“Are Germans rude?” or “Why are Germans so rude?” seems to interest quite many people from what I can see from the search queries listed in “my” Google Search Console and the SEO tool I’m currently trying out. If that is what is bugging people – much more than the question of “doing business in Germany” – then let me shed some light on the matter of why Germans (allegedly) are so rude; rather than writing yet another blog post on how to develop your business in Germany or being successful at trade shows.
Examples of what is considered rude in Germany
An Indian CEO once told me his friends often ask him if Germans are rude. I wouldn’t say so; only that our understanding of being polite („höflich“) could be somewhat different. For example, for us, being polite means holding the door for others (even if we do not know them), addressing people formally (even if they are waiting on our table at a restaurant), and being careful not to disturb others in public (e.g., on a bus). Somebody who is speaking loudly on the phone on the Intercity-Express from Munich to Frankfurt is considered rude. Ignoring the person following you when you enter Hofbräuhaus and letting the door fall shut in their face, or trying to jump the queue at the box office is considered rude.
What we consider decent or polite behaviour very much depends on what we were taught when growing up. In Germany, a smile or an approving gesture is generally not considered an adequate reply to express gratitude or thankfulness; if you do not utter a “Dankeschön,” you might be considered unappreciative or ill-mannered. A popular German saying goes: “was Hänschen nicht lernt, lernt Hans nimmermehr;” this translates literally to “What (little) Hänschen doesn’t learn, (grown-up) Hans never learns either,” meaning that whatever (habits) you don’t learn as a kid, you will never be able to understand/ adopt. The connotation is rather patronizing, does not target grown-ups like the “you cannot teach an old dog new tricks” saying does, and is not as harsh as “A tree must be bent while it is young.” The Hänschen quote is often used in the context of “proper behavior.” If (German) Hänschen doesn’t learn to say “please” and “thank you” (on every possible occasion), he will never learn. “What is the word?!” (Wie heißt das Wort?!), parents would remind Hänschen or Gretchen, when he or she requests something. “Bitte” (please) is the proper answer. “How do you say?!” (Wie sagt man?!), the parent would add, if Gretchen forgot to say, “Thank you!”
Another thing that is considered rude or disrespectful behaviour is not being punctual (in German: pünktlich). In business, arriving even a few minutes late (without a very good excuse) will create a bad impression. If you speak German, be careful how you address people when you meet them for the first time. There is (the more colloquial) “Du”, that you, in connection with first names, would address your friends and family with, and (the formal) “Sie” that, as a thumb rule, is appropriate for addressing (other) grown-ups that you are not especially close with – like your boss (Frau Dr. Schmidt), new colleague (Herr Müller), your child’s teacher, the vegetable vendor, or a ticket collector on a train.
Germans are not rude; they just appreciate direct communication
Now, coming closer to the question of whether Germans are in fact rude, what is it that foreigners perceive as rude, harsh, or unpolite? I believe, one reason Germans are often considered rude is rooted in their “inability” to communicate what they want to say indirectly. You might already have experienced that Germans are very explicit and direct in their communication; we do not need much context and speak clearly about what is important to us. Clear messages are generally expected and appreciated; ambiguity makes us nervous.
Therefore, Germans are not well-versed in reading between the lines or understanding vague hints. If you’d like to borrow money from a German, don’t tell him or her how hungry you are, how much you like German food, and how unfortunate it is that the three Euros in your pocket won’t suffice to buy you a bratwurst sandwich. Just say: “Can I borrow five Euros to get a hot dog? I’ll return the money beginning of next week, promise!”
When doing some research for my book Doing Business in Germany: A Concise Guide to Understanding Germans and Their Business Practices I was asking people who travel or work internationally to share their respective experiences. It did not come as a surprise to me that the Germans’ direct way of communicating was mentioned several times. However, I was shocked to learn how irritating some styles of behaviour can seem for many foreigners.
Germans do not consider spelling out (what they think is) “the truth” as rude
Germans are generally interested in facts and procedures and like to spell things out. This trait, in a course on Intercultural Management or Cross-cultural Communication, would typically be introduced under the headline “Direct Communication” or “Low-Context-Communication”: Task-oriented Germans rely on the professional expertise the other person has and tend to take words literally. We do not rely so much on contextual elements (i.e., the speaker’s tone of voice or body language) to communicate information. We tend to speak clearly about what is important to us. Clear messages are generally expected and appreciated; ambiguity makes us nervous. In other words: There is not much “beating around the bush”, as a German would perceive it and this could also be the reason why they don’t do much small talk. Instead of trying to embed criticism or bad messages somewhere between the lines, a German would typically just spell out what he or she wants, does not like, or thinks of you.
“If you really want to hear the truth, ask a German,” we can read in an article headed How to tell when Germans are really being rude versus just being German by the expat blog The German Way: “If you ask an American, ‘Does this shirt/dress look good on me?’ you’ll usually get a polite reply, even if the person thinks it’s the ugliest thing he/she has ever seen. Ask a German the same question and you’ll get an honest, blunt opinion – positive or negative.” The blogger explains: “Germans tend to be direct and to the point. They consider small talk and over-politeness a waste of time. Americans often mistake German frankness for rudeness.” Or, as Erin McGann puts it in her article Are Germans rude? – The key to decoding German behavior: “[Germans] don’t really do small talk or smile at people they don’t know. This is not because they are rude, but because they are being real and honest, which is to them the most polite thing to do.”
Germans are not all serious, humourless, unfriendly and rude
Looking at my own research, here are some points that were mentioned to me: “When dealing with Germans for the very first time, it was challenging to understand why they are so serious, humourless, unfriendly, and rude,” a consultant from India who has been living and working in Germany for some years, told me. What this gentleman still struggles with are the (what he describes as) cold, or less-emotional, relationships with neighbours and colleagues. However, he adds that “you will realize that Germans are extremely self-critical, down-to-earth, egalitarian, socially conscious, and environmentally responsible people. They are also friendly, helpful, and humorous, but it may take a couple of years to realize that.”
Another interviewee told me how sometimes, in Germany, he struggles because of “too much directness. In these situations, I find Germans too technical-thinking, lacking the emotional part of situations”. Another thing I hear sometimes is that Germans do not rely very much on their gut instincts but would rather approach things intellectually, and: “Germans are also often eager to offer their personal view of things, even when not invited to do so, at times.” For task-oriented Germans, that is the preferred way of doing things, especially in a business situation. On the other hand, people from so-called high-context cultures (such as Asia or South America) typically put more emphasis on relationships (more than Germans, the Swiss, or people from Scandinavian countries). They generally have great antennae for how something is said and need much more contextual information.
Englishman Adam Fletcher, who is living with his German girlfriend in Berlin, explains: “English is not about what you say, but how you say it. German is both, but more the former.” In his book, How to be German, he elaborates: “[W]hat Germans say tends to be direct and prepared with minimal ambiguity. Ruthlessly efficient, if you will. In English, for example, if you want someone to do something for you, you do not merely go up to that person and ask them to do something for you…[Germans] just say ‘I need this, do it, by this date. Alles klar?’ then walk off.”
Alles klar? If not, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me: hello[at]andra-ibf.com