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, learning how to have a proper conversation in German and how to connect with the people, gaining most from the experience.
Self-introductions in Germany are done with last and/or first names without using Mr./Mrs., Herr or Frau, and a simple handshake. Informal ways of acknowledgement include waving, nodding and saying a casual “hallo”, and sometimes using a first name. Germans still continue using a degree of formality when greeting people. In times past, titles were very important and you had to address someone by all their titles, especially in business settings.
For example, “Herr Dr. Dr. Phillips” might be a physician with two doctorates to his name. When meeting people, you should assume formality and then ask how they want to be addressed. It is not just a matter of formality but of respect; Germans place great importance on this and you shouldn’t overlook it. The younger generations are irritated by this level of protocol and are slowly doing away with it. Americans and Britains try to break down this barrier to move forward in relationships, but Germans prefer to keep the formality in greetings for a longer period of time into relationships.
Despite the protocol, people in many of the shops still greet customers with “guten Tag,” which means“good day”, or in southern Germany “grüßGott,” meaning “God greet you”, and “auf Wiedersehen,” for goodbyes upon departure.
The confusing terms “du” and “Sie” used in Germany both mean you, but show different degrees of familiarity and respect.
Many European languages differentiate between the singular and plural of the word “you,” as well as the formal and informal of it. The informal “du” is used when talking with family and close friends, and the formal “Sie” is used when speaking with anyone else. The English language doesn’t have any of these differences so English speakers in Germany usually forget and use the informal “du” when they’re supposed to use the formal “Sie.”
Doing so, even accidentally, will seem rude and presumptuous. However, in the case of students and those working in some international companies, particularly where English is used as the main language of communication, using others’ first names, even with “du”, is common or tolerated and allowed. If there is any confusion about which term to use, stick with “Sie” and the pereson’s surname.
As Germans were taught this way of using the terms, they are able to switch between the styles without giving it a second thought when foreigners are part of the conversation. Around other Germans, they will always use the terms in a formal manner, but can just as easily use the informal first name and even the more intimate “du” if they are addressing a foreigner.
The German term “Stammtisch” was originally used to denote a group of men getting together to play cards, socialize, or engage in political or philosophic discussions. The table where they met would be reserved by the display of an elaborate sign. So basically, a “Stammtisch” was an unofficial group meeting held on a regular basis, usually sitting around a large round table.
The term “Stammtisch”is still used in Germany to describe friendly get togethers, but for all different kinds of groups to include family, friends, and coworkers. The term pretty much means what Americans call “a regular.”There was a time in America when everyone congregated in the family room or around the kitchen table, to talk, laugh, eat meals, play games, and share their daily lives. This is less common today for many reasons, with technology being a main cause why Americans are less sociable. Everyone is more interested in the latest news or updates on social media than talking to the people in their lives.
One of the really nice aspects of German life is that families and friends still spend time together every day, talking and laughing, and they often prefer this over watching television. This is also the case outside the home, since Germany is a pub culture. Groups, including families, meet at their pub of choice so often that they become regulars or “Stammtisch,”and if you happen to sit in the seat of a “Stammtisch,” you will be asked to find another, politely of course. People meet in the pubs and other beer drinking establishments to talk, socialize, and sing songs. As you spend more time visiting with friends and becoming more acquainted with the culture and all things German, you too will become a part of a“Stammtisch.”
While Germans tend to look for solutions to problems thorough in-depth analysis, Anglo-Americans will form a hypothesis, then look for a solution. Analysis plays a part in both approaches, but Germans are taught to do this much more thoroughly and in greater detail. Germans even have a word for this, “vertiefen,” which means “to go in-depth.” This term represents the belief that subjects need to be analyzed and pursued consistently until clarity is achieved.
This analytical approach isn’t just a philosophy or business style: it’s a lifestyle. Germans will expect to talk about politics, religion, philosophy, and social issues with their friends. They will expect clear responses and opinions, and will rebuff friends who aren’t thinking things through, are behaving inconsistently, or are letting themselves down. Germans treasure directness and honesty over simplicity or comfort in conversations or interactions. They aren’t inclined to let something they think is wrong go by uncontested simply because it’s coming from a friend.
Germans are sometimes disappointed with American or British visitors, as it can be difficult to have in-depth conversations. Germans think the tendency to flit from topic to topic is superficial, and visitors can see Germans as perfectionist or elitists. There is a high potential for cross-cultural misunderstanding here if you do not understand where your colleague is coming from.