An American in Berlin: The Biggest Differences

A few weeks ago we asked Germans about their experiences living abroad. Now we turn the tables – our American copy editor Autumn Stinar writes about German vs. American life

As with any generalization there are, of course, exceptions. And yet, after nearly nine years in Germany – eight in Berlin and six months in Southern Germany – there are certain cultural patterns that I’ve come to recognize. These are primarily based on my experiences living in Berlin, which I know is not representative of the country at whole. But here goes…

1.   Beer

Depending on where you live in the US, you might be looking at $8-12 for a 6-pack of beer that is comparable to watery skunk drink. One of the biggest surprises visiting Germany the first time was that bottled water cost more than beer – a commodity that Germans refer to as “liquid bread.”

2.  Social Support Systems

Germany is famous for being bureaucratic, and this doesn’t go without causing its own set of complicated problems. However, compared to in the US, there are many more programs in place to cushion and protect individuals from homelessness, hunger, not having health care, or generally sliding down the abyss of financial ruin.

3.  Getting Things Delivered

My hometown in the US is two hours from the next shopping mall; I grew up ordering lots of stuff. In Berlin, getting anything delivered is surprisingly difficult as they won’t leave a package on your doorstep. But even getting a phone line installed requires a 5-hour window in which one must be at home just to discover the workman won’t arrive. If you’re not home when a package is attempted to be delivered twice, it will probably be returned, or taken to a shop/center around the corner or kilometers away.

4.  Directness

One of the biggest cultural differences is just how direct Germans can be. I’ve been apologized to for my name, witnessed strangers ask each other detailed salary information, and generally heard conversations that make me squirm. While Americans tend to be less direct and confrontational, Germans value getting the truth out. Which leads me to…

5.  Positivity

A common stereotype is that Germans grumble about the train being two minutes late. “Nicht schlecht” [not bad] is seen as praise. In contrast, most Americans I know, whether intentionally or not, try to radiate a certain positivity. Of course, there are pessimists in the USA. But in contrast, I find that Americans will try to uncover some positive aspect of every situation. However, I find what many Germans lack in positive outlook, they make up for in analytical ability.

6.  Friendliness

Germans often see Americans as being superficial or downright fake, and while with certain individuals this might be the case, I see it related to the previous point and a general desire to make friends. I try to explain that, just because you don’t plan on being someone’s best friend doesn’t make initial friendliness necessarily “fake.” At the same time, nearly every time I go back to the US I am disappointed by someone who says they want to meet up – and ultimately doesn’t really want to. Yet perhaps this is the lesser evil to the frequent shop assistant or employee in Berlin who makes no attempt to hide their contempt for my question/problem/their chosen career path.

7.  Flirting

Closely related to the desire to meet new people, flirting in Germany is an enigma that I will never truly understand. While it is not unusual in the US for a stranger to approach you in a public space, this RARELY happens in Berlin. Seemingly contradictory to point 4 above (Directness), the subtle flirting dance that I generally take as norm doesn’t happen in Berlin. That stranger across the bar may be intently staring at you because you have something stuck on your face, or they find you attractive and are expressing it with a serious, uncomfortable look.

8.  Transportation

In most places in the US, a car is an absolute necessity and many people spend a good deal of time in them. In many states in the US, you can get your driver’s license at 16 years old. In comparison, the requirements and cost of getting a license in Germany are demanding. However, in most German cities, you don’t need a car as public transportation in and between cities is great. Bicycling is a norm and car drivers are aware of the possibility of cyclists. But if you do drive a car, highways with partially speed-limit-free zones and the enormous size difference in cars leads to a fairly different driving experience. 

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