Though there are plenty of German blog entries and forum posts that describe America as a lovely place filled with genuinely kind people, on the whole, Germany’s attitude toward the United States seems more like that of an exasperated sibling. There may be something to that, since more Americans claim German ancestry than any other ethnicity. But despite sharing ancestors, our two cultures are quite different. Here, by reading advice intended to help German visitors navigate American culture, we get a unique look into how modern Germans see America.
1. Politeness is both genuine and a survival technique. Still, they don’t really want to be your friend.
German blogger Otto Buchenegger breaks it down for both cultures, writing, "The main prejudice against Americans: You are superficial and you are stupid. Their superficiality is our misinterpretation of kindness that unfortunately we Germans lack." He goes on to explain that our politeness is tied to size of the land mass we inhabit and how often we move from place to place on it:
In a country with extreme mobility, it is very important to be open and friendly to strangers. This has nothing to do with genuine friendship in our sense, and there are long-lasting friendships in the United States, but if someone says, ‘I'm your friend,’ it often means nothing more than ‘I am sympathetic and want you to feel here is your home, too’. It is not the beginning of a long friendship.
2. Business meetings are run pretty casually ...
The career advice website Karriereplanung, which doles out tips to Germans who want to be prepared for American meetings and conferences, notes that even business meetings are pretty casual in nature. “Americans like to start with a little humor and a lot of small talk. Facts and Figures do not play as an important a role as in Germany.”
But at least, bless their American hearts, they are willing to work—even if they don’t know what they’re doing. According to Frank Schmiechen, “[Americans] will start simple, without always needing to know everything before-hand. If something does not work, there is just a new start.”
3. ... But that doesn't mean you can dress casually!
The American work dress code is different in every business, building, state, and county. So Germans encourage other Germans to play it safe and just wear a suit. Even German women should wear suits; no short skirts. And whatever length your hem is, always wear pantyhose. Americans love pantyhose.
Americans have a thing called “casual Friday,” where, ostensibly, you can wear what you want. It’s a trap! No jeans, no t-shirt! In fact, just wear the same business suit you had in the beginning—but without the jacket. And ladies, time to put those pantyhose back on and then cover up the whole package with a jacket. According to the website Karriereplanung, "Normally men can wear suit pants, shirt and chic shoes and not go wrong. Women may use a less advanced combination of the blouse and skirt or a simple, not too figure hugging dress, with jacket to be on the safe side."
The strange man in quite colorful and worn sport clothes sitting next to me at a lecture turned out to be a Stanford professor of philosophy. The boss of a fairly large company came for lunch in a very elegant restaurant. In an impeccable suit. With very green sneakers.
4. Don’t give short answers; it hurts and confuses them.
Americans expect politeness, even from their enemies and superiors. This means, even at the office, one cannot simply say, “No.” Each negative response needs to be wrapped in a gentle caress of the ego. According to the site USA Declares:
In a discussion with Americans, when they say, “I wonder if this is really the best solution?” they mean “no.” If they say “I’m wondering if we might need more time,” they mean “no.” And “We might want to review some parts of the project,” is “no.” Americans get confused (or just plain mad) if a German boss answers statements with “No.” “That’s good.” “Just go ahead.”
5. Be polite in conversation.
To American ears, the German accent often has a way of making nearly everything a German man says sound like he’s either enraged or telling an off-color joke. Compensate for this by observing American conversational mores. When a group comes together, act casual and introduce everyone present:
Just like in our country, topics such as religion, sex and politics are not appropriate in small talk. Sport, however, is always an excellent entry. Pauses are considered unpleasant and can easily be bypassed with a casual question. Effusive compliments are also very popular. But beware of superficial compliments to the opposite sex, they can be regarded as harassment.
6. Don’t be shocked by how often you hear bedroom language in public.
Not dirty words, but intimate ones. Americans will call anyone their sweetheart:
If you stroll through America's shopping malls or are in a restaurant for dinner, you'll often hear the words, "Darling, Sweetheart, Sweetie, and Luv" or other terms of endearment, which belong in the personal realm. Americans are much more frivolous and relaxed with these nicknames, and they do not carry the same meaning as they do with us.
And though you may not yet be Americanized enough to say, “Thanks Sweetie!” to your waitress or bus driver, you must still be very, very polite to them. Their very livelihoods might depend on it:
Always stay calm and polite. Never respond with an annoyed or even defensive attitude, because this behavior is strange. Keep in mind that the waiter in a restaurant, the clerk in a store, or employees of any kind might be dismissed from their jobs for even the smallest rudeness.
Seriously. Your instinct while passing a grinning stranger on the street will be to “look stubbornly and rigidly at the ground in front of you,” but that is rude. You must keep smiling:
Over time, American friendliness will probably get on your nerves and it will seem very superficial—which it is, presumably. But this form of interaction is how American people function and is one of their basic manifestos.
7. Americans can be dummkopfs.
In the German language forum Gutefrage, an American man in Germany asked why it was that he was treated poorly when members of his host country learned his nationality. Though many responses were sympathetic and apologetic, other forum members tried to explain to the American man why this might be.
Take user Rheinflip, who said, “The Germans just think that a people who chose Bush, Creationism over Darwin and sells machine guns at everyone, and blows more CO2 into the atmosphere than any other country, reveals a certain lack of understanding. Pardon, but not only the Germans think so. Just ask the Canadians or Mexicans...”
User Derrolf added, “Every other country has an older culture. Most Americans are not familiar with the rest of the world at all, and the President even said that the Americans had invented the car.”
It’s true—Americans did not invent the car. German inventors like Karl Friedrich Benz and Gottlieb Daimler are to be credited with those patents. All Americans did was turn a bizarre rich man’s plaything into an affordable everyman’s asset that changed the world. Now be nice.
8. Americans don’t really want to hear about your ferret, even if they ask.
Blogger Scot W. Stevenson sums up the difficulty Germans and Americans can have in communication better than I can:
“Hey, how are you?” an American will ask, and is then surprised when the German says his ferret has just been run over. If a best friend asks a German if a dress looks nice, a German might grimace and say, “It doesn’t look so good on you.” An American would rather answer something like, “Would not blue fit better with your eyes?” The American means you look like an anorexic scarecrow with a heroin problem. A German has the feeling that you’re talking past each other. “What drivel of my eyes? I want to know if my ass looks fat!”
It's probably safe to assume that if Scot or any other German visitor told an American woman that her butt looks fat, she would run his ferret down herself.
Disclaimer: Although my father was full-blooded German, I am American, and I do not speak German. I use Google to translate sites meant for Germans. The translations may be a bit wonky at times, and German-speaking Flossers (die Zahnseide-ers?) are welcome to clarify translation in the comments.