

    Now I have some ideas. I think it is great what you are doing and that you love my home country. ;) I love your home country too and I think it is exciting to see, how other people think about different country! :) Thanks for your great post (although I found it a few years later) and I hope you still love traveling around different countries, because it is a great experience and opportunity for a lifetime! :)
    Love,
    Sarah

    Reply

  11. clowardclan
    Apr 28, 2013 @ 00:37:50

    Hahahahah…as a German living in the States…this made me laugh out loud! Love it!!! Hope you are thoroughly enjoying your time in my home country for as long as it shall last. ;-)

    Grüße aus Oklahoma,
    xox

    Reply

  12. princetongermanteacher
    Jun 25, 2013 @ 02:25:40

    sehr interessant!
    Gruss aus Princeton, NJ

    Reply

  13. Jensine
    Sep 14, 2013 @ 21:40:40

    You make some interesting points, but there are some things you misunderstood. I live here in Germany so just that you know.

    Like the word “doch” sadly you totally misunderstood the meaning of it. English doesn’t have a single word or phrase that has the exact same meaning as doch. They say the word doch when they have first said no to something, but change their mind. Thus, making their previous no into a ‘yes’. They can also do that when someone says something they don’t agree with.
    Like: “He really said that!” Then the other one says:”No!” and the first one would say: “yes, he really did say that” in English, but in German they say just the word “doch”. That is not an immature word and does not mean “yeah huh!?”. Not at all. Every adult person in Germany uses that word and it is in every dictionary.

    A other thing which is over exaggerated, is the fact: Many Germans are also firm believers in homeopathic medicines and other home remedies. Just because your hosts might have done that, does not mean that most or all Germans do that. I don’t know one single person who does this kind of thing.

    And I don’t think living in Germany for only 6 months gives you enough experience to write something like this. That is why so many misunderstanding happen. Because many Americans write and share their short stay in Germany and they don’t really know as much as they think they do.

    Reply

  14. Marilyn smith
    Dec 09, 2013 @ 03:25:31

    I found this VERY interesting . I’m a circus proformer and this summer we will be going to Germany for three weeks

    Reply

  15. art
    Jan 12, 2014 @ 18:27:15

    It’s very straightforward to find out any topic on net as compared
    to textbooks, as I found this paragraph at this site.

    Reply

  16. Leyla
    Apr 03, 2014 @ 03:10:13

    Very interesting blog. good job I must say. I have lived both in Germany and US and agree with most things most things you wrote. I think just even reading the comments especially from the German people brings some more ideas to my head. There is a huge difference in terms of straightforwardness in german vs US culture. For someone who is used to the US culture, Germans may be considered rude where in fact they are just being straight and not diplomatic.
    Btw you forgot about how good ice cream is in Germany.

    Reply

  17. eva
    Apr 27, 2014 @ 17:25:43

    Maybe I’m a little late bit I still want to leave a comment:D
    I found this blog because I wanted to find out what american people think about germans (I’m from Germany). I’m gonna go to the usa for a year in summer so I wanted tonknow what my new classmates might think about my culture and stuff like that. I’m 15 by the way. So, I think most of what you said is true and very typical for the country. I had to laugh really hard when I read what you said about germans.always saying “na” because it’s so true, though I never really noticed it before. I alsways use it when I want to explain something, like “na, I just think it’s good because…” (i would say that in german of course) . I think we just say that to make surethat we mean what we say. Never really thought about it.
    I already heard that american people find it strange that there are so many bakerys in germany, but for me it is strange that there aren’t many in the usa because I’m so used to them. And god, I’m gonna miss them a lot.
    But I don’t think that every german family is like your host family, from what you said about them they seem to be a very family focused family.
    I have two families: my dad’s and my mom’s. My dad’s family is slightly strange because it’s a huge patchwork family. He lives in a very, very, very small village and has a big house with a garden that’s even bigger , I mean the house has to be big because me and my siblings need our own rooms, but the garden doesn’t have to be this big.
    We eat together very seldom because we are so many people. For example: when my older sister and I get up in the morning , most of them already had breakfast an hour or two ago because they always get up way earlier. And then there is my same aged step brother, who gets up at the time when most of us want to have lunch and he doesn’t eat anything at this time.
    My mom lives in a small city next to the larger one in which i visit a school. I used to go to school in my hometown but me I switched to a private school a year after my older and my younger sister did, because it offers a lot more opportunities. If we eat together we do it in the evening for “abendbrot” , we don’t have any time to do that for lunch or breakfast. It’s only me, my mom and my older sister who live together, but its still difficult for us to find timetogether. My mum works a lot and she has a boyfriend with wich she meets up a lot. My sister and me are out with friends a lot, we both enjoy being onour own. It already happened that she didn’t come home for the whole weekend because she was at her boyfriends house. And I don’t think that this is unusual.
    And about the “being green” thing: yes, we care about nature, but we don’t only eat organic food, I eat fastfood and junkfood and stuff like that aswell. I’m going everywhere by bike or bus or train, but not because I want to save nature. We get a driver’s licence with that we can drive without our parents sitting next to us at the age of 18. If we don’t have parents that csn carry us everywhere and everytime , what is the case for me, we don’t have any other opportunity.
    But well every family is different I tight? Ijust don’t think that your host family is a typical german family.
    All in all I agree with what you said about my home country.

    Reply

    • eva
      Apr 27, 2014 @ 17:35:34

      Oops just saw some mistakes i wrote this on my mobile I’m sorry.
      I meant every family is different right? For example. Sorry

      Reply

      • eva
        Apr 27, 2014 @ 17:39:57

        Haha sorry for annoying everyone but i forgot to say aomeglthing : i dont know anyone who.believes in this medecine stuff that your host family.belives in, what makes me thin even more that they arent typical german

  18. Rachel
    Apr 30, 2014 @ 21:02:26

    Hi Eva,
    Thanks for your reply! I think you’re right, the German family I stayed with wasn’t very typical. I had another Au Pair friend and her family was very different from mine. Either way, I loved my time there and I love Germany so much! I miss the bakeries more than anything. You’re right, there aren’t enough in the USA. Hope you’ll have a great time in the US! Which state are you going to?

    Reply

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