Germany (officially the Federal Republic of Germany) is a central western European country with the second biggest population in the region.1 It was split into ‘East Germany’ and ‘West Germany’ until 1990 when the two states reunified to form a greater continuation of West Germany (the Federal Republic of Germany). The German people have remained stoic through the massive changes of the last century, adapting to the evolving social climate of the country as needed. One can attribute much of Germany’s recent prosperity to its mastery of organisation and critical thinking (kritisches Denken). These qualities have arguably helped the society reconcile the impacts of the World Wars and the Cold War. Germans have been distinguished as particularly pragmatic (pragmatische) and honest (ehrliche) people. However, generalisations of the standard German character have their limits when one takes into account the strong regional differences of the country and the different experiences individuals have had in the East compared to the West. Regional identities usually affect people’s socio-cultural understandings. However, most Germans have strong moral sensitivity based on lessons of the past that have taught them to understand and respect these differences.
The official language of Germany is ‘Deutsch’ (German). Most Germans are taught ‘Standarddeutsch’ (standard German) in school, also known as ‘Hochdeutsch’ (high German). However, there are varying regional accents and dialects across the country. For example, those in many areas of northern Germany speak a West Germanic variation known as ‘Plattdütsch’ (low German). The pronunciation and features of this dialect have similarities with the language spoken in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, the Germanic dialect of the southern border, ‘Bayrisch’ (Bavarian), is similar to the Austrian Germanic dialect. Despite some differences in phrases and meanings, Germans from all regions can usually understand one another.
Regional Diversity and Local Patriotism
A foreigner’s visualisation of the ‘typical German’ often conjures images of beer, lederhosen, Oktoberfest and bratwurst. However, these are actually cultural emblems particular to one state (or principality) in the south of the country (Bavaria). Such cultural characteristics differ between regions and cities within Germany, visible in the way traditional heritage, foods, architecture and celebrations vary across the country. Germans may also talk of social distinctions based on stereotyped personality traits attached to each region. For example, Germans often describe people from the southwest as . Meanwhile, Rhinelanders in the west are generally thought to have a more laid back attitude.
Accents, social attitudes, religious affiliations, traditions and practices also vary between those living in the cities and those living in rural areas. For example, some of Germany’s metropolises are renowned for their alternative lifestyles and tolerant social attitudes. They tend to attract more unconventional Germans, as well as migrants. Meanwhile, rural townships generally receive less internal migration and follow more conventional lifestyles in accord with their tradition. The capital of Berlin is particularly noticeable for being a cultural outlier within the country. This unique hub differs significantly from the areas surrounding it.
Germans are generally very proud of their regional identities. It is quite normal for people to show more patriotism and loyalty to their local area than their nation. Each of the cities and states of Germany have their own emblems. There are over 50 coats of arms for urban and rural districts within the state of North Rhine-Westphalia alone. It is often more common to see regional flags and coats of arms in public than the national flag.
Social Distinctions Between the East and West
Some of the most pronounced social distinctions are noticeable between the western two-thirds of Germany, and the other eastern third. From the end of World War II until 1990, the nation was divided as two separate countries under different systems of rule. West Germany was administrated under a capitalist system as the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG/BRD), whilst East Germany was occupied under Soviet Communist rule as the German Democratic Republic (GDR/DDR). West Germany became more cosmopolitan and industrialised, aligned with Western Europe and North America. Meanwhile, East Germany was ruled under a strict socialist ideology.
The two states reunified in 1990 to create a larger version of West Germany (FRG). As modern-day Germany has been unified for less than 30 years, the dividing line of the inner German border that once separated the East from the West is still visible in the geography of some places, and the remaining communist architecture often shows which towns were in the former GDR. Temporary separation has also entrenched language differences that are subtly noticeable in the different names used to describe single objects. For example, the word for plastic is ‘Plastik’ in the West and ‘Plaste’ in the East.
There is also a faint cultural division noticeable in the social differences between the East and West. For example, the Eastern population is markedly less religious, older on average and is less .2 Social attitudes regarding political ideals can differ significantly depending on whether one lived in East or West Germany. For example, some people’s experience under communism has influenced them to be strongly opposed to leftist world views.
The economic disparity between the East and West is also still quite obvious and pronounced. It is perhaps one of the differences spoken about most frequently, as West German states pay a financial support tax to East Germany. East Germany suffered more material hardship over the course of its Soviet rule. After the reunification of Germany, most of the young and skilled East Germans migrated to the prosperous West. This continued to drain the East’s economy, which remains slightly weaker today. The East has a higher unemployment rate and less disposable income on average per person (Statistisches Bundesamt, 2014). Some Germans may express resentment about this disparity and the measures to amend it. The differences between East and West Germany often lead people to draw certain social conclusions about one another.
Germans tend to differentiate one another on the basis of their social ranking. People generally pay more respect to those with expertise, evidence of a higher education and experience. One usually finds that the social structures authority around these qualities. Germans may also reflect on a person’s accent, region of origin and occupation to make conclusions about their social status and circumstances. However, class barriers were largely broken down after World War II. Most Germans had to rebuild their lives from scratch after losing most of their possessions or being displaced. Therefore, the class system is not deeply stratified; most Germans share the benefits of the strong middle class and receive a comprehensive, classical education.
As in every society, there are those who do not have as much privilege; a proportion of the population is unemployed (or underemployed). Recent refugee and immigration arrivals from the Middle East and North Africa also tend to find themselves in lower-paying occupations. Nevertheless, the dominant German attitude tends to aspire towards ensuring that everyone has equal access to opportunity regardless of their social background. According to Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, Germany has a low score, indicating that there is an expectation of equality among society (regardless of whether this is the case).
Privacy and Socio-Relational Boundaries
Privacy is highly valued in Germany. People tend not to divulge a lot of personal information about themselves or discuss their political and social views when first meeting strangers. Some people may also prefer not to invite acquaintances to their homes on a regular basis, unless they have a close relationship. To foreigners, this can make Germans come across as distant. However, one can understand why privacy is so important when considering how it has been invaded by governments in the past. For example, those living in Germany during the Cold War were subjects of one of the most expansive and repressive secret citizen surveillance networks in human history (the Staatssicherheit or Stasi). As such, some people are sensitive to sharing their personal information and take precautions to protect their privacy to the degree they feel personally comfortable with.
Personal privacy is also important to maintain the socio-relational boundaries between people's professional and personal lives. Germans tend to compartmentalise leisure and work time, distinguishing their relationships with people into one of these spheres. The social boundaries in this sense are quite strong. People generally keep a certain social distance from those they work with. For example, if talking about something personal in a colleague's life, one may hear a German say “Das geht mich nichts an” (That’s not my business). Individuals are expected to downplay any personal friendships they have with colleagues whilst in the office to detach their emotions from business. It can take some time for people to break through this social perimeter of privacy and the formality of the professional realm. This may give foreigners the impression that Germans are quite aloof. However, these boundaries dissipate among friends.
Germans are renowned for being very honest people, sometimes to the point of being bluntly critical of others’ actions. This assertiveness combined with their reserved approach to strangers can produce a misjudgement of them as having a standoffish public demeanor. Nevertheless, Germans usually become very open and personal once they find a common denominator with someone. From a German viewpoint, reserving warmth and friendly energy for those who are truly important to them gives their relationships greater integrity and value. Personal friendships are deeply prized. The time and sincerity involved in building such relationships can make them particularly durable and loyal.
Organisation and Directness
Germans are known for being industrious, orderly and punctual. The German expression “Ordnung muss sein” (“there must be order”) reflects the cultural preference for organisation and methodical planning. Indeed, it also explains the preference for having one’s socio-relational boundaries clearly defined. People generally like to understand the context to interactions and what is required of them in certain scenarios. Germans generally arrange to meet one another by clarifying exactly when and where they will be meeting, for how long and what they will be doing. Things are rarely left to chance. Matters that proceed without a scheduled plan are likely to be directed by a relevant rule, regulation or social norm. This aspect of the culture is not so different from many industrialised cultures wherein people lead busy lives. However, it has produced a cliché of the typical German as highly efficient and matter-of-fact. This is likely due to the fact that such organisation is coupled with a very approach. In task-oriented cultures such as Germany, people do not always feel the necessity to build personal relationships in order to achieve a joint goal (see more information in Business Culture). While they are still courteous, they generally do not linger on small talk. Germans tend to be exceptionally honest and straight-to-the-point.
Germany classifies its citizens between Germans (meaning people with two parents of mostly or full German ancestry) and those of a migrant background (Migrationshintergrund). According to the Federal Statistical Office, the portion of the population with a migrant background has peaked for the fifth time in recent years. The 2016 microcensus reported that 22.5% of the country's residents, or more than 18.6 million people, were of immigrant or partially immigrant descent.4 However, it must be noted that German repatriates are included in this figure. Most Migrationshintergrund people reside in the western states of Germany and Berlin. The eastern portion of Germany has fewer foreigners relative to the total population.
Germany has generally embraced its identity as a (Multi-Kulti) country. The nation has undergone some very big population shifts in the past 30 years. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, roughly 3 million Germans have returned from former Soviet countries. The country has also received big influxes of non-German migrants and refugees, particularly from Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. Indeed, Germany is the second biggest migration destination in the world.5 The country has been a key flashpoint in Europe’s migrant crisis, receiving over a million asylum seekers since 2015. Such migration has been putting social and political stress on the country. The country is struggling to balance its national interests with international obligations. Ultimately, one cannot assume a German’s position on this matter or the current shifts occurring throughout Europe.
Past Experiences and Current Attitudes
In the past few decades, Germany has become recognised as an outward-looking nation, seeking to keep Europe united and help other countries and people in need. Indeed, Germany has transformed itself into a largely peaceful, forward-thinking and productive member of the global community of nations. However, the country may never be completely free of the spectre of its roles in the World Wars. It has undertaken a long process to overcome the guilt of its past. The word ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ describes this struggle to come to terms with the country’s negative history. Many Germans continue to be acutely aware that foreign perceptions of them take into account their country’s history. However, the ethos of German character has changed considerably from what it was during the early 20th century.
A strong focus on the value of critical thinking (kritisches Denken) and tolerance has been formulated and ingrained into most Germans following the tragedy of World War II. From a young age, people are taught about the consequences of the population's past mistakes and the deadly side of nationalism that fuelled the Third Reich. They are encouraged to view everything with the lessons of the past in mind and assess the consequences of certain situations, as well as their responsibility to respond to them. As such, the population has developed quite strong ideals in reaction to their history. Many older Germans that have lived through the Cold War are also particularly aware of the importance of freedoms. Most people regard situations with a strong moral sensitivity in light of the country’s past.
As a result of this cultural attitude, there tends to be a cultural resistance to showing too much national pride. Many people feel sceptical or uncomfortable with patriotism, unable to detach it from the devastating effects of nationalism. Soccer tournaments often provide a safe environment that is dissociated from political and military contexts where Germans can display their patriotism proudly. However, people generally tend to be quite modest about their country’s capabilities. Repeated surveys by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center have found that Germany is one of the least patriotic countries in the world.6
Nevertheless, this aspect of the culture is arguably undergoing change. Some among the younger generation of Germans tend to be slightly more outgoing and less reluctant as they do not feel the taboo of the past is as relevant to them. Many Germans are also looking at the future direction their country should take, and saying that they need to move away from compensating for the past and start looking at their own domestic interests again. Meanwhile, the East German population is showing stronger nationalistic inclinations as many people who lived under Soviet rule are searching to reclaim their cultural traditions and pride in their identity.
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