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Germany German Culture



Germany is a powerful country that in many respects, despite superficial appearances, operates very differently from the USA and Britain. Understanding the nature of the differences will help you to achieve good relationships with the people you meet.

An informed and sympathetic approach is particularly valuable if you are visiting Germany for more than a few days as a casual tourist and need to understand how the Germans live and work.

In recent years Germany has successfully reunited its two halves, split asunder by the Allied powers after the devastation of the Second World War. The reabsorption, after over fifty years of Communist rule, of what was the Germany Democratic Republic into the liberal, free-market Federal Republic of Germany is a tribute to German determination, prosperity, and organizational talent. Despite economic downturns and painful restructuring, Germany today is a major world economic and diplomatic player that needs to be understood.

Key Facts

Official Name:
  Bundesrepublik Deutschland
Capital City:
Main Cities:

Hamburg, Munich, Cologne, Franckfurt/Main


82 million. The most populous country in Europe.

  137,828 sq. miles

German Land & People

The 82.1 million people of the Federal Republic of Germany occupy a landmass of 356,974 square kilometres (137,828 square miles) at the very heart of Europe. Not the largest country in Europe but the powerhouse of the European Union, Germany is a beautiful, varied, and fascinating place to live, work, or visit. The impact of her scholars, scientists, artists, musicians, writers, philosophers, and politicians on European culture has been profound, and has influenced much of the way the modern world thinks and acts.

Although Germany had been settled for thousands of years, it became a single political entity only in 1871, when it was unified under Wilhelm I of Prussia by the statesman Otto van Bismarck. Who, then, are the Germany people, where did they come from, and what are they like today? A good way to start is by taking a look at the land that has shaped the people.

Germany occupies a pivotal position in Central Europe, bounded to the north by the North Sea, Denmark, and the Baltic Sea; to the east by Poland and the Czech Republic; to the south by Austria and Switzerland; and to the west by France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands. So many neighbouring territories have always created a security problem and, with historically shifting borders, German-speaking populations have periodically found themselves incorporated into other countries. This is particularly true of the Alsace region of France and the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Until the unification in 1871 the word “ Germany” had been a geographical term, referring to an area occupied by small states, ruled by priests and princes, and for much of its history under the dominance of Rome and the Holy Roman Empire that succeeded it.

Germany has a wide variety of landscapes. There are three main geographical regions: the lowland plain in the north, the uplands in the center, and a mountainous region in the south. The lowlands include several river valleys and a large area of heathland (the Lüneburger Heide, the oldest national park in Germany).

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German Values & Attitudes


The shared values and attitudes of a nation determine its political, economic, and social structures and the behaviour of its citizens. What the Germans as a people prioritize as core values will often differ from what, say, Americans and British people prioritize, even if a considerable number of them originate from the same common stock. Where, then, to put it simply, are the Germans “coming from”? What makes them tick, both in business and socially?

Among the first things anybody who hears the word “German” thinks of are efficiency and organization. These are not terms one would normally associate with national character, so where does this perception come from? Anywhere you go in Germany you will meet a high degree of tidiness and organization, applied down to the last detail. The Germans themselves, however, don’t think in these terms. They think in terms of order. Efficiency and organization are by-products of the search for order. Order is a fundamental German value, and it permeates everything they do.

Ordnung Muss Sein

A key concept in German life, therefore, is Ordnung, or order. The phrase “Ordnung muss sein” means that order “must be”. It reflects the belief that there is an inherent order and system in everything. The object of life is to analyze everything to find that order and system, and then to apply it. Inculcating that search for order and meaning, and showing how it is applied, is the function of German education and social t raining. Order is what gived a secure basis to life. Disorder is deeply unsettling for the Germans, and therefore their first aim in any difficult situation is to search for and re-establish order.

“So what?” you may respond. “Everybody likes a tidy life.” Indeed so, but in German thinking order is raised to a national idea, and it has ramifications in every aspect of national life.

An example of this is planning. A German firm will plan an events months ahead, knowing that circumstances are likely to change before the event itself. Their search for order means that they prefer to spend time replanning every time circumstances change rather than to leave the whole thing until a short time before (as the French, Italians, and Spaniards might do) and just do it once.

We all have a number of characteristics drummed into us by upbringing, education, and experience that we carry around with us as part of our individual psychological and social programming. One of these may be a need for order in our life. But this remains an individual preoccupation, not a social one. Imagine order as a national internal principle. Imagine a situation in which it is more difficult not to pick up litter and put it in a waste bin than it is to leave it on the ground. There you have the German psyche—a national sense of internalized social order. This has all sorts of effects on people’s behaviour. For example, it helps to explain why Germans are the most ecologically minded people in Europe, and why they will readily rebuke strangers fir minor transgressions, such as jaywalking, or antisocial acts that other people might silently suffer or simply ignore.

A national mindset that puts order first has a number of consequences. Firstly, if you elect a leader, you will tend to want to do what he or she says, so respect for authority is important. Secondly, it means that you will approve of people who plan ahead, organize, and check, and disapprove of people who tend to improvise or do things “on the fly”. If you are by nature a “last minuter”, or in British terms, “a muddle througher”, you will need to brush up your performance if you are dealing with the German sense of order.

All this has contributed to the widely held stereotype of a humourless nation that rigidly organizes itself and follows orders without question. This is simply not true. The Germans have as great a sense of humour as anyone and can be deeply and explosively rebellious, as the amazing and world-changing breaching of the Berlin Wall in 1989 showed. There are also differences in the way north and south Germany interpret the notion of order as a social principle. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that this organising principle of German society is deeply rooted and must be taken into account.

Duty (Pflichtbewusstein)

The other side of the phrase “Say what you mean”, is “Mean what you say”. For someone to say something and not do it, or at least attempt to do it and explain the problems in good time, is seen very badly. If a German says, “I’ll do my best” it means, “I will use my best efforts and probably succeed”. If an English-speaker says it, on the other hand, it may well be an excuse for likely failure. Doing your duty is a very important part of German life, and applies as much to the person walking their dog and picking up and disposing of dog mess as it does in a military or business context.

This sense of duty is linked to a deeper tradition in German thought – a certain high-mindedness and a belief in higher principles that is reflected in the operas of Wagner or in the great Romantic poets Goethe and Schiller. Implicit in German intellectual life is a sense of the greater good. It is important to subordinate one’s own wioll to the demands of the greater good. For the Germans the sense of Gemeinschaft (community) and Gruppenzugehörigkeit (group belonging) means that one does not act against the interests of the group, for one’s own sake as much as for the good of others. The proverb “Do as you would be done by” sums up this sentiment very well. This form of idealism helps to explain why the Germans seem to have an internalized sense of public order.

Work & Social Life

English-speaking people find it quite easy to mix their business and social lives, to talk about their jobs at a cocktail party or mix with colleagues in a social setting. Until recently this was not the case in Germany, where business and social life were kept quite separate, and it was even considered inappropriate to discuss one’s personal life at work, or work issues in a social environment. American and British people working in German companies were surprised by the way that their colleagues could work together for twenty-five years and never once address each other by their first names, or use the personal pronoun “du” (the intimate form of “you”), and by the fact that they might know next to nothing about each other’s private lives. Things have lightened up since those days, but an element of this remains, particularly among the older generation. To people who are used to forming many of their friendships, and even romantic relationships, with colleagues at the office, this separation of work and social life can be quite frustrating, but for the Germans it is perfectly natural. Quite simply, they have another system.

Friendship means something quite special to the Germans and its not a term they use lightly. Most Germans have a small, closely knit circle of friends, and a wider network of acquaintances. Their friendships are generally formed at school and university, and are often quite local. American and British people tend to have more friends, but the relationship is often looser. For the German friendships are made much more slowly, but once made are closer and last for life. So it is important for visitors to Germany to recognise that friendships are not made quickly or casually, and are not formed in the office. It is also important to remember that the Germans keep private and public life separate.

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Culture Smart Italy

The above extract is kindly provided by Culture Smart! the essential guide to customs & culture. The 168-page guide retails at £6.95 + P&P and is available directly from Kuperard, the publishers of Culture Smart! guides.

CultureSmart!Consulting in conjunction with Cactus Language Training creates tailor-made seminars and consultancy programs to meet a wide range of corporate, public sector, and individual needs. Find out more at

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