If you’ve done any research into German culture, you’ve likely come across blogs, articles and forum discussions on the subject of German directness. Less politically-correct results may even simply state that Germans are rude. It’s a topic of discussion as old as time; or, at least, as old as the Internet’s mainstream popularity. There is a lot of material on the subject, and it all basically comes to the same conclusion: Germans aren’t rude; they’re just direct and honest. If you can’t handle it, you need to grow a thicker skin (you big cry baby).
For the most part, I agree. Germans aren’t rude. In fact, if I had to place a stereotype on the German people as a whole, I would say that they’re extremely polite. However, they are definitely more direct than Americans. If you ask a German for their opinion, they’re going to give it to you completely unfiltered, just like the best kind of beer. In some cases, they will even give you their opinion about you, or your actions, when you haven’t asked. From a friend or family member, this is (usually) a good thing. You should want your friends and family to be honest with you, so long as they’re tactful.
The problem I’ve noticed most English-speaking expats complain about is when a German stranger or acquaintance decides to offer unsolicited advice or criticism. And, at the risk of sounding ultra-American, I agree; I also think it’s super rude.
Here’s the thing, though: I think these situations get exaggerated by other expats living in Germany. Yes, sometimes old ladies yell at you if you cross the street when the light is red.* People yell at you in the USA if you’re riding your bike on the road, even if you have every right to be there. So the shop girl told you that the skirt you’re trying on doesn’t suit you. If you were on the fence, now you have a second opinion! Was a government official mean to you when you applied for your work VISA or residency? That sucks, but…how was your last visit to the DMV?
Recently, a woman loudly (and angrily) stated that I need to speak German. At first, I wasn’t sure I had heard her correctly. After exchanging looks with my husband, though, I knew I had. What made her comment even more baffling is that she had not made a single attempt to speak with me. At all. In any language. Even when she made her comment, she wasn’t addressing me. She had said it to the people she was having a conversation with; a conversation I wasn’t even part of.
Was she being rude? Yes. Considering I can think of at least five other instances in my life where an American was just as awful towards me, though, it wouldn’t be fair of me to decide that her behavior was typisch Deutsch.
Needless to say, I don’t think you need a thicker skin if you’re planning an extended stay in Germany. There are rude, mean people everywhere. The real difference is that, when Germans make a not-so-nice comment, they (usually) aren’t saying it to be an asshole; they think they’re being helpful. Back home, if someone said something mean, I knew they were trying to hurt my feelings.
One of the worst people I’ve ever had to work with used to regularly tell me that my eyebrows made me look angry. She would also gossip all the time and say mean things about other employees behind their backs. This woman wasn’t trying to be helpful; she was just being cruel. For a long time, I used to take her remarks very personally. Then, one day, she made an offhand remark about not having friends anymore to hang out with on the weekend. I didn’t need “thicker skin” to deal with her; just the realization that she was mean because she was unhappy.
Are there people like her here in Germany? Sure. But, just like you, your average German is going to agree that they aren’t being helpful; they’re just being ein Arschloch.
*This has never happened to me, but I hear this complaint all the time from other expats who blog and vlog. No one has ever yelled at me for crossing at a red light and I observe Germans do it all the time.