GETTING ALONG: This series addresses key aspects of getting along in German culture, focusing on some pet peeves of internationals as well as typical points of misunderstanding and frustration.
Volume 2: Privacy
Have you found it difficult to make friends with Germans? Do you feel like your neighbors are indifferent and standoffish? Do you worry that people here don’t seem to like you very much? Then let me introduce you to the German core value of privacy.
The basic rule is this: Just as we identified a desire for functional stasis in shops and restaurants in the last volume, functional stasis is also the aim of social life.
The idea is to avoid excitement, surprises, confusion, sketchy situations you don’t understand, risk, disruptions, etc. Maximal privacy is one way of doing this, because you repel events which might be exciting or confusing.
While in some cultures privacy only applies to the bathroom and the bedroom and maybe the bank, privacy in Germany is supposed to cover the whole of your experience.
Rather than getting too abstract, I will survey several parts of life where value is placed on privacy in ways which can seem abrasive to those coming in from other, more gregarious cultures.
When you start a new job here, if your co-workers are mostly German, you will not be invited out, asked to come along to lunch, or welcomed into the office coffee pool. If you interpret this according to the terms of your own culture, it can seem like your co-workers are a bunch of jerks with no social skills. But let me tell you the logic of privacy at work behind this phenomenon.
Privacy is such a major cultural value here in Germany that sustaining everybody’s maximal privacy and avoiding non-consensual information acquisition is key. The trouble Germans have with chit-chatting is related to this idea that you shouldn’t require people to tell you stuff they might not want to tell you, and it is rude to be curious.
So at a new job, it is not OK to stick your head into the new girl’s office and say, “Oh hi, I’m Carsten, I heard you just started here, how are things?” This would be considered overly invasive. People will not talk to you beyond the absolute minimum when you start a new job, on the assumption that you might not want them to. They are trying not to bother you.
If you want to talk to your colleagues or find buddies to go to lunch or coffee with, it’s your job to make the first move. It is unusual, from a global perspective, but I can attest that there is this sort of new-guy-ignoring zone that starts in Germany (maybe in Switzerland?) and spreads north into the Scandinavian countries. If you make the first move, you have neutralized the non-consent issue, and signaled that it is OK to make contact with you.
What are appropriate moves to make?
You need to operate in a predictable and orderly manner.
Depending on how traditional your workplace is (just assume it’s traditional), you can’t just hit up whoever looks fun. You first need to do your duty by the people in your immediate section: your office mates, the people on the same project or in the same department.
This needs to be done with the same restraint and deliberation as if you were in a Jane Austen novel or an orientalizing movie about carefully ritualized Asian societies.
You need to go to each person or address the group (if you’re all in the same room) and announce that you want to do an Einstand, and you’re going to bring in cake on Friday at 3. An Einstand is basically like giving out a round, and it is the customary thing to do when you have something to celebrate. So you are celebrating the start of your new job, and that is a thing that makes sense to people, which allows the privacy zone around them to shrink a little.
Think of those animals (which I just made up) that can encase themselves in a bubble when distressed. Germans work the same way. If they are confused or insecure, they throw up a force field to make you go away. If they are relaxed and feel like you are not going to make any erratic moves, their privacy bubble goes down a little and you can carefully get closer.
So you bring cake. It’s best to buy it from a bakery so that it is a clearly recognizable German cake, which they also would have brought into the office on such an occasion. Do not bring pie, do not bring cookies, do not bring crackers and cheese or anything that came out of a packet. Bring German cake.
There will be awkward small talk and it will not be fun, but it is important to crack the ice in this way.
You are basically performing a ritual which signals to others that you are willing to be talked to. You learn people’s names and what they do and how long they’ve been there, but don’t tell a funny anecdote about some embarrassing experience you had, and don’t expect people to tell you about their kids or anything personal. It will be a slow, quiet, stilted conversation about topics everyone has carefully calculated will be entirely neutral. Maybe I am exaggerating slightly at this point, but that is sure how it felt in the first years here.
In the following weeks, after you have done this, your job is to keep warming up the environment and keep signaling that you are interested in being in touch without causing the privacy bubble to expand again. You can ask if there’s a good lunch place nearby or if there’s a group that eats together. In doing so, you are performing the mitmachen (participating), which is very important. It’s not about having fun or doing what you feel like doing; it’s about showing that you are not scary or nuts.
Germans are skittish. You have to coax them along a little. Mitmachen is highly valued, so show up for office events and boring get-togethers, and join the people who play soccer on a Saturday, or whatever there is to join.
You can also, once you have linked into your immediate section or department, repeat this procedure on the broader levels of your organization. The people in the neighboring department might seem fun, and you don’t have to bring in a cake for the whole place, but you can start talking to them once you have established contact in your own department. But, once again, you cannot do that without first doing your duty by your immediate colleagues, or it constitutes a rejection of their company.
At work, and in all German relationships, you need to do exactly what you say you are going to do. Keeping your word has an extraordinarily high cultural value.
This goes for not just big-ticket verbal acts like lying or really letting someone down, but even for saying you’ll be there at a certain time or that you’re bringing the wine and then failing to do so. If you say you are going to do something, you need to do it. People won’t say anything right away, but it will be noticed and it will win you respect and make people feel you are an OK person they can deal with.
So look for opportunities to demonstrate reliability and contribute something, and then do it, precisely and dependably, and see how people start to relax around you.
Unlike in many cultures, in Germany negativity is always OK. So whether you are at the parents’ evening at school or standing in line in a shop or taking out the trash, learn important German phrases to bitch and moan with. That is the one way it is acceptable to open a conversation with a stranger.
Since the privacy bubble travels around with people in public space, it applies to the volume of your voice in public.
Even in a pub or a café, you are not supposed to talk loudly enough that the people at the next table can understand your conversation, even if that table is two feet away. If you are noisy in public, you are assaulting everybody’s privacy pod and will get a lot of glares and frowns.
The only place where the privacy rule does not hold, as far as I have discovered, is bodies and nakedness. It is OK to go swimming naked and hang around on naked beaches in mixed groups with old people, little kids, whoever. You can even play volleyball with your boobs out if you are so inclined.
There is no sense of modesty and no sexualizing of the naked body. You also go into the sauna starkers and take showers in a mixed shower area and no one thinks anything of it. I’m not sure if a talent for desexualizing is really a big selling point for Germany, but that’s how it is.
Nudity is just not a big deal.
This also means you can breastfeed wherever you want: in church, in the lawyer’s office, walking down the street, in restaurants, whatever.
The non-privacy of bodies also holds at the doctor’s office. If you go to the gynecologist, the receptionist might ask you in full earshot of the whole waiting room such subtle questions as, “Does it itch?” When a doctor examines you, you just take off your kit and sit there, you are not put in an examining gown or anything.
Doctors also do not bother much about consent, i.e. telling you what they’re going to do to you before they do it. Nor is the examining room considered a private area. Other staff members might just walk in or pick up some equipment while you are in your undies.
I don’t have an explanation for this. There’s just some sort of consensus that the body is just a regular object, like the furniture or the bushes, so there’s no need to treat it any differently than you treat the sofa.
All of that is considered fine. But it is not really fine to touch people more than necessary or snuggle them. They shake hands with babies, for crying out loud. I’ve seen grandparents shake hands with their grandchildren rather than hug them, and you won’t see a lot of physical affection demonstrated in public.
So yeah, playing volleyball stark naked? Fine. Cuddling babies? Back off.
Nobody brought you a casserole when you moved in? Nobody rang the bell and introduced themselves when they noticed a new sign on the door? That is another way of making sure there are no non-consensual exchanges of words or effort.
In Germany, your home is sacred and it is not customary to let just anybody come in. People will not ring your doorbell and say hi when you are new because, as above, they are worried about bothering you. “Somebody said hi to me!” is an automatic good feeling in a lot of cultures. Here it triggers the privacy bubble because they wonder what you want, why you said hi, if there is some agenda they don’t know about.
If you go around each flat and introduce yourself, you will probably end up feeling dejected and confused. The default is to respond with irritation or consternation, not curiosity or welcome: Why is this person surprising me with unnecessary information about themselves for no good reason?
So how do you get in touch with your neighbors?
A lot of buildings have a yearly get-together of some kind, like a BBQ in the summer. You can ask about that and join in, in which case you have ticked all the boxes around mitmachen and being predictable and signaling that you want to be in touch.
You can also say the appropriate greeting to people when you catch them in the halls coming and going, while still in a semi-public space. Another trick is to ask questions about the building itself or the rubbish collection or what the agent is like.
This gives people a chance to complain, and complaining is a default social contact which does not set off the privacy bubble.
To be a good neighbor, you need to learn everybody’s name and address them by their name, accept deliveries and pick up your own deliveries promptly (same day if possible), keep your stuff tidy and avoid piling up shoes in front of the door, understand the recycling system, put your bike where it is supposed to go, not be noisy, and join in with any group activities that are customary in your building.
Do not expect to make friends with your neighbors. This is something people tend to avoid, because your flat is supposed to be like a safety-pod where nobody will bother you. You don’t want your friends running in and out at all hours or your neighbor barging upstairs to borrow stuff when you are in your comfy pants.
And if you fall out, you’re stuck with that person right upstairs from you, and that’s more risk than most people are willing to deal with.