I’ll be honest with you:
There are a lot of German cultural differences; especially when you’re trying to adjust to a new life after growing up in England.
It’s not just Lederhosen, Steins and actually winning football tournaments (although the first two are obligatory). There are some more subtle, and comical, differences that don’t quite stand out when you just holiday here.
Between having a German girlfriend and trying to immerse myself in their language and culture, I’d like to think I’ve been able to pick out some of the weirdest for your enjoyment.
Here are my favourite 10 cultural differences between England and Germany…
(Note: this is all tongue-in-cheek, I love the Germans and all of their differences make them even more adorable in their own way).
01: Schultüte (School Cone)
The first time I went to meet my girlfriend’s parents in Bad Dürkheim we took part in the socially-awkward tradition of going through family photo albums. You know the kind, where you smile and nod and go, “Oh yeah….wow. Really? Cool.” and try to figure out what expression you should have on your face.
As we were going through childhood photos I stumbled across a picture of the first day of school, where every child was stood holding a strange large cone (almost as big as the child themselves) covered in decorations.
Nobody else looking at the album seemed to react to the photo, but before they turned the page, I had to ask them to hold on and explain this weird phenomenon to me.
Apparently on the first day of school it’s normal to give your child a three-kilogram cone filled with stationary, sweets and treats.
They must then proceed to walk around the school on their first day holding said cone. And they’re not allowed to open it until after the first day of school (they very thing the items in the cone were created for).
Nope. Still don’t get it.
02: Smashing Porcelain Before You Get Married
Before getting married, a couple will take part in a strange tradition called a Polterabend.
They will post the date of their Polterabend in a local newspaper, much like a classified advert.
Then, people in the surrounding village or area (read: total strangers) can then turn up to your event – seemingly hosted in a car park or wide open space – with their unwanted Porcelain products such as toilets, sinks and cups, and donate them to you.
They then, as a group, smash all of the porcelain in front of your eyes making a huge mess of shards and shit that can cut you.
Once all of the porcelain has been broken, the onlooking masses get drunk and eat food while you and your partner spend the rest of the evening sweeping up the porcelain mess that they’ve made.
Apparently it’s because Shards Bring Luck; but I think it’s more Schadenfreud.
03: Sleeping On Huge Square Pillows With No Filling
Germans don’t sleep on soft, well stuffed, pillows.
They know nothing of the charms of flipping over a warm pillow in the middle of the night to reveal a cool, comfortable underbelly that rocks you gently back to sleep.
Instead, Germans choose to sleep on a big white sack of absolutely nothing that serves no purpose other than to ruin your spinal health. It looks a lot like this:
My Girlfriend swears by them and begins to show me how to perform all kinds of strange origami folds to make the pillow hard and comfortable.
Which is undoubtedly less efficient than, say, just making a smaller, more stuffed, comfortable pillow like we have in England.
04: Stopping At Every Pedestrian Crossing
Pedestrian Crossings in England exist for two reasons:
- You might die if you try to cross this particular road
- You’re too drunk to tell if that’s a car or a kebab shop
However, in Germany, they’re considered in the same regard as a Policeman or an Army General. It is not at all possible to cross the road if the light is red.
I met Marie when we were both on the Camino de Santiago. Which meant we’d do a lot of walking through villages, cities and the countryside.
There would be times mid-hike where I’d find myself crossing a street that had no traffic, without a care in the world. Only to turn around and find myself without a Girlfriend who was 50 yards behind me, stood at a red light, waiting to cross a street.
I was later told a story where one of Marie’s friends was in a different country, and while walking back to his hotel late at night, was stood at the edge of a road at a red light. There was no traffic to be seen, but waited in spite of that he waited. A few moments later, another man came and joined him at the edge of the road, who also waited quite patiently. He turned to him and said, “So, you’re German too?”
There was never a truer word spoken.
05: Watching Dinner For One Every New Year’s Eve
Dinner For One is an English Comedy Sketch from the 1960s that nobody in England seems to remember. Not me, not my parents, and not even my Grandparents.
Yet almost every German family knows this old black and white sketch word for word. Because, every New Years Eve, it’s broadcast on national television. In fact, when Marie and I spent New Year’s Eve in Switzerland, I had to use the data on my phone to stream it through YouTube on my laptop.
It’s honestly the strangest thing ever. A German family, cosy and warm around the Television, reciting the sketch off by heart.
You can watch it here (maybe you remember it):
I don’t know how it started. But it’s deeply ingrained into German society.
06: How They Talk About Using The Bathroom
In England you’d most likely say that you’re just going to the bathroom, regardless of what you’re doing. The only giveaways being if you’re holding a newspaper before you go in, or if you’re in there longer than four minutes.
You may even stretch as far as using the American terminology of Number One and Number Two if you really feel like sharing.
But the Germans have a whole new way of saying that. Instead, they say, “Do you have to go big or small?” (Musst du Groß oder Klein machen?)
A wee being a small and a poo being a big. Making it officially the most disgusting normal everyday comparison I’ve ever heard.
07: Being Really (Really) Direct
It’s an English trait to beat around the bush. As John Cleese wonderfully put it in A Fish Called Wanda:
“Wanda, do you have any idea what it’s like being English? Being so correct all the time, being so stifled by this dread of, of doing the wrong thing, of saying to someone “Are you married?” and hearing “My wife left me this morning,” or saying, uh, “Do you have children?” and being told they all burned to death on Wednesday.”
In Germany, no such problem exists. They are, by far, the most likely to speak their mind in any social situation. So much so that it can almost blindside you if you’re not expecting it.
- Wearing an awful t-shirt? They’ll tell you.
- Been a bit of a dick? Oh, they’ll tell you.
- Put on a little bit of weight? Yeah, they’ll god damn well tell you.
In fact a language learning channel, Easy German, took to the streets to ask Germans if they think they’re direct. The result was an overwhelming yes. Almost in a “Sorry, not sorry” kind of way.
In one way it’s quite nice. You always know where you stand and will always get an honest opinion (like that of a four-year-old who points out your breath smells).
But, on the other hand, if you’ve just spent £30 on a t-shirt that you think looks cracking, only to be told that it makes you look like an out-of-shape Ben Affleck, it’s a little soul destroying.
08: Paying For Everything Separately
I’m quite partial to splitting a bill. It’s friendly, nice and makes life a whole lot easier.
Unless you’re that couple that leaves 20 minutes before the bill arrives because the ‘babysitter needs to leave’ and doesn’t pay, it’s common practice. Which is perfectly summed up by this meme:
But in Germany, that’s when it’s time for the calculators to come out. You explain to the waiter what you ate, what you drank and what your precise bill is. None of this 50/50 lark.
You may often find an occasion where someone will pay in advance, and you transfer them the money later. Or, they’ll keep a tally of what is owed and then send you a formal invoice from their solicitor. Depends on the person.
09: Everything Being Shut On A Sunday
Back home I was quite fond of doing a (slightly hungover) Tesco run on a Sunday afternoon for comfort food and to see people who reassure me that I could have made much worse life choices.
However, in Germany, that is a luxury you’re not allowed. Because every single supermarket and retail store is closed.
You can’t buy milk (they drink UHT anyway), eggs, toiletries, Playstation games or bags of crisps. You’re only allowed to go to restaurants, pick up what’s available at a Kiosk and get drunk.
I mean you could do other things like: spend time with your family, play games, watch movies, go for a walk, take part in sport or meet up with friends. But that’s not the point! Stop inconveniencing me and forcing me to decide what I want to eat on a Monday on Saturday afternoon.
10: Trains Arriving On Time
The Germans also have this weird concept that a train should arrive on time. I know, it’s crazy, right?
When a Northern Rail train suggests a train will arrive at 18:16, what it really means is that, “Trains exists and occasionally go in that direction”. In fact, the last time I was home, my train was cancelled five minutes after it was supposed to arrive.
Trains here are often late (and expensive), but a German late is somewhere between five and ten minutes. I think I’ve also only ever experienced one cancelled train in German so far.
They also have this amazing scent. It’s hard to describe, and it may just be that they’ve actually figured out how to turn the nozzle on a Febreeze bottle to on. But there is a severe lack of the smell of piss and regret. It’s really quite charming!
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