The Strangest of German Customs

By: Kathleen Ralf

Often, those moving to Germany from America, will at first feel quite at home. You are dressed relatively the same as the locals. You can order beer without learning any new vocabulary.  And if you don’t open your mouth as you walk down the street, you might be able to blend in.   But the longer you live in Germany, the more you will realize that this place is drastically different.  As the American ex-patriot gets to know the dark underworld of German culture, they will become increasingly astounded by the strange and wonderful customs of their new home.

Strange Custom #8: Everything is closed on Sundays and other Holidays.

Germans love the thrill of buying new gadgets.  They love to invest money in the right gear for each outdoor activity in which they partake.  They are consumers, but they are not consumers on Sundays and holidays.   Although they don’t necessarily go to church, Sunday is a day that should be spent outdoors or with family.   Plan ahead, and relax.   Feel good that all people are at home, enjoying their time off.

Strange Custom #7: Hang lost objects in trees so the loser of the object can find it.

If your mitten drops out of your pocket on your way to the train stop, chances are if you return 30 minutes, or even a week later, your mitten will be hanging up in a tree, or sitting on sign post waiting for you.   Most walkways and trails are decorated in this way, and no one would dare take your Grandma-made knit hat for their own.  So when you find something, hang it up so it can be reunited with its owner.

Strange Custom #6:  In a waiting room, make people feel welcome and let them know they will be missed when they leave.

Doctors waiting rooms in Germany are much like waiting rooms in the states.  People sit reading magazines, playing games on their phones, reading books, but they NEVER talk to each other. However, when a new person enters and hangs up their coat, the room will greet them with a Guten Tag, or Hallo.  When the person comes back to pick up their jacket from the coat rack after being seen, the room will erupt in a fountain of “Auf Wiedersehen.”

Strange Custom #5:  Don’t cue.  Know your place in the masses.

When walking into a bakery or a butcher shop, there are no machines that request you to take a number, nor are there lines in which you patiently wait.  You just stand in a mass and know who is in front of you and who is behind you.  If you don’t know your place…the rest of the crowd will surely let you know.  And if someone tries to take their turn in front of you, just shout “Hallo!” and wave your hand in front of your face.  This indicates that you saw the person cut, the rest of the mass will stare and look down on the offender, and it shames the person back into waiting for their turn.

Strange Custom #4: Ask the right question to get the right answer.

You must learn to ask the right questions.  German’s love precision.  If you ask a yes or no question, you will only get a yes or no answer. “Is this the way to the train station?” Response…No. Well that was totally unhelpful.  But if you ask “How do I get to the train station?”  A precise reply with great directions will be given.

Strange Custom #3:  Do some light maintenance after you go to the bathroom.

Have you ever wondered why there are toilet brushes next to all toilets?  They are there because they want you to use them.  No one wants to go to the toilet if there is a brown streak left if the bowl.  No one wants to see remnants of last night’s supper.  And in public restrooms there are signs written in English (not German) that state, “Clean up after yourself….this includes the toilet.” Don’t ignore these signs and don’t give us expats all a bad name.

Strange Custom #2:  Hike to eat.

People don’t hike to see a view, to get to a mountain top, or to get exercise.  And they don’t hike to get away to where no man or woman has gone before.  They hike for gastronomie.  Imagine being out there in the middle of nowhere on a gray and stormy day.  The muddle of conflicting trail signs makes you feel as if you will never reach your destination. As the fog begins to envelop you, a distant sound of angry wild boars can be heard.  Just when you think that all is lost, the fog breaks, the sun begins to shine, and there it is...that beacon on the mountain top that you have been searching for… a quaint and cozy hut ready to serve you beer and schnitzel.

Strange Custom #1:  Beer is cheaper than water.

...and really, isn’t that how it should be?!

About the author

Expat Blog ListingKathleen Ralf is an American expat living in Germany. Blog description: Reflections on Living and Teaching in Germany
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Contest Comments » There are 36 comments

Thrifty Travel Mama wrote 10 years ago:

This post is SPOT ON! #4 is the bane of my existence, and #2 made me laugh out loud, because it is so true.

Olga@The EuropeanMama wrote 10 years ago:

Funny post! I must admit that I struggle with the "know your place in the masses part" but that is probably becuase I am small and nobody sees me anyway! And sometimes I use this to my advantage and emerge up front with a look that says: "What? I've always been here!"

Ligia wrote 10 years ago:

This is really spot on and funny! You're a wonderful writer!

Sarah Stäbler wrote 10 years ago:

I heartily agree! Number 6 weirds me out though, I have to admit. It actually still bothers me a bit feeling the need to say hello and goodbye to people in the waiting room. It's just a small thing, but makes me feel awkward every time.

Jessica wrote 10 years ago:

Here here! The waiting room custom cracks me up every time. So friendly (at times) these Germans are!

Aayushi wrote 10 years ago:

#6 has always confused me! I learned soon enough that not saying Guten Tag as you enter will earn you strange looks from everyone. But smiling at them or acknowledging them at any other point will also earn you a strange look! Just this morning I smiled at some old man as he reached for a magazine but all I got in return was a "was ist los mit die" look.

Cindy Mullen wrote 10 years ago:

I have yet to visit Germany, but I am looking forward to my first trip so that I can see some of these things for myself. Great article Kathleen, You have such a way with your words!

David Muniz wrote 10 years ago:

I think the whole doctor's office thing is kind of funny. In a place where you'd expect more privacy, there's a break, albeit a tiny one, from their very private selves. And the Sunday thing makes me a bit crazy. Good thing we have a bakery near by that sells eggs, and orange juice!

Emily Calle wrote 10 years ago:

This is great! These are almost all true of living in Austria, too! Great post. :)

Kristin Abbott wrote 10 years ago:

I love the quirky customs! But mostly being a foody, I love #2 and hubby being a beir meister, he would love #1 and agrees wholeheartedly. I also think #8 is awesome! Thanks Kathleen

Lin Grosvenor wrote 10 years ago:

This makes me smile and brings me back to my own expat years in England and travels on the continent. Thanks for the flashback.

Sarah Baughman wrote 10 years ago:

These customs, strange though they might be, make me really miss Germany! You forgot "never leave your stroller unattended in the woods…unless you want a police investigation." :) I actually really miss #8. I don't really like having everything open all the time. Makes it hard for anyone to just relax.

Annette Mullen wrote 10 years ago:

Number three was great. Wish that worked in our home. Love your writing. You write great blog articles.

Julia wrote 10 years ago:

Strange customs #5 is my favourite. I never realised how confusing this must be for a foreigner!

Kaki Voss wrote 10 years ago:

Thanks, Kathleen! In an era of globalization, it is so refreshing to see that unique customs remain. Your list gave me a very different impression of Germany. If someone would have asked me to pick one of your customs to describe Germany earlier, I would have picked number four without hesitation. Now I am picturing mittens in trees and warm huts on a hillside. Thanks for helping break up stereotypes. Good work!

Glau Kuehn wrote 10 years ago:

Haha- certainly must ask the right questions to get the right answers. Greetings and good byes are a must and I enjoyed that!!! I often miss the German precision. You need to write part 2 now.

Rose Auvil wrote 10 years ago:

Refreshing! I can always count on you to share a perspective I may not have thought about. I like your sense of humor and also the social and historical connection you are able to bring together. We miss you in the States and your blog is a good way to stay connected.

Marie Carlson wrote 10 years ago:

Love to read your posts Kathleen! Now, could you go to Norway, and tell me 8 interesting things about living there... or perhaps that is my calling. Loved this article.

Jen Frantz wrote 10 years ago:

I feel like #7 should be a global rule! I often wonder what to do with lost objects when I find them...lost and found? leave them where I find them? display prominently so owner can see easily, but what if someone takes it?? If I knew the owner would scan trees for their lovely handknit mitten, it would set my mind at ease.

Stew wrote 10 years ago:

I wish more cultures were sensitive to erasing unsightly toilet art. Oh Deutshland, how you complete me. Fun piece.

Wendy Le Sesne wrote 10 years ago:

I love it! so much of this is as it should reading your posts, it makes me feel connected. As always, miss you my friend

Gypsygirl20 wrote 10 years ago:

Love how that little old German lady believes that since she has been here on Earth longer than you, it is now her birth right to be able to butt in front of you whenever she sees fit. And NOT BEING ABLE to SHOP on Sundays, leaves how many days out of the week to get everything complete? Have you been to a German grocery store on Saturday? I'm surprised there has not been blood shed over that last chicken. Spot on post! Well done! I really can relate as a fellow expat!

Ginia wrote 10 years ago:

#3 needs a warning(skip if eating). How was I suppose to enjoy my quarter pounder with cheezzzz? This was a fantastic post. I think the personal liability insurance needs to be on there. Just think, there must be that many crazy Germans, I mean stories that must have been told so Germany could capitalize on that.

Xol Muniz wrote 10 years ago:

I really like go to the bakeries in Germany. The sweet ladies always give me prezels because I'm so cute and cuddly. But that's not so strange. That's nice.

Sandy wrote 10 years ago:

Hey! Nice work, I really like your blog. Hope you keep writing and finding new things to write about. #1 is one of my favorite parts of Germany :) Good luck!

Kelly Wheeler wrote 10 years ago:

Having traveled to Germany several times, I have witnessed these all but have yet to see them in a definitive list. Nice!

Gina wrote 10 years ago:

The other difficult part of #1 is no mowing the lawn on Sundays - must be quiet. We still sometimes have a hard time with the stores being closed, then we heard about stores in the states being opened for Thanksgiving and it put things in perspective. It is good to have one day a week for family.

Lauren wrote 10 years ago:

Too funny. #4 applies to a coworker of mine. I thought it was because he's a super brilliant IT guy but now I'm thinking he must be German.

Cody wrote 10 years ago:

Beer should indeed always be cheaper than water. :-) I'm quite envious of you're way with words! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Thor wrote 10 years ago:

Nice cultural observations, Kathleen! I will try to bring the "hike to eat" one to central Illinois. But first I'll need to import some mountains. Now, where are my mittens?

Dixie Anders wrote 10 years ago:

Your blogs make me want to visit not only Germany, but your classroom as well.

Matthew wrote 10 years ago:

Hi Kathleen- Despite living there for 2 years, I never knew about the importance of toilet brushing. Also, I got used to Sunday shopping pretty quickly once back in the US- thanks for the post.

Kristen Pollard wrote 10 years ago:

#8 was the hardest for me to get used to when we moved here. That used to be the day we did all of the chores and grocery shopping in the States. #1 is my favorite. :)

Nichole Foster wrote 10 years ago:

The toilet brush is something that I tell everyone about when I know they are traveling in Germany. I can remember many interesting bathroom trips where you find a "gift" from someone who had not been schooled in the art of "cleaning up" after themselves!

N Foster wrote 10 years ago:

Number 7 is awesome when you have small children. I once felt like I'd won the lottery when I found Ben's mitten on the way to the grocery store after it being gone for more than a week!

John Merritt wrote 10 years ago:

I have been reading your blogs and immensely enjoying your insights. You have a fabulous way of telling a story. This one had me laughing quite a lot. I guess we're going to have to find some way to get to Germany to experience this for ourselves. Miss you guys.

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