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, knowing where to go to find people to talk to in Germany is just as important as knowing how to hold a conversation in German. Make sure you’re prepared by learning what to do and where to go.
One of the best ways to make new friends in Germany is to join a club. Many clubs have the advantage of attracting people who speak English. In fact, many Germans will join such clubs to have the opportunity to practice their English. They will generally be far more interested in speaking English than in letting you attempt your German.
There are clubs and organizations for almost any interest you can imagine: business clubs, political parties, women’s clubs, and Kiwanis Clubs. The Federation of German-American Clubs is possibly the largest organization in the country and oversees around 30 clubs divided into family, men’s, women’s, and children’s chapters. Expatriate groups in big cities will have their own clubs that welcome both Germans and foreigners. The International Toastmasters also operates in Germany.
Finding a club is straightforward: The local library or town hall maintains a list. Pick a club that sounds interesting and visit it. Learning German will also help you meet people, but there will be fellow foreigners. Many communities have a “Volkshochschule” or “People’s High School.” It is actually an adult education center, and it is the cheapest way to get lessons in German.
German has numerous large venues for things like popular bands and shows. On the other end of the scale, in terms of venue size, band size, and height of brow, are the bars and discos.
People who know the history of the Beatles have heard of the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, and its clubs and discos that the Beatles used to play at before they got big in the UK. But there are more clubs than just a street in Hamburg. There’s at least one club in every big town, and they’re not playing Beatles; they’re usually playing Germany’s own “Techno” music.
Germany has a pretty big gay scene that takes advantage of the clubs, and makes much of Techno music. This is especially true in Berlin, which used to have a big gay techno dance party called the Love Parade. (You will not find the Love Parade in Germany anymore. They stopped doing it after a big disaster in 2010.) You can also visit one of the Love Hotels if you’re into that kind of thing. (Hard to say if Germany took its cues from Japan there or vice-versa, but there’s a 1933 German movie called “The Love Hotel” so apparently this has been a thing for a long time.) In any case, Germany’s a lot more accepting of public expression of sexual activity, although the older folks aren’t exactly happy about the situation.
Germany has a strong sense of both authority and status that both mirrors American concepts and differs from them. Authority holds a respected place in German life, even though Germans will exercise their democratic rights by critiquing authority figures as just as much as everyone else does in most Western countries. The respect for authority structures within government and business helps increase status among Germans. Some of the status symbols important to Germans include cars, housing, quality food, and stylish clothing with cars being especially important.
A story about two leaders at a business conference helps highlight the unique ways Germans view status. These two business professionals were going to meet each other for the first time at this conference, which took place in a smaller town. One executive was offered a penthouse while the other professional was offered the executive suite. The executive who was offered a suite opted to stay in another hotel. Parity is very important to a German’s sense of status which made staying in a lesser form of accommodations at the same hotel unacceptable to the second executive. His status as a fellow executive would be harmed if he stayed in a much different type of room from his colleague.
In a nation so well-known for order and efficiency, can humor survive and thrive?
Many who don’t know German culture erroneously assume this is a place devoid of humor. The myth is dispelled upon their first visits. Germans love to laugh, and many exhibit their own dry brand of humor.
For example, those who wanted to expedite moving the national capital from Bonn back to Berlin in the late 1990s described the former West German capital city as “half the size of a Chicago cemetery and twice as dead”.
While Germans love a good joke, it is important to note a key difference in the ways humor is employed here. Unlike the United States, most Germans would not tell such a joke as part of a formal lesson in school or at the start of a business presentation. Germans are not keen on humor as an “ice breaker” at gatherings they consider formal.
Unlike the British, Germans are unlikely to make humor a vehicle for navigating awkward moments in a discussion. Many separate business from pleasure and maintain that carefully ordered plan they brought into the gathering.
The key desire in Germany is to be taken seriously in formal settings. Students are taught this is done with a serious, even impersonal approach to the audience. It’s a cultural difference outsiders need to note and consider carefully. It is probably also what has given rise to the inaccurate idea that Germans do not have a sense of humor. Remember that personal and private are kept separate, then you can find those personal settings for to get a hearty laugh after a long day.