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Cultural differences in surprising places.

When you travel to another country, you have to leave your assumptions at the border. What may be perfectly normal or not an issue at all may be a huge issue in the foreign country. Fortunately, Germany is pretty similar to the US, so the culture shock isn't too terribly great, but in some respects, this in itself the basis for a second level of shock, the one that comes after you think you've familiarized yourself with all that you need to know. Ha!

This list is a work in progress and not by any means all-inclusive. It will grow as time permits.


When you're blue in America, you're depressed. When you're blue in Germany, you're drunk as a skunk. In America, cowards are yellow and people are green with envy, though now that color of course also implies an environmentalist bent.

In Germany, political parties are associated with colors. When the “Green Party” came into being, they simplified things by referring to their party by a color that had a natural association with environmentalism and at the same time, positioned themselves in a political palette already made up of parties associated with other colors.


Zzzzzzz in English is Chrrrr in German. Whew! or Phew! in English is Uff! or Pu! in German. For example, in Germany, you say "Pu!" (pronounced "pooh") when you're hot or have finished a hard task.
Ow! is Auah! (ow-ah), but ouch is the same, except for the spelling (autsch). Splash is platsch and ick or yuck is igitt (EE-gitt) or igittigitt. Uh-oh in America is oh-oh in Germany. “He?” (heh) in Germany is ”hunh?” in America. My son says, ”oh-HAA!” when he is surprised by something, like when he was in the bathtub and discovered he could spray water on the ceiling. In America, he’d have said, ”woah!”


Counting on your fingers starts with your thumb, so if you want to tell someone you want one of something, you don't stick your forefinger up in the air, you stick your thumb up, as in the "thumbs up" sign.

A hand waved rapidly and directly in front of the face means "crazy" in Germany. In the US, this gesture means dizzy or stupid, but not crazy. I haven't actually seen this in a long time, but the gesture for crazy used to be pointing at your own head and making a few circles, as though you were drawing a circle around your ear.

Please and thank you.

In the States, if you're asked if you want something and you say "Thank you" as a reply, it means yes, but in Germany, it means no. In the States, it's short for "Yes, please. Thank you for asking." In Germany, it's short for "No, thank you.”

The issue of manners is a topic that I could wax rhapsodic about at great length and it’s one that people must take into consideration. For the most part, in private, things are the same, but in public, they are vastly different. Americans expect to hear and say please and thank you and especially, "ezcuse me” very much more frequently than do Germans.

In America, it is considered rude to walk in front of someone who is looking at something on a store shelf without excusing yourself. You have blocked that person’s vision, even if temporarily and you must excuse yourself. Do not expect to hear this in Germany. In America, if you brush against someone, no matter how lightly, you are expected to excuse yourself. In Germany, this will be far and away the exception if you hear this. In fact, I’ve had people bump into me and even push me out of their way and not heard a peep from them.

Shopkeepers in Germany will often act as though they are doing you a favor by letting you in their shops, until they know you. Then they are apt to greet you in a friendly manner. When K-Mart closed up shop in Germany, one of the things they said was a problem for them was their attempt to get their employees to smile and be friendly to customers.

Restaurants and Tipping

In America, you say please and thank you to the waiter. In Germany, if you can find the waiter, you can ask him to bring you a glass of water, which you will then be charged for. In America, the water brought to the table is free. In America, shortly after bringing you your meal, the waiter will come by and ask if everything is okay and you can return the food if it’s not to your liking. In Germany, when you’ve finished eating, the waiter shows up at your table to take the plate and asks you how the food was, as though anything can be done at that point.

In America, tipping has edged up from a norm of 15% to a norm of 20%, with especially good service being rewarded even with a 25% tip. Tips are high in America because the base pay of the wait staff is abysmal. Those who wait and bus tables depend on tips to survive. They work hard to earn those good tips and are at the table constantly, making sure your water glass is never empty and checking to see if you need anything during your meal. Tips are left on the table or in the little folder the waiter uses to bring the bill and take your credit card. If possible, the tip should not be included in the line item on the credit card bill, but should be left afterward in cash.

In Germany, tipping is very meager. The wait staff is better paid and much less attentive, so tips in Germany are really token sums. The diner indicates when he is ready to pay, the waiter comes to the table and tells the diner how much the bill is. Then the diner tells the waiter how much he will pay, rounding up to the next five or ten euros, depending on the size of the bill. I’ve seen people pay a two-euro tip on a €33 bill and the waiter didn’t even blink.

Advertising & marketing bloopers
Anything but design
Chef's corner
German-American cooking glossary
Parents' corner
Raising a bilingual child
Traveling with a small child
Potty training in a day
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