Confusing the Germans
Although I imagine myself to be a sensible man, I often find myself confused with life in Germany. Sometimes this is due to a language misunderstanding, such as when I waited for an hour longer than I needed at the garage because I had misunderstood what the mechanic had told me. Other times it is the fault of my expectation that Germans will always follow the same process, such as going through an office security gate, only to find that the security person this week is following a totally different process from the security person the week before. I continually have to remind myself that Germans will always follow a process, but that does not always mean the same one.
Language and culture will always produce the most confusion, even when both parties are well versed on intercultural communication. Sometimes the worst mistakes are made by people who know a lot about another culture, but fail in the application of that knowledge. Take the British love of sarcasm. Being sarcastic can be a useful tool in many situations, but when wrongly applied, it can be devastating. British people will needle each other or “take the piss” continuously, but good sarcasm requires a clear understanding of context and tone of voice. For instance, apply the right tone of voice to the swear word ‘Wanker’ and it can easily become a term of endearment. Apply the wrong tone, as many of my German friends have done in the past and all you have is some one calling you a ‘wanker’.
Lapses in language, concentration or cultural understanding happen all the time. Some can be easily laughed off and others not, but it is not always clear which is which. Over time I have come to understand most of the communication boundaries, but even after years of living in Germany, I still make mistakes.
Ask any British or American person and they will tell you, in all seriousness, how important David Hasselhoff is to German culture. The former Knight Rider is believed to be a musical colossus for Germans, mainly because he once played a concert atop the Berlin wall. When Liverpool recently played Hoffenheim in a Champions League qualifier, the British media fell over themselves to make as many references to not ‘Hassling the Hoff’ as they could manage. Ask a German about Hasselhof and they are more likely to ask “Who?”. This is because despite everyone else believing Germans are obsessed with him, Germans have little interest in Hasselhoff. If anything he is a curious figure, who had a number one hit thirty years ago. Sadly Germany does not pine for Mitch from Baywatch. So when a stag night from the UK appears bedecked in red shorts and carrying life jackets, no one really gets the joke. All they see are several slightly tubby, pale skinned men pretending to run in slow motion, which I guess is funny to them but for very different reasons.
Saying thank you to the bus driver
There is no greater example of British attempts at equality than saying ‘Thanks’ to the bus driver when you reach your stop. It is common courtesy, we are told, to acknowledge their efforts, even if the bus is ten minutes late. However, do this in Germany and you leave driver and passengers confused. The German belief that work is rewarded with a fair wage negates any requirement of thanks for a good job. Sure Germans like to be acknowledged for their effort, but most of the time they do not require effusive praise or thanks. Although there has been some changes thanks to American work practice seeping into German offices, the idea that declarations of ‘Good Job’ or ‘Well done’ for simply doing the thing they are paid to do seem slightly alien and at worst quite needy.
Drinking in Germany requires that expats learn some useful phrases, one of which is ‘Prost!’ or cheers. However, cheers is often used to simply say thanks in Britain as well as an exclamation before quaffing a pint. A quick ‘Cheers mate’ can leave Germans wondering whether I have some kind of pub PTSD. More than once I have left a German colleague standing in the office wondering if they need to clink their coffee cup with mine. Another version of this is the German use of ‘Cheerio’ when clinking glasses, which I frequently hear misused when I am on a night out. ‘Cheerio’ for British people is a way of saying goodbye and moreover a phrase reserved for the upper echelons of British society. There is something magical about seeing a group of burly looking workmen, covered in plaster dust and paint, having an after work pint and exclaiming ‘Cheerio’ before knecking a Weißbier.
Chips with Everything
Food is a serious business in Germany and alterations to traditional dishes are viewed as sacrilege. I was once told, in all seriousness, that traditional food was devised over hundreds of years and it would be inappropriate to make changes to centuries of collective knowledge. It was a scientific process. This is perhaps why it is that German restaurant staff will react with angry confusion should you mess with a traditional dish. I once caused a near international incident because I ordered chips instead of Klöße (potato dumpling) with my traditional Franconian Schäuferle (Pork Shoulder). The waitress looked at me as if I had defecated on the table and attempted to explain that this was incorrect. After I insisted, she begrudgingly took my order. When my food arrived shortly after, she brought two plates, refusing to even countenance the idea of the two sharing a plate.
Everything is Great in Germany
One of the best and worst traits of expats in Germany is how impressed we are with nearly everything. There are faults, but only in comparison to other aspects of Germany. The constant praise of life in Germany may annoy more patriotic friends back home, but that is nothing to the confusion it creates in Germans. Germans, rightly or wrongly, are never happy. Things could be better, trains could be faster, tax could be lower and football teams could be more successful. When I told a German friend that I would be happy if England managed to get to the quarter finals of the World Cup next year, he shook his head in disbelief. There is no settling, there is only improvement. If nothing improves then Germans are free to complain about it forever, which is probably why the British feel so welcome here.