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Some would say that a culture could be defined as the sum of its customs. All of those rules of etiquette, the traditions, the attitudes, and even the quirks that are distinct to a group of people who share an origin can appear quite strange to anyone on the outside looking in. Don’t believe us? Leave it to the Germans to illustrate what we mean. Here are 12 cultural customs that only Germans will understand.
While subtitles are the norm in non-English language films imported into English-speaking countries, in Germany this isn’t quite the case. Most foreign films get the dubbing treatment. No, that’s not Brad Pitt speaking fluent German – rather, it’s a German voice artist picked out to replace Pitt’s English. It’s big business in Germany: in 2013, the dubbing industry generated $125 million.
German precision may be a stereotype, but it’s hard not to be astonished by the economy of the German language. Since in German, single words can be compounded to make a longer word expressing a more complex idea, the precision of expression is really quite something. Take, for example, Arbeiterunfallversicherungsgesetz – a single word you use to describe employee accident insurance. The longest word officially recognized by Duden is Kraftfahrzeughaftpflichtversicherung – liability insurance for vehicles. You can have a lot of fun compounding words to express completely absurd ideas, but good luck being understood by a German…
Culturally speaking, Germans are also more customarily friendly and helpful than other northern European nations, where the norm is to keep to oneself. In Deutschland, people really tend to look out for one another. If you happen to drop your ‘hand shoe’ in the cold and dreary winter, rest assured that when retracing your steps in search of it, the glove may well be skewered on the branch of a tree. Doing so when encountering an item that appears to be lost is commonplace in German society in order to make it more visible when the owner comes searching for it.
Like a few other nations in Europe, Germans start their Christmas celebrations before Christmas Day. While in the UK or the US, kids only get to open their gifts on 25th December, Germans get there on Christmas Eve. On 24th December, most German homes finish off decorating, and in the evening, host a dinner for the family. It may not be a bountiful feast – that comes a day later – but in the Christian calendar Heiligabend (Christmas Eve) signifies the end of the Advent and the beginning of the Christmas season.
Germans take their leisure time very seriously. For one, just about everything will be shut on Sundays, so be sure to do any grocery shopping on the other six days of the week. While the origin of this custom is religiously motivated, today it is also about reserving time for some R&R and taking a break from the hustle and bustle to enjoy the company of friends and loved ones. The official observance of this custom in Germany has even prompted the outlaw of using power drills on Sundays. Further, doctors have an astounding propensity for handing out sick days from work, even for being tired or having what the Germans call Kreislauf, a generalized term that translates to ‘bad circulation.’
Members of most cultures would advise being polite when interacting with the police, but Germans have specific rules with regard to decorum in the face of the law. Specifically, never, ever use the informal ‘du’ when speaking to the Polizei. Always opt for the formal address, ‘Sie.’ Failure to do so could result in criminal punishment including fines up to €600 as it is actually illegal to address them by ‘du.’ This is technically true for all German civil servants.
Don’t be surprised if you see a fresh-faced teenager walk out of the supermarket with a bag full of beer cans. In Germany, you can buy certain types of alcohol at the age of 16, giving German teenagers an edge of 2 years over their peers in most other European countries. While hard liquor is still a no-go until 18, 16-year-olds can purchase wine and beer, and consume them without the supervision of an adult.
Germans are astoundingly comfortable with nudity. From network TV commercials with people in their birthday suits to naked conversations with acquaintances in the gym locker room, you won’t find many Germans that think much of going au naturel. This is particularly the case at Hainich National Park, where people perform an hour-long naked dance, called the knackarschwiese in German, as a means of commemorating the start of summer each year.
A fact that many foreigners get wrong is that Germans and Austrians speak in the same way. Sure, they may be neighbors and much of the written language may be identical, but when you hear them speak, you’ll realize they’re worlds apart. The difference in pronunciation between German German and Austrian German can be extremely profound, and becomes even more acute the further you venture into rural Austrian territory. We’ve even heard reports of Germans making fun of the Austrian dialect… Why not find out for yourself?
Between the tales of the Brothers Grimm and the many other legends inspired by Germany’s enchanted forests, there are certainly some interesting objects of folklore remaining in the country today. For example, Krampus, the demonic anthropomorphic goat, is a common fixture during the Christmas season in Bavaria. He is known to devour children who have been naughty and to swat people with a wooden stick. Every year people dress up as Krampus and take to the streets to reenact his evil doings in an event known as Krampusläufe.
Okay, this may not be the outfit a German would wear on a daily basis, but the infamous Lederhosen – leather trousers – form part of Germany’s national heritage as part of the Tracht, the national costume. The best-known version of the outfit is also accompanied by suspenders, knee-high white socks and a blazer. The entire composition does actually look pretty good, and your best bet to see it would be Munich’s annual Oktoberfest, where you might stick out like a sore thumb dressed in normal clothing.