GETTING ALONG: This series addresses key aspects of getting along in German culture, focusing on some pet peeves of expats as well as typical points of misunderstanding and frustration.
Volume 1: Service
Americans, Brits and Canadians are, in general, the people who have the worst experience when they come to Germany, and the reason for that is simple: they think it will be similar to their home countries.
That assumption is catastrophic because it means you arrive unprepared to make significant adjustments. It is also fatal because it leads you to engage with German society in the day to day as if people were trying to be American but failing to do it right.
You go up to a receptionist and expect her to act like an American receptionist. They don’t. You go home confused and offended. The problem is not the receptionist. You are trying to play the American-at-reception game, but the other person is playing a different game. Of course that is going to be stressful and confusing. It’s like trying to play frisbee with someone who is trying to play checkers.
This is how you fix it.
The attitude toward public-facing jobs in America is that the receptionist, floor staff in a shop, cashier, or wait staff are like bait. Their function is to make you feel good so you come back and spend your money. They will smile, accommodate you, offer assistance, anticipate your needs, bring the check without being asked, say please and thank you, and radiate warmth and cheerfulness.
The game of service industry interactions in the US is a game whose goal is simple: get money.
The moves a service provider can make according to the rules of that game are equally simple: attract people like us so they spend money here, keep the customer happy, put a friendly, pleasant-looking person out front, train them to be accommodating and threaten to fire them if a customer complains.
Your move, as a customer within that game, is to stroll up and be pleased, to assume your twenty-seven dollars is worth another person forcing themselves to smile when their feet hurt and their kid is home sick and unsupervised. The game is built in such a way that one side says “Hi, we like you, give us money!”, and you say “Hi! I like you too! Here’s some money!”, and that’s that.
Of course, you’re saying. We don’t need Blossom to explain shops to us. That’s just how it works. That’s how it is. That’s the nature of participating in a free economy.
I’m here to tell you that’s not the nature of anything. That’s just the way one particular batch of cultures has decided to do things. Germany does it differently.
They are playing a different game. This is how the game works in Germany.
The proprietor or owner of any given service, let’s call him Horst, is not trying to get money. Horst has money. He has insurance. He will not go bankrupt if his shop bombs. He is not hustling for the roof over his head. Whether you like him or not, he will be fine.
For this reason, his aim is not to get as much money as possible as quickly as possible. His aim is to achieve a point of functional stasis in which a sufficient amount of money is coming in while a minimal possible level of effort and stress is being spent on acquiring it.
Minimizing stress and effort includes not getting sued, not pissing off his workers and having to hire new ones, keeping the health inspector happy, keeping the tax man happy, keeping the neighbors who live above his shop and want quiet after 10 pm happy. Horst is occupied with following an extraordinary number of rules and laws in order to achieve all of the above.
So when you go to Horst’s shop, the name of his game is “avoid stress and conserve effort,” specifically, “avoid stress which is disproportionate to the benefit I might get from this interaction.” It’s a basic costs-benefit calculation.
He can’t make his staff work for tips, because that’s illegal. He can’t bully his staff into smiling all the time and waiting to go off shift until your table has cleared, because that would be considered an outrageous demand. He can’t run them off their feet giving out free re-fills of coffee and filling up people’s water glasses, because German labor laws require proper provisions for workers such that his staff are not disposable.
He is paying insurance for all of them and can’t afford more than the minimum number of workers he needs to keep things ticking over. He can’t afford for them to hang around chatting with customers, because there are plates in the kitchen getting cold.
This means that if you walk into his shop and moan about there not being tap water available, or ask for adjustments to the menu, you are spoiling the careful stasis he has created. There is no benefit to him at all in making his staff do an extra run to get you water for free. And there is no benefit to the wait staff in turning on the charm because they are going to get paid either way.
The name of the game, like a lot of the games which make up German culture, is precisely functional stasis.
Granted, it is not a game that produces a lot of creativity or innovation, and if you are used to service staff accommodating your every whim, it can come across as rude and indifferent. On the other hand, this way of doing things is a product of labor laws focused on protecting the workers from exploitation, of aversion to debt, of economic stability, and of an unwillingness to pretend to like people you don’t like. Those things might be less fun than getting whatever you want when you go out, but they are also valuable things.
Try it. Go into the next service-based interaction here in Germany assuming that the agenda on the part of the owner is to maintain a functional stasis with as little unnecessary stress or effort as possible. Your role in that game is not to be charmed or wooed, but to hop into the turning ropes without messing up the game, so to speak. Your role is to behave correctly and predictably within a smoothly running machine.
Try it. It’s a way off the roller coaster of constant disappointment and frustration, and it’s a bulwark against bad vibes from service staff who can’t understand why you’re rocking the boat, just as little as you can understand why they aren’t smiling and chatting.
The pleasure of going out in the States is the pleasure of the cheap thrill, of being treated as if you are important and welcome. The pleasure of going out in Germany is the subtler pleasure of stability, harmony and predictability, of fitting in with a smoothly running machine.
You already know how to have a bad time going out. If you want to have a good time, learn the expected procedure of ordering or asking for information on a product, learn the required phrases to go through the procedure in German if possible, learn how tipping works. (For instance, state the sum that you want to pay when you hand over the money or, if the sum you are handing over is identical to the sum you want to pay, say “das stimmt so.”)
Finally, learn that you have to generate your own charm within your group. It doesn’t normally happen between the group you go out with and the staff.
That would be a breach of German notions of privacy, which we will cover in the next installment of this series.
A German shop is not a gumball machine, it’s a game of Double Dutch. Don’t mess it up.