Why you will die without fresh air, and other observations of German culture

I apologize for the lack of posts in general lately (I know you've been bummed). It was my intent to make posts more regularly, but I kept getting bogged down by wanting to write about my fall break travel, and suddenly those three posts stretched over a month and a half, and here we are in December. Whoopsadoodle.

But I'd like to continue doing posts that are more thematic in nature, rather than posts that just recap travel I've already done. As such, today's topic is observations on the differences between German and American culture. I'm not the first to make these kinds of observations, nor will I be the last, but this is my take on what some of the most striking differences are for me.

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1) If you do not open your windows at least once a day, you will get sick and die. 

Or something like that. No matter if it's 100 degrees outside or 0, Germans think fresh air is the ultimate elixir, the key to living a happy, healthy life. They're quick to associate all manner of maladies and general ill feelings with a lack of fresh air, and many practice a near masochistic ritual of opening their windows first thing in the morning in the dead of winter, just like their mothers taught them to. I can't tell you how many times my boyfriend's mother has come into his room in the morning and chided us for not opening a window to get some fresh air, despite the fact that it's below freezing outside and I'm already huddled under the blankets, shivering.

I've done some research to understand this obsession, and there does appear to be at least somewhat of a reasonable explanation for it. This blog post theorizes that it comes down to differences in how German buildings are constructed as well as how air circulates in these buildings. Basically, the post says German buildings are generally better insulated than American buildings (so fewer drafts coming in from outside). Additionally, American heating and cooling systems rely on a circulation system that naturally moves the air around, avoiding the problem of "stale" air that Germans love to complain about. Germans use other methods -- usually water-based radiators for heating, and for cooling they often don't have any air conditioning system at all, since Germany is not known for particularly hot summers.

So this love of fresh air is perhaps not entirely unfounded -- it does seem like German homes/apartments/office buildings do have more of a propensity for becoming stuffy and unpleasant if not aired out regularly. But it's more the fact that they all act like opening windows in the middle of January is not a dreaded necessity -- it's something they enjoy, look forward to and feel like has quantifiable positive effects on your overall health. I give all credit for this mindset to the legions of German mothers who have conditioned their children to think this way. Well played.

2) "I try to always buy Bio products and avoid artificial flavorings whenever possible -- it just doesn't feel good to put those chemicals in your body. Say, can I bum a cigarette?"

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This is a mindset I, and many other Americans, find absolutely maddening. As a whole, Germany is a very health-conscious society. As mentioned above, they love spouting the health benefits of fresh air. Additionally, in general I find that Germans are fairly physically active, always trying to find ways to keep moving and stay healthy. Buying organic (called Bio products here) is also extremely popular, and all restaurants are legally required to list any artificial ingredients in their dishes.

So why does a country that is trying so hard to live well still smoke like it's the 60s and nobody knows what lung cancer is yet?

To be fair, the percentage of smokers in Germany/the frequency with which most Germans smoke is probably not as high as I think it is. The problem is that I am coming from a country where smoking is generally very unpopular and has been effectively banned from the public sphere in most places. Very few restaurants and bars allow smoking, and many business and other locations (universities or libraries, for example) have rules about how far from the building entrance you must stand in order to smoke. Basically, smoking anywhere besides private property is done at your inconvenience.

In comparison, smoking is still fairly widely accepted in Germany. The laws and expectations are changing, but many people smoke, many restaurants and bars (though not all) still allow indoor smoking, and cigarette-dispensing automats are ubiquitous in most cities.

Perceptions of smokers are also very different in Germany and the U.S. I often tell Germans that one of the worst-kept secrets in American politics is that Obama was (and maybe still is) a smoker. His efforts to quit have been mentioned a few times in the American media, but it's generally kept hush-hush, and you will never see pictures of Obama smoking. It's just not something appealing to most Americans -- it looks like a character flaw, a weakness.

This mindset does not exist in Germany. Plenty of politicians smoke openly, and it would never occur to Germans to view something like this as a negative. It's just a normal thing. If they smoke and all their friends smoke, why would it be so strange to see politicians smoke, too?

I don't want to be too negative because I realize it's easy for outsiders to criticize someone else's society, that people in glass houses should not throw stones, etc. But it's just such an odd contradiction to me to see a society that is simultaneously so health-conscious and so tolerant of smoking.

3) Germany (and much of Europe, really) doesn't "do" customer service

I think this is one of the most common complaints of Americans visiting Europe, because we have an extremely customer-service oriented society. If you go to a store, you expect to have a salesperson greet you the second you walk in, ask if they can help you and let you know if any sales are happening. Additionally, once you get to the cash register, cashiers usually make some amount of small talk -- they ask how you're doing, if you found everything OK, comment on something you're buying, etc.

In Germany, when you walk into a store, it's common for someone to greet you with a "Guten Tag" or a "Hallo." They may ask if you're looking for anything in particular, but always. Regardless, beyond a few quick formalities, they largely stay out of the picture until you need help or bring your goods to the cashier. During the checkout process, there is usually little conversation, just the necessities.

Let's be clear -- this isn't necessarily a bad thing. There are many times in the US that I wish people would just leave me alone. I don't need a sales associate rattling off sales to me for three minutes if I just want to buy a pair of socks and get out. You often hear Europeans comment and complain about this when they visit the US -- "Why wouldn't people just leave us alone and let us shop?!" When it comes to efficient shopping, Germany is king.

But sometimes I do long for the attentiveness of American sales associates. For example, I had to go to the Apple Store in Frankfurt to buy a new USB cord. Anyone who has ever been to an Apple Store in the US knows they have a reputation for being extremely attentive and helpful the moment you walk in. There's always an employee at the ready to answer your questions or help you find what you're looking for, and they usually approach you completely unprompted.

Not so in Frankfurt. I had never been in the store before, so I wasn't sure of its layout and where I should go to find my cord. I wandered around a short bit looking clearly lost and uncertain, but no one came to help me, despite a few sales associates clearly not currently occupied with other customers. I figured out that I needed to go upstairs to find what I needed. I found the wall with USB cords but then couldn't find the one I needed for my phone. Again, I stood for a couple minutes, clearly looking for something but not finding it, yet no one came to check on me.

Finally, I hunted down an employee to ask him where I could find the USB cord. He pointed back to the wall I was already looking at, and I explained that I had just been there and didn't see what I needed. At that point, an American sales associate would have just walked there with me to help me find it. His response? "It's there. Go back and look."

As an American, it can be hard sometime to interpret interactions like that as just a cultural difference rather than outright rudeness. But, it's a good reminder of how much of our own culture we take for granted -- we assume our expectations of how people ought to behave are the same expectations people in other countries have. Living abroad is an excellent way to shatter those assumptions, and it's also a good way to learn to appreciate aspects of your culture that are indeed unique.

You can also learn new skills, such as the art of tactfully spending 30 minutes trying to get your waiter's attention so you can finally pay and leave. Europe!