Germany is becoming a popular study destination for people from all over the world: Roughly 280,000 students enter Europe’s biggest economy every year for a Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree or as an exchange student. And it doesn’t stop there: the German government has vowed to get the number of foreign students in the country up to 350.000 by the year 2020.
There is a good reason for this: The German population is aging and will increasingly rely on foreign talent to keep their affluent economy up and running. As an Bloomberg News story from April 2015 observed, it looks like “the only thing that Germany is likely to have a shortage of soon is Germans”. Now, that all sounds nice and dandy for a talent attracting campaign, but it doesn’t do much to lessen the culture shock you will most likely experience once you actually get there. Therefore, we have put together a small list of things you might want to prepare yourself for once you hold your student visa in your hands.
Prepare to get organized
The metaphor “punctual like a German train” doesn’t exist for nothing, even though Germans will usually be the first to tell you that their trains are, in fact, never on time - because to them, a five-minute delay on a three-hour journey is a very big deal. Germans love order and punctuality. But that is just a daily life expression of what they love most: reliability. At the risk of oversimplifying a culturally complex topic: Germans like it when stuff works according to plan and they strongly dislike it when stuff doesn’t work. So if you can’t bring yourself to be on time, that is fine, as long as you are at least reliably late.
Interestingly, the universities are the best example of lateness by plan: The Germans (along with some Scandinavian countries) have something called the “academic quarter hour” (“akademisches Viertel”). If you look at your schedules you might find an annotation to the lecture times like “s.t.” or “c.t.” The abbreviation s.t. means “sine tempore”, describing that a lecture will start sharp on time, whereas “c.t.” means “cum tempore” and includes a 15-minute delay from the scheduled time.
Prepare for wicked words
According to the German student exchange service DAAD there are currently 816 master programs in English offered by German universities all over the country. But even as you take your academic degree in English, the local language is vital for getting around in daily life - even if it’s only for shopping in the supermarket and understanding train conductors (actually, the German railway has wanted to suspend the English announcements on some of the less frequently travelled routes as people kept making fun of the conductors’ heavy accents).
Still, there is no way around the fact that German is quite difficult to learn. Find solace in the fact that you are not the only one who has trouble with it. Just read “The Awful German Language” written by no lesser person than Mark Twain, who observed that “surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way...”
On the plus side, Germans are painfully aware of how difficult their language is to learn and will always make an effort to understand you. Also, there are some expressional gems to be discovered: Germans have a word for everything - from “Kummerspeck” (the weight you put on after a break-up) to “Schadenfreude” (that inappropriate happiness you feel when watching someone else’s mishaps) and “Fremdschämen” (feeling embarrassed on account of someone else behaving stupidly).
Prepare for some serious history
Navigating German history is a tricky business - that’s why it is important to understand how much the events of the 20th century have shaped the culture in the country. German education places a big focus on creating awareness for the horrible events of World War II. In general, Germans are used to comments on that part of their history, but still it’s an issue where you want to tread carefully. That isn’t to say that you must avoid the issue completely, but when you do talk about it, make sure to do it on a serious and knowledgeable note.
That said, studying in Germany is a great way to discover the rich history of the country that actually goes way beyond the past hundred years. German universities are among the oldest in the world, having carried a long and rich tradition over centuries. Most of them are named after the great minds of the country, from philosophers and inventors to the local nobility that sponsored education some hundred years ago.
Prepare for football
One topic that Germans will find very easy to talk about is football - just to be clear, this is the one with 11 players in one team kicking a ball across the field and not at any time to be confused with American football. There is probably no faster way to break the ice in the conversation with a German during the first university pub crawl than starting to talk about the World Cup in Brazil (even though it might turn into more of a monologue if you manage to pick an especially avid fan of the matter). All universities have amateur football teams and annual faculty play-offs, so if you are into the sport it is a great way to meet people.
If you couldn’t care less about football, it can also work in your favor - because the group of Germans who will happily indulge in a conversation of mutual football-dislike is at least as big as the ones of die-hard fans.
Prepare to be stunned
If you are looking for someone to sugar-coat reality for you, you may be in for a bit of a rough awakening. Germans are, on average, a direct (bordering on blunt) and critical people. In group discussions or group work that are a regular part of university life, they don’t beat about the bush - something that can be considered impolite, but hey, we all wanna be done with this before Christmas, right?
Encounters of German single-minded efficiency can happen everywhere. Astounding to many foreigners is the supermarket check-out, where communication is kept to a minimum while your purchased goods are being fired through the checkout so fast that you’d need five hands to put them away at a matching pace.
Prepare to like it
Studying in Germany is an interesting experience for many reasons. The country is very diverse, offering a wide array of cultural experiences. Hamburg is totally different from Munich (both cities insist on that fact) and Berlin is totally different from any other city (every German insists on that, even though it may not be with a positive connotation). Scattered all over the country there are many small university towns that have a very local, relaxed vibe of their own. And: Once you get past their seemingly brusque exterior, Germans often make for reliable friends - ‘cause that’s just how they roll. (By the way, you don’t even have to like beer to make friends with Germans, though admittedly, it helps.)