How to Look Like a Tourist in Germany
DON’T do these things if you want to blend in with the locals in the land of lager and lederhosen.
Germany has risen from the ashes both literally and figuratively. After a tumultuous 20th century, it has become a political and economic powerhouse as well as a must-see European destination for travelers and study abroad students alike. Whether you’re just popping in for a weekend trip or you plan to establish a more long-term home base in Germany, it’s important to know how to blend in with the locals. Although its western tradition may seem familiar to many visitors, living like a local in Germany is all in the little details. Keep in mind not to do these things and you’ll fit right in no matter where you are, from Düsseldorf to Dresden.
Note: this is based on my experience as an American study abroad student. No matter where you come from and where you’re going, be sure to respect the local customs! I’ve also included a few helpful German words and phrases with a few of the tips that will help in certain situations.
Make idle small talk
German efficiency infiltrates every aspect of the local lifestyle, even down to everyday social interactions. In the United States, asking someone how he or she is doing is a polite conversation starter, but in Germany it’s not something you ask unless you are genuinely interested in the other person’s response. From my experience, the locals you interact with in Germany will prefer to cut to the chase during a conversation and avoid pointless chitchat.
Fail to recycle, or throw your recyclables in the wrong bin
The long line of recycling bins might seem daunting, but don’t be discouraged. The Germans are big on recycling, and they actually make it fairly easy for the most part. There are bins for clear glass, brown glass, green glass, paper, and plastic – some cities go even more in-depth than that with their systems, but that’s the basic lineup. An American friend of mine was actually stopped by a passerby who noticed that she was about to put something in the wrong bin and he politely showed her the proper place to put that particular item.
Helpful vocab: Pfand (bottle deposit). Check to see if you can get one before tossing that bottle into the appropriately-marked bin!
Forget to bring your own bags to the Lebensmittelgeschäft and walk out with an armful of groceries
Don’t worry about choosing paper or plastic. In an attempt to be more environmentally friendly (more on this later), German grocery stores encourage customers to bring their own reusable shopping bags. If you really need one, bags can sometimes be purchased for several cents, but the majority of people usually opt to bring their own.
Helpful vocab: Einkaufstüten (shopping bags)
Wait for the host to seat you at a restaurant
Surprise! There is no host – restaurant guests seat themselves. Standing at the front of the restaurant and waiting to be shown to a table is a surefire way to stand out as a tourist. Additionally, if you wait for the waiter to come bring you a menu once you’re seated at a table, you’re going to be there a while. Servers in German restaurants will never come to your table unless you call them over yourself.
Helpful vocab: Entschuldigung or Bedinung, bitte to get the server’s attention. Once he or she arrives at your table, ask for die Speisekarte, bitte (the menu, please).
Here in the U.S., it’s something that everyone has done at least once (and probably more often). Not so much in Germany. Stick to the marked crosswalks and avoid crossing in the middle of the road. Cars will not stop. They do not care. If you get hit, it will be your fault because you should have known better not to wander into the middle of the street. This mentality may seem harsh, but when you consider that cars have the right-of-way (rather than pedestrians, which is the case in most places in the U.S.), it makes more sense from a legal perspective.
…or, staying on the sidewalk but walking in the bike lane
Watch out! If you’re walking in the lane closest to the street and cyclists keep whizzing past, you’re in the wrong lane. Stick to the inner part of the sidewalk – it can be confusing because the bike lane is often not marked clearly.
Helpful vocab: Rad (bicycle), Radler (cyclist)
Speak loudly, especially in public
Americans tend to speak at a much louder volume than the rest of the world. This is usually unconscious – we don’t intentionally do it to be rude, but it can make even the most seasoned and sophisticated traveler stand out as a tourist. Germans in particular are very reserved and quiet in comparison. I’ll never forget taking the tram to the University of Leipzig campus on our first day of class and having (what I thought was) a regular conversation at a normal volume level with some other people in my study abroad group. Some of the locals were having conversations amongst themselves as well, but at a much quieter volume. In retrospect, I feel bad thinking about how much we “obnoxious Americans” must have annoyed the rest of the people on the tram.
Call it “soccer”
Likewise, calling American football “football” is a good way to get a laugh out of your German friends.