What does being German mean ?

There are a lot of answers here from blue eyed idealists who imagine themselves to be cosmopolitan global citizens, but that can only come from a deep ignorance of how strongly your environment defines you. After living in a foreign country for a long time, some things have really jumped out to me as extremely German, that are not shared by the rest of the world.

Classically German traits are:

  • “Global Citizenship”: Germans are obsessed with the idea that they have transcended national pride and national identity. We are very proud of this ;)It’s the idea that the whole world should be global and cosmopolitan by adopting German work habits, German punctuality, German ideas of morality, German pacifism, and German anti-nationalism. Humblebrag nationalism to the max.
  • Regionalism: As a way of avoiding nationalism, Germans are nationalistic about their pre-unification nations. We like to think that this means that nationalism is dead ;)To fit in, learn about your local regional identity and integrate into that. That is how you become German. Learning the local dialect goes farther than anything else.
  • Anti-scientific environmentalism: Germany is a country that turned off its nuclear reactors to burn more BROWN COAL ,of all things, in the name of protecting the environment. This was done because of a German panic in response to Fukushima.
  • German Angst: Germans are way more panicky than people of other cultures. You know when an indigenous religion revolved all around bravery and dying a good death so you can fight bravely again in the afterlife and die many more good deaths, that you are dealing with a population that has a bad relationship with fear.Germans are easy to whip up into a panic. Hitler did this, global warming did it, Chernobyl did it, Fukushima did it, and so will pretty much anything else. It can be a virtue sometimes, but it makes the people easy to manipulate.Germans are pathologically risk avoidant.
  • Germans are prepared: This follows from the previous point. Germans are risk avoidant worrywarts. This means that Germans will pretty much always have an umbrella with them, savings in the bank, a long term outlook in planning, and a keen interest in foreign policy. Also, lots of community and personal gardens.
  • German Directness: Germans say what they mean and feel and generally don’t shy away from any topics. I haven’t encountered this anywhere else in the world, where this is pretty much always considered impolite.

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Interesting question.

I agree with the statement that Germans won’t really expect you to absorb every aspect of our culture now that you have citizenship, since we don’t feel a lot of patriotism ourselves. We also don’t really expect people from other countries to assume a German identity.

But if I had to make a list for new immigrants and describe what kinds of behaviour would garner them the most approval from Germans, it would read something like this:

  • have a good work ethic. Yes, we’re not robots, Germans procrastinate, lots. But being seen as someone hard-working and conscientious gets you instant respect.
  • learn the language, show some interest in our history and culture, read some German books (maybe children’s books?) and visit some museums and concerts. Or go see the local historical or nature sites . Not expected of anyone who only comes for a short stay, but people will appreciate it.
  • (slightly dreading the next one) respect the rules, be a good citizen.  I don’t mean the stupid pedestrian traffic lights, but all the other minor things that Germans take too seriously. Put your garbage in the right recycling box (I know.. one of the fifteen), when you barbecue in the park, don’t litter, if you share a house with people, find out if they have some annoying rota system for cleaning the stairwell,  find out when and where you have to file your taxes…. No, Germans don’t even admit it to themselves,  but we do like people that pay attention to these things. It makes you seem trustworthy and organised. Once you’re aware of what’s expected, you can make up your mind what you can safely ignore.   (Some of the “liberties” we have, such as parks that stay open after dark, or public drinking outside of pubs, only work under the expectation that people won’t abuse them.)
  • Respect other people, regardless of social status or gender, but speak your mind . Germans are more open than courteous, and they may not “get” you as well if you are from a culture that is a lot more subtle (in praise and in criticism). Also, it may stop you getting steamrolled by your German colleagues. (I have an English colleague who often falls into the trap of not wanting to criticise people when there are good reasons for him to be late for an assignment.  He thinks: I shouldn’t point the finger at other people in front of  the management, we think: why won’t he tell us if there is a perfectly good reason?)
  • You got citizenship and voting rights – please make use of it. Take an interest in the local affairs and vote. If you’re a university educated greencard recipient who had enough initiative and drive to emigrate, you’re probably already in a better position to make an informed choice than a lot of the locals, so we’re counting on you.
  • try to socialise with Germans, Participate in a club if you can find anything that suits your own interests. Find out about the local customs (carnival leaps to mind, if you’re based somewhere in the Rhineland). Watch football when the German team plays. If you hate football, there’s always Tatort.


That’s it. When it comes to my perception of other people, I must admit that command of the language is the strongest indicator of whether I see a person as German or not. A black student-aged person that “sounds” German doesn’t strike me as foreign.

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When I am abroad I usually notice how German I am and get told it by people around me. Here some traits and values that obviously are not exclusive to Germans, but particularly pronounced here:

– strong sense of justice and independence (e.g. splitting bills or at least not being indebted to other people apart from closest friends)
– caring for others (e.g. not letting them wait, etc)
– being reliable and having integrity (I mean what I say)
– being self-critical / self-reflected (see the other replies for support of this argument, 2nd world war is frequently quoted as explanation)
– being more rational than emotional
– need security / stability

When I meet other Germans abroad, what unites us is that we have a similar understanding / level of these points. I experienced less misunderstandings regarding these topics among Germans than among Germans&non-Germans.

I don’t recommend you to internalize these values just because you are now German citizen. But being aware of them might help you in your search of (German) identity.

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