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Cracking a Cultural Code

Unwritten rules distinguish Germany from the US. TRAVEL: WEST GERMANY

By Mark M. SheehanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 23, 1990


THE time-worn joke among West German politicians, when asked what they like best about Bonn, is to answer alternately, ``the subway to Cologne,'' ``the train to Munich,'' or ``the Autobahn to anyplace else.'' Long called the Bundesdorf (federal village), the tiny West German capital rarely gets much respect. But as small and only slightly urban as Bonn is - it was intended only as an interim capital, after all - it serves as a microcosm of West German life. It's also filled with lessons about what Germans and Americans think they know about each other.

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Both Germans and Americans are tempted to believe that they know each other pretty well. After all, the world's largest youth exchange program, in the form of thousands of young United States soldiers, has been taking place here for more than 40 years. West Germany, for its part, has assimilated much of the States' popular culture, making it easily the most Americanized country in Europe.

Indeed, what one sees first after stepping out of the small but nicely restored Bonn train station are the familiar golden arches. It is one of three McDonald's restaurants in just the downtown pedestrian shopping area. Nearby is a Ha"agen Dazs ice cream shop. A few blocks away is a Pizza Hut. Teenagers sport ersatz American high school letter jackets. Movie theaters advertise dubbed versions of Hollywood films.

Intense shoppers Alongside the familiar names are half-timbered buildings, people in long loden coats, and cobblestone streets. There are many subtler differences.

Shopping is a good case in point. The goods for sale in department stores here are not much different from those found in the States. Likewise with groceries. Why, then, do German shoppers wear such determined expressions when plying the aisles with their shopping carts? Contrary to outmoded stereotypes, it is not because they lack a sense of humor. What they lack is enough time to get their shopping done. Shop doors are locked at 6:30 on weeknights and 2 p.m. on Saturday. Once a month, Saturday shopping is extended until 6 p.m., and since last October stores may stay open another two hours on Thursday nights.

In order to get everything purchased before closing time, a certain abridgment of interpersonal etiquette seems to be required. This unwritten code of the stores can be even more baffling to foreigners than some rules of German grammar. For example, many people think nothing of jumping ahead in waiting lines, but to leave a shop without saying a cheerful Auf wiedersehen to the store clerks is considered rude.

Rules of behavior, once made plain, are easy enough to adapt to: One answers the telephone by barking one's surname into the receiver instead of saying ``hello.'' But the attitudes behind such mores are harder to discern. And so Americans misunderstand German formality, and Germans misread American informality.

It is not unusual for Germans to use the American equivalent of ``Mr.'' and ``Mrs.'' - in some cases for years - when talking to each other. Stranger still, to Americans, is that such behavior is not meant to be standoffish.

On the other hand, an often-heard criticism from Germans is that they find Americans oberfl"achlich - superficial. They see the informality and easy friendliness in the US as insincere. (Their attitude is similar to the way some New Englanders view Californians: How could people so laid back be taken seriously?)