On evenings when I walk home from work, there’s a street I cross that rarely gets any traffic. Still, even if the street is completely dead, I wait for the walk signal to appear on the pedestrian traffic light. Even though my Boston mentality urges me to cross streets even when cars are fast approaching, I try to heed the local culture; even if a street is empty, most Germans will wait for the walk light to appear to cross the road. I’ve noticed many differences between American and German culture during my first month in Kaiserslautern, the most striking of which stray far beyond pedestrian crossing attitudes.
One infamous aspect of German culture is the bluntness of its people. Since American culture generally perpetuates sugarcoating things in the name of politeness, it can be jarring to be amongst people who are extremely direct. Since I’m not particularly good at being blunt myself, experiencing this communication style is helping me become more straightforward.
2. Unorthodox applause
At the end of the first team presentation I sat through on this co-op, I began to clap, only to be drowned out by the cacophony of fists knocking on desks around me. Instead of applauding as you would after a presentation at an American university, audience members knock on the table or desk in front of them, as one would knock on a door.
3. The love of bubbly drinks
One German word learned quickly here is schorle. Translating to “spritzer,” these refer to any drink that has carbonation added to it (water, juice, wine, etc.). Bottled water comes in different varieties of carbonation (i.e. light or medium), and if you ask for water at a restaurant, they’ll bring you sparkling water unless you specifically request still water.
4. Dedication to lunch time
Lunch appears to be the staple meal of the day in Germany. The campus cafeteria serves up an intense menu every day, and some businesses even close at lunch time so employees can have a proper lunch break. One of my coworkers explained the German outlook on lunch like this: if you don’t have time to break for lunch during the work day, you’re not living a good, balanced life. This stance is a breath of fresh air since the American workplace sometimes calls for working through lunch breaks.
5. Grocery store nuances
The first trip to a German grocery store can incite some confusion. There’s a metal gate at the entrance of supermarkets like Aldi and Edeka that must be passed through, forcing you to leave the store through checkout; as far as I can tell, you need to buy something in order to exit the store. Additionally, plastic bags need to be purchased at checkout, so most people use reusable bags (not sure if this is done solely for environmental reasons, but charging for plastic bags seems like a great incentive for people to bring their own).
6. An intense recycling system
One aspect of German life that’s hard to miss is how environmentally friendly their recycling practices are. Glass is recycled by color (green, white, and brown), plastics and metals need to be placed in special yellow recycling bags only obtainable at the town hall, and if you don’t separate your recyclables properly, your garbage won’t be taken away. Plastics also include a lot of what would be considered waste in the US, such as candy wrappers and juice cartons. Additionally, plastic bottles with return logos on them can be deposited at a machine, and you’ll receive a receipt with some money back for recycling. If you bring the receipt to a grocery checkout, that money will be subtracted from your subtotal (another great incentive to recycle).
7. Building floor numbers
In the university buildings I’ve been in so far, I’ve noticed that the first floor is deemed level 2 if there’s a basement level to the building, the bottommost level being considered level 1. So, to my relief, even though my office is on the fourth floor of the building numerically, I only have to walk up three flights of stairs to reach it.
8. The pharmacy monopoly
CVS has always been my one-stop shop for snacks and medicine alike, so I was surprised to find that German drugstores have a limited over-the-counter drug supply. Products like aspirin are only sold at designated pharmacies, not at drugstores or supermarkets. This point also brings to mind one of the general drawbacks to shopping in Germany: aside from a few exceptions, all stores are closed on Sundays.
While my observations are restricted to Kaiserslautern, noticing the aspects of life here that deviate from life in America has provided me with an undeniably unique snapshot of German culture.
This blog was written by Nicolette Pire. Nicolette is a junior Combined Linguistics and English major. She is currently pursuing her second co-op as a research assistant in the psycholinguistics group at the University of Kaiserslautern in Germany. An aspiring polyglot, she’s using her first international experience to immerse herself in as many cultures as possible while sharing her international faux pas along the way. Feel free to reach out to her at email@example.com.