The First Impressions of a Briton in Germany

The English and the Germans have always had a slightly dysfunctional relationship, usually relating to either football or warfare. That has undoubtedly led to some insensitive jokes and stereotypes on our part (let’s blame John Cleese for the very infamous, albeit hilarious, episode of Fawlty Towers in which he struts around his hotel goose-stepping and shrieking some nonsensical high-pitched, guttural noises which I think are designed to humiliate the German language). To what extent, however, are these stereotypes and jokes fair, and do they, under any circumstances, ring true? How many of them are just prejudicial slurs made up by uneducated English football louts who have probably never spent any time in Germany or gotten to know any German people?

Firstly, I cannot stress enough that the stereotype of Germany as an ‘efficient’ country is about as true to life as Nick Clegg’s manifesto. As an Erasmus student at a German university, I can safely say that efficiency is not very high on the list here. With next to no guidance given in regards to how to sign up for modules and so forth to say my first couple of weeks here were a bit of a shambles would be an understatement. After emailing countless professors and receiving either no reply or a very matter-of-fact ‘I can’t help you, find someone else’, I finally managed to work it out on my own after hours of frantic emailing and a near heart-attack. Perhaps, in the UK, we are pretty used to having even too much of guidance, and our very own personal tutor — something that doesn’t exist here in Germany.

I can safely say that efficiency is not very high on the list here.

Having said that, credit is due to the German higher education system. I was required to pay a fee of €75 when I arrived here as an administration fee. Apart from that, German students pay no tuition fees and, despite the occasional laborious task and lack of organisation, the standard of education is still very high here. It seems the German government holds education in high enough esteem that they are willing to pump millions into it so their students aren’t out of pocket. All things considered, I feel I can forgive the German higher education system the odd lack of organisation and missed email.

Another common misconception of many is that Germans have no sense of humour, which I find to be a complete fallacy and extremely unfair. I have had many hilarious drunken conversations with Germans since I’ve been here. Most Germans I have met have been very open and not at all stuffy and easily offended. If anything, my reputation as an English girl precedes me here as I was called a ‘prude’ when I expressed my horror at the prospect of going to the public baths in the nude (that happens a lot in Germany and it has scared me away from the swimming pool for the rest of my life). In fact, when I asked my German flatmate to describe English people in three words, one of the words she used was ‘prudish’. The other two words, ‘drunk’ and ‘pale’, were not that far off the mark either (she speaks excellent English, by the way, another constant source of embarrassment for England). It seems that our perception of Germans as being humourless is equally met with their assumption that we are all conservative and straight-laced. However, perhaps an episode of The Jeremy Kyle Show or a night out at Ocean would help them to see that is indeed not the case.

While there are many reasons behind the cultural stereotypes of Germany, I still think that many are misguided.

I have always given Germany the benefit of the doubt when it comes to my final stereotype, but alas it was in vain. Germans can indeed be very, very rude. Not just in an insulting way, and — believe me — that happens a lot, especially if they have to repeat themselves because you didn’t understand them the first time. But I would advise not to expect the same amount of courtesy in Germany as you would in the UK. Being late is not considered too much of a problem, and pushing to get onto the tram before letting anybody else off happens regularly. And by the by, tutting does nothing here except make people look at you wondering why you are making noises like a squirrel. The mother of all rudeness, though, occurs on the Deutsche Bahn (German rail). Don’t bother playing the damsel-in-distress ‘I’m foreign and I don’t understand’ card when you accidentally buy the wrong type of train ticket and get spot-checked as no mercy will be shown and you will have to pay a fee of €40. Even a crying woman feigning naivety will not melt the evil German ticket inspector’s ice-cold heart. And, while we’re on the subject, never expect a German train to arrive on time. If you’re ever in Germany, a casual insult towards Deutsche Bahn will make the locals love you.

While there are many reasons behind the cultural stereotypes of Germany, I still think that many are misguided. Recent reports have shown that Germany is now one of the most positively-viewed nations in the world, with the strongest economies in Europe. So, while pointing fun at our former enemy and sporting rival can be fun, remember that we may need them to save our arses one day, so be nice.

Sarah Bull

Impact’s foreign correspondent in Germany


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Image by The Independent

3 Comments on this post.
  • Thomas
    23 November 2013 at 19:44
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    Excellent piece of writing. As a half-German that moved from Germany to England to study, the cultural stereotypes described in this article made me chuckle! I’ve always wondered what the English really thought of the Germans.

  • Paul Detto
    24 November 2013 at 00:06
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    Hogwash. I sense the author didn’t spend much time in Germany, where I now live as a young (first half of my twenties) Brit. Infinitely more efficient in almost every imaginable way than the UK. A university doesn’t seem a bit of a naive comparison to the author? Furthermore, rudeness is evident in the UK as much as it is here. The only difference is the lack of the flannel and sugar coating we are used to in Blighty. They are far more direct and as I assume the author made neither much of an attempt to integrate or indeed learn the German language (correct me if I’m wrong), you are setting yourself up for misunderstandings. Germany works supremely well as a country, it’s almost like a land of milk and honey as compared to the uk which I hope to avoid returning to forever. A land of dreary, sad faces pillaged by an inept state and social deprivation. I cannot recommend a better place to move for a young Brit than flourishing, welcoming, vibrant and extremely generous Germany.

  • Sarah
    25 November 2013 at 22:44
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    Hi Paul Detto, I’d firstly like to say that you’re point about the author (me) not having spent very much time in Germany is true, I have been here for just under two months. I would like to point out, however, that the article is entitled ‘The First Impressions of a Briton in Germany’, and it is indeed my hope that the slightly more negative impressions I’ve had so far will change by the time I leave. If you disagree with my points (as you have every right to do) I can imagine that it’s only because you have had different experiences to me. I do stand by what I said about the German university system, as it is no where near as organised and efficient as what we have here in the UK, and I wouldn’t say the comparison is naive as the reason I’m here is to study at and experience life at a German university. While ‘hogwash’ is one of my favourite words I’m somewhat disappointed that you find it appropriate here. Thanks for your feedback though!

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