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Before you begin working your way to foreign language fluency, it helps to understand the culture behind the language you’re learning. After all, language exists to help a group of people express their ideas and beliefs. Germany is an old country with a rich history and culture. As you begin your German language program, gaining a strong grasp on this history, the values, and the etiquette will help you rapidly achieve success. In particular, Germans place a great deal of value in the bonds they create in the day-to-day, carefully choosing those who surround them. Learn the value of friends and family in Germany:
Do you remember hearing that old joke about how the British and Americans can do everything that’s not expressly forbidden, and Germans forbid everything that’s not expressly permitted? For many people unfamiliar with German society and ways of doing things, it might seem that this is true. Germans credit productive, easier, and better overall lives to having a well-ordered society.
Many people who have grown up in German society feel that some minor personal liberty restrictions are worth coping with for the greater good of society. Even though it is a change for many foreigners, they often get accustomed to this lifestyle. It is not unheard of that foreigners who have lived in Germany often find returning to their previous type of society a bit of a shock.
However, like most of the developed world, Germany is seeing increased individualism and changes in how traditional ways are viewed. Many families are single-parent or made up of couples who live together outside marriage, and communal living arrangements are popular. These changes in family structure reflect how German society has changed, while still respecting the basic family unit structure that has been so important.
Germans do not use the word “friendship” lightly, for it means something special to them. Most Germans have a small circle of close friends and a larger circle of acquaintances. Americans and British people tend to have more friends, but they are generally not as close. Germans tend to make friends with people from their own communities or with people from school or university. They make friends more slowly than do most British people or Americans, but once they do, those friendships last for life.
Visitors need to understand that Germans do not make friends quickly. They do not form friendships in the office, for they strongly believe in keeping their public and private lives separate.
While Germans work hard during business hours, they also play hard during their leisure time. One way to make friends with Germans is to join the clubs mentioned later or to participate in various leisure activities. There are trails throughout Germany for walking, hiking, or jogging, and many trails have designated areas for people to exercise. Germans tend to be fit, and many belong to sports clubs. Gardening is another popular activity, and city dwellers often have a “Schrebergarten” or allotment gardens. They can be tended by individuals, families, or groups.
Germans are generally hospitable and friendly towards foreigners, especially business travelers or tourists. They particularly appreciate those who try to speak German, even if they make mistakes. You should therefore at least try greeting people in German. Asking someone, “Do you speak English?” may get you a chilly response. But if you ask, “Entschuldigen Sie bitte, sprechen Sie Englisch?,” which means the same thing, you will get a much friendlier reply in English. Although many Germans understand and speak English well, they will usually answer “ein bisschen” (“a bit”).
If you commit a faux pas, prepare to be corrected. Germans view correcting and advising each other as a social duty. If you aren’t sure about a given custom or how to do something, just ask. Most Germans are very willing to help.
At least partly because of their past, Germans tend to be very courteous and open, and they do not permit violence or bigotry against foreigners. They are just as disapproving of attacks on foreign workers or displays of Nazi or right-wing slogans as anybody else. In fact, owning Nazi memorabilia is illegal in Germany, which also banned propaganda works like “Mein Kampf.” Even performing a Nazi salute might get you fined or even jailed.
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