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"Becoming German": Re-writing the Cultural Code

I am Australian. Which means I am by nature outgoing, friendly, and a maybe a little too loud. I make eye contact and say hello to people in public places. I love making small-talk. I generally arrive late. I interrupt people to make comments I think would add to the conversation.

I laugh out loud when talking on the phone on the bus. I greet my friends with a hug, not a handshake. Well, that is the way I used to act, when I lived according to the Australian social code of conduct. But after having lived in Germany for eight years, I have largely re-written my cultural code.

Unwritten and Unspoken

I never knew that I lived according to a specific set of cultural rules until I left Australia for Germany. It was not until I found myself making awkward social mistakes in a new country that I realized that each national society operates according to a sort of unwritten cultural code — things you just know, without knowing you know. Little rules that let us know how much eye contact is okay, how loud we can be in public without crossing the politeness line, and in what situations it is okay to compliment people on their attire without seeming creepy.

As soon as you leave the society you grew up in and enter uncharted cultural territory in which you do not know these secret rules, you run the risk of making social mistakes. I made my fair share of them when I moved to Germany, and I thought sharing a few of them with you might help some of you to avoid similar societal slip-ups. And the rest of you can just laugh at my misfortune.

Up Close and Personal

One of the first lessons I learned about Germans is that they have different personal space rules. They don’t appreciate people getting too close to them. You must stay at least a meter away from Germans when talking to them (and don’t gesture with your hands/arms too much — they will retreat even more), and even further in a public setting, if possible.

I became aware of this for the first time when, shortly after my arrival in Germany, I entered a fairly empty train carriage and sat down in the nearest available seat, which just happened to be next to a middle-aged woman reading a book. My polite smile in her direction as I sat down was met with an icy glare. Confused, but thinking she was probably just in a bad mood, I settled in and started reading my newspaper. The woman sighed theatrically, then gathered up her belongings and, glaring at me again pointedly, moved across the aisle to an empty compartment. I was left wondering what I had done wrong.

Only when discussing this later with a German friend did it become became clear that I had broken several important rules of German social conduct. First of all, when looking for a seat on a train, you should always try to sit in a completely empty compartment, or at least next to another empty seat. If there are no free double rows available, and you therefore MUST break the personal space rule by sitting next to another person, you must first ask “Is this seat free?” This gives them the option of saying no if they don’t want you to sit next to them.

Not only did I not sit in one of the many completely empty rows, but I clearly neglected to ask permission to sit, which irritated the woman with the book. Then I smiled at her. This is considered odd if not coupled with the aforementioned polite question. And to top it all off I started reading my newspaper — an act which resulted in my elbows intruding even further into the lady’s personal space. This is just not okay. Hence the sigh, glare, and move. Lesson learned; give Germans space! Especially important — don’t try to hug them, even if you think you know them well enough. It will take you at least two years to reach safe hugging-territory with a German friend.

Miranda Boettcher is an Australian-German hybrid who recently moved to the USA. She is an international relations researcher who looks at the interface between culture, language, and power, and loves living what she studies.

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