Social Differences & University Life

Siezen oder Duzen?

Student life at German universities is usually quite a bit of fun. Students often play a large role in the services and amenities offered on campus, from travel offices to bookstores to cafeterias to pubs. The national student union is politically active and strongly advocates on behalf of German students. As a result, quite a few student services are subsidized by the federal government and students often receive concessions for everything from travel to food.

The amount of social integration you experience as a visiting student will depend on many things, including the type of study abroad program you are on (see the Program Models section), the size of the university where you will study and the initiative you show in meeting German students and making friends. German student society is quite a bit different from the U.S., and you should expect to need to adapt to it.

To get to know Germans and join their circle of friends, it helps to participate in some structured activities on campus. German students often remain friends with their secondary school classmates who attend the same university, and cracking that social unit can be challenging. German students also tend to be a bit older than American students. Their high school lasts longer than ours, for one thing, and German males usually need to serve a year of obligatory military or social service after that (and increasingly German females are also doing a year of volunteer service before going to college).

The departments where you take most of your classes may have organized student bodies (called Fachschaften) that get together for coffee or drinks to talk and share information. They also organize parties at the beginning of each semester and also throughout the term.

All institutions have groups of students who get together because they share common interests or hobbies. There are student clubs, political organizations, choirs, orchestras, and theater groups. Club sports and sports classes are also very popular and are great ways to meet German students. Familiarize yourself with the teams in the professional soccer league (Bundesliga) and their star players. Doing so can provide endless opportunities for conversation.

More informally, you will discover that German student culture encourages long, far-ranging discussions on a variety of topics, from politics to entertainment to the environment. Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and pastries) is an afternoon tradition in Germany, as is going to a Kneipe (a student pub) in the evening. Coffee bars and the cafeteria (Mensa) are among the most important facilities at any university. You can meet your friends, have a bit to eat, or read a book over a cup of coffee between your classes. The Mensa offers subsidized meals during lunchtime (the main meal of the day in Germany) with prices ranging from € 1.50 to € 4.00. Some of them are even pretty tasty!

If you are lucky enough to be invited to join a group of students for such events, take advantage of it. You’ll learn more about the culture and develop better language skills to boot.

If you study in Germany for any length of time, you will notice that cultural values are different there. This can lead to some misunderstandings, so it is best to be informed about where the flashpoints may lie.

American Values German Perceptions
Friendliness Superficial
Politeness Artificial
Conservative Prudish
Assertive Overly self-confident
Normal volume Loud
Self-confidence Demanding
Independent Self-centered
German Values American Perceptions
Directness, honesty Blunt, rude, tactless
Assertiveness Aggressive
Privacy Reservation
Environmentalism Overboard
Loyal to circle of friends Hard to get to know
A student on the USAC intensive language program summed things up this way. (It’s a bit exaggerated for effect, but you get the idea – you’re living in a foreign country!)
  • EVERYBODY (male and female) wears a scarf all year long, indoors and outdoors
  • You have to pay extra for ketchup at McDonalds, but can buy good German beer there
  • People find you REALLY strange when you ask for tap water in a restaurant
  • Soft drinks come in small glasses with one ice cube, at the most
  • In a restaurant you wait forever for your bill because it is considered polite for the waitress to wait until you ask for it
  • People bump into you on the street and say nothing
  • An old lady will physically assault you to get on the bus, and you find yourself actually fighting back (same thing at winter and summer sale tables)
  • People walk home because it’s only a 30 minute walk
  • If your roommates don't like your sweater they will say so if you ask their opinions
  • All doors are closed and you need to knock every time you want to talk to someone
  • You need at least 6 different garbage cans in your kitchen for all the recycling
  • When the sun comes out you see lots of very pale male legs with dark socks and sandals
  • Dog owners wear the leashes around their own necks more often than they attach them to the dog

Further reading

When in Germany -- A Study Abroad Experience by Mary C. Selig