Culture Stock in Germany
By Melissa Elliot, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of German and German Studies
“Germans are so blunt.” As a teacher of German language and culture, I hear this observation over and over again from people who have experienced this famed bluntness, looking to me to make sense of this cultural phenomenon. My initial reaction is always empathy. I can recall many times that German friends of mine have made well-intentioned but nonetheless direct comments about my personality or appearance, which, at the time, seemed jarring and even rude. However, this direct approach to conversations and relationships is something I have grown to enjoy and even admire in German-speaking cultures. In fact, it is because of the frank conversational style that it has been easier to share my faith with my German friends.
In 2010, my husband and I had the opportunity to live for a year in Munich, Germany. We moved there shortly after we got married, and, as I was still a student, we lived in a dorm where we shared the kitchen, bathroom, and living room with all of the other people on the floor (an interesting setup for a newly married couple!). We quickly got involved with a local church and began attending small group sessions in the evenings. Every Tuesday after dinner, we would walk down our dorm hallway, Bibles in hand, and make our way to small group. After about two weeks of this, our new German floormates asked us what we were up to. After explaining that we were going to our church’s Bible study, they looked at us with a confused expression and, without missing a beat, bluntly asked us “why?” This question is not what I was expecting.
In the U.S., a typical response might be a simple acknowledgment or a polite “have fun.” As church attendance among youth in Germany is quite rare, a weekly Bible study was a foreign concept to our new dormmates. In a wonderfully German fashion, they bluntly questioned why we would take time out of our busy week to go study something as outdated as the Bible. While some Americans might have had similar thoughts, few would have been direct enough to question our motive, especially in the beginning of a relationship. However, this bluntness created a space for dialogue in which my husband and I could discuss our faith openly and explain why it was important to us. From then on, our Christian faith was no secret but an acknowledged and intriguing lifestyle choice to be discussed freely among our new friends.
Since then, I have been thankful for the German cultural value of direct and blunt speech. My experience in the dorm challenged me to view different cultural norms and values as unique gifts from God that can be used for His purposes and His glory.