The Germans have their own way of doing things. True, not all Germans are alike, but… The German way of life is not the same as the American way of life, nor should it be. But US Americans (that’s a German influence I’ve adopted as a US American) and other foreigners living in Germany quickly learn that the German way of doing things is not the way of doing things back home.
Expats in Germany can either learn to adapt – or complain about the differences and be miserable. Is the German way better or worse than the homeland way? That’s not really the point. The point is that ex-pats need to understand that there is a reason why Germans do something one way, while other cultures do it a different way. Claiming one way is “better” than another is simply making a judgment based on your own background and experiences. Cultural comparisons do not mean the differences are good or bad.
Yes, I sometimes personally think the German way of doing things may be superior or inferior to the USA way. (See The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.) But I’m an American with an American perspective – despite my years of experience traveling and living abroad. Germans, Austrians, French people, Japanese, Mexicans, or Argentinians may have very different opinions. The point is to understand two things: (1) You can’t change local ways of doing things, and (2) there are historical and cultural reasons for the way it’s done. Different does not have to mean better or worse. It also can mean just plain different. “Andere Länder, andere Sitten” – the German equivalent of “when in Rome…” – means “different countries, different customs.” Different, not better or worse.
So let’s count some of the ways that Germany and Europe are different from the United States. First, let’s make it clear that we’re not talking about the more obvious everyday differences such as money (€ vs $ or £), electric power (230 vs 120 volts), etc. We’re looking at lifestyle differences – the German way versus the non-German way.
1. Walking/Cycling versus Driving
North America, with very few exceptions, is a get-in-your-car-and-drive culture. Germany (and Europe) is a get-on-your-bike-and-ride or walk-to-the-market culture. Being a pedestrian in the US can be challenging, besides making you seem odd. Most American cities and towns are too spread out for walking, and public transport, if it exists at all, has a lot of gaps and is not a practical alternative for most people – unless they’re in New York City or one of the few other US cities with good public transport. Living in Germany without a car is a practical alternative. Living in the US without a car is a hardship. It’s all a matter of how each place has developed and designed its urban areas.
2. Doctors and Medical Care, Healthcare, Life Expectancy
Most people would agree that the US healthcare system is a costly operation. Even a short hospital stay can end up costing a fortune. The UK is now having serious problems with its National Health Service. Yet Americans have a shorter life expectancy than in most European countries. The US ranks 46th (79.11 years) compared to Austria (26th), Germany (27th), Switzerland (4th), and Italy (6th). Japan is second, at 85.03 years.*
When I was living in Germany, I was amazed by how much cheaper medical care and prescription drugs were, compared to the US. Even without insurance (required for any permanent resident in Germany), prescription drugs from my local Apotheke were much cheaper than in the US. A hospital or doctor’s visit costs a fraction of what the same service in the US costs. Even with the new healthcare laws in the US, cost is still a problem. Neither Germany nor the US has a perfect system, but the healthcare system in Germany has been around much longer and seems to be much less profit-oriented than the system in the US.
*Rankings and life expectancy (both sexes average) are for 2020 (pre-covid) from worldometers.info – Also see World Bank, UN, and CIA Factbook rankings at Countries – wikipedia.org
3. Language Ability and Awareness
Thanks to geography, the US and Canada are far more insular than Europe. In Europe, there is almost always a different language right next door. Young Europeans usually learn English and another language other than their own. Thanks also to geography, Europeans have more interest in foreign languages. Expats need to share that interest if they want a better experience during their time in Germany and Europe. Even in larger German cities, not everyone speaks English. Although English is an international language, that can actually be a drawback for ex-pats if they fail to learn German.
4. Ecological Awareness and the Environment
Europeans in general, and Germans in particular, are much more conscious of environmental issues. Perhaps because of the higher population density along with higher energy costs, Europeans have made a lot of progress in renewable energy, particularly in solar and wind energy production. Expats also quickly discover that the German waste disposal system is more complicated than in North America, and many German cars automatically shut off the engine when stopped at a traffic light.
5. Debt and Spending
In German a single word means both “debt” and “blame/guilt”: die Schuld. This is reflected in government and daily life. Although touchless, electronic payment has become more common since covid, a German credit card is actually a debit card, and the amount charged on that card will be automatically deducted from the holder’s bank account at the end of the billing cycle. Expats soon learn that Germany is still largely a cash society. Even in a restaurant, you can’t assume they’ll take a credit card. On the tourist circuit (hotels, airlines, rail, etc.) a credit card is a go, but North Americans used to their credit-card culture need to adjust to Germany’s cash culture. Germans don’t write checks. As a permanent resident in Germany, you’ll need a German bank account with a Girocard (a German debit card, “EC card”) for payment at shops and grocery stores. Apple Pay, PayPal, and other electronic mobile payment is also available, but remember that the amount will be debited immediately to your account. No credit.
6. Diet and Cuisine
The typical German diet tends to be different from that in North Americans, but ex-pats can enjoy those differences in the form of a vast assortment of over 200 bread varieties, not to mention delicious pastries. This being Europe, the local Greek or Italian restaurant in Germany is run by Greeks or Italians. Americans may miss Mexican cuisine, but there are other good choices, including Asian and Indian food. McDonald’s in Germany no longer serves beer, but the McCafé coffee options are good. Guten Appetit!
7. Religion and Morality
Few Germans attend church, and they also tend to be irreligious. Nationwide, 41 percent of Germans identify with no religious faith. If they do (and pay the German church tax), most Germans are either Lutheran (24%) or Roman Catholic (27%). There is a small Muslim minority (4%), mostly German Turks whose grandparents originally came to Germany as “guest workers.” Jews comprise less than one percent of Germany’s population. Other US Protestant faiths (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, evangelical, etc.) are considered “cults” in Germany, and Germans have a hard time understanding the US religious right mentality. Puritanical North Americans are often shocked by the casual German attitude towards nudity. When it comes to movie ratings, Germans consider violence much worse than sexual themes or nudity.
9. Taxes (fuel, income, VAT, etc.)
North Americans don’t know what high taxes really are. Germans willingly pay taxes that make Americans blanch. The highest state + local sales tax in the US is under 10 percent. Most US states have lower rates than that. (Five states do not have any statewide sales tax: Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon. Alaska allows localities to charge local sales taxes.) The nationwide VAT sales tax in Germany is 19 percent (lower for groceries and some other items), over twice the highest sales tax rate in the US. Gasoline or diesel fuel costs more than twice as much as in the US, mostly because of fuel taxes. Other taxes and fees in Europe and Germany are generally higher than in the US, where no one seems to want to pay for anything anymore. Germans understand that to have good roads and public services there is a cost.
10. Work Ethic, Weekends and Vacation Time
Americans have the lowest rate of paid vacation time of any modern industrialized nation. And most US workers don’t even take the little free time they’re entitled to. Paid leave and parental leave in Europe are given, and they use it. Taking work home or working overtime is also rare in Europe. Germans keep a clear distinction between home and work, and never shall the twain meet. Weekends, particularly Sundays (when stores are closed!), are sacred time off with the family. Germans believe in hard work, but quitting time is quitting time.
So, North American (and other) ex-pats, respect the differences and enjoy them! The entire world can’t be like back home, nor should it be. Other lands, other customs!