Are all Germans rude? That’s the stereotype many people outside the country associate with Germany. Sometimes this is attributed to being very direct, but also with the assumption that this directness is rude. But is it really true or is it just a cultural difference? Another question to ask might be: “Are Germans polite and I’m being rude?”
- Politeness is a product of local culture
- German ‘rudeness’
- Passive aggressiveness as an art form
- Some German directness is because of the German language
Politeness is a product of local culture
It helps to frame politeness as something we learn from our family and community. What is considered polite in one community may seem overly fussy or pointless in another. One look at the living abroad community on TikTok will illustrate this in a thousand different ways! Some cultures think wearing your outside shoes inside someone else’s home is incredibly rude, and others barely notice. In some cultures, saying no the first time someone offers you food is being polite but it’s expected that you eventually say yes the third time.
What is often termed typical German ‘rudeness’ by British and North American people is often a fundamental misunderstanding of the kinds of interactions Germans value. For most Germans, directness and authenticity is to be prized. They 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. It would not be normal and honest to smile all the time, because there are days you are not happy. For North Americans, they value a level of friendliness in all interactions that is probably not real much of the time, but it’s considered rude to foist your less-than-stellar mood on anyone else. Are Germans unfriendly? If you’re looking for smiley, American-style interactions then you might find them unfriendly. But if you think like a German, your interpretation will change!
Passive aggressiveness as an art form
Most British people would admit that their culture loves to use passive aggressiveness in all sorts of situations to enforce social norms and values. German culture, in general, prefers to rely on explicit rules for this, like where exactly you can set up a BBQ in a park, what days of the week you can vacuum and even what week you have to sweep the front walk of your communal house. It makes being a newcomer to German society a bit easier, even though there are many rules, they are at least written down somewhere. Some German people also consider letting you know when you’ve done the wrong thing as a service to you, not a judgment on your character. Despite British culture’s reputation for being very polite, it can be very difficult to navigate as a newcomer.
Some German directness is because of the German language
The German language, despite its long compound words and sentences made up of many clauses, is actually quite direct. It is entirely polite to enter a conversation by holding up your finger and saying “Eine Frage!” (“A Question!”) whereas North American or British people would find this to be very abrupt. Often when someone is less confident with their English skills and translates their thoughts word-for-word from German it can come across as too direct. English speakers value highly their ability to wind their way around a subject indirectly, and consider approaching a topic sideways a kind of gentle way of broaching a subject. Again, this has to do with the fundamental difference between valuing honesty and authenticity or likability and wordplay.
German politeness and rudeness takes time to understand
Some English speakers are just so unfamiliar with German, even just hearing fluent speakers throws them off. “Why are Germans so angry?” they ask, but in reality it is a normal conversation about soccer. Of course there will be rude people in any culture, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider whether cultural bias is causing us to react when we feel like we’re experiencing German rudeness.
Erin McGann is a Canadian freelance writer focusing on travel, living abroad, parenting, history, and culture. After nearly a decade living in the UK, Erin settled in Heidelberg, Germany with her husband and son. Dragging her family to every castle and open-air museum is a favorite activity, along with sewing, cooking, and weaving. You can check out her travel blog, and follow her obsession with half-timbered houses on her Instagram account.