differences between germany and the u.s.

September 13, 20216 min read

Here are some simple differences between Germany and the U.S.:

  • Germans are thoughtful about waste

    The lack of waste is apparent in the small things. In America, it’s normal for takeout bags to come with a stack of napkins (more than you could ever use), and extra utensils. In Germany, you don’t get those unless you ask.[1]

    Of the waste Germans do produce, they recycle as much as they can. Trash receptacles are tiny, and there are separate bins for glass, plastic, paper, metal, compost, and trash.

    Many Germans leave their glass bottle waste on the sidewalk, which homeless people then collect and exchange for money. In America, homeless people also scavenge for bottles, but usually have to dig through recycling bins to find them. So I like the German people’s thoughtfulness here.[2]

    Notice the four different dumpster types outside this apartment building. The kids are playing in the paper dumpster. (By the way, Berlin is a kid-friendly city).

  • Water norms are different in Germany. In America, you are served a glass of water at most sit-down restaurants. You can also ask any restaurant to fill your water bottle for you, and they’ll happily do so.

    I thought this might be a result of U.S. law, because someone once told me that U.S. restaurants are legally required to provide free drinking water if asked. But upon further research, we have no such law; It’s just a strong cultural norm!

    By contrast, in Berlin you are not given water without asking. And when you ask, you must explicitly request tap water or else they’ll bring you bottled water. I find this cultural quirk ironic considering how careful they are about garbage otherwise.

    If you ask a barista to fill up your personal water bottle, you might get a weird look. A friend who had recently moved to Germany has said she’s even had people roll their eyes at her for asking.

    At a Berlin festival, I asked if there was a place to fill up my water bottle and was told to fill it in the bathroom. Some friends corroborated that other venues have told them to fill water bottles in the bathroom too.

    I went climbing at a rock climbing gym with no water fountain, only an ambiguous sink right outside the bathroom. In America this would have been considered a strange lack of planning on the gym’s part — all my American gyms have had several water fountains and water bottle filling stations. In Berlin, it’s normal. Water is water, whether it’s from the bathroom or a water fountain.

    I was at a bar the other day, and I shared my observations with a German friend. Don’t Germans drink water? I asked jokingly. He motioned towards his beer. I couldn’t tell if he was joking.

  • German service is not very good, from an American perspective. Germans don’t believe “the customer is always right,” and sometimes waiters will be openly annoyed with you.

    I was at a small group dinner and we asked if we could pay our checks separately.[3] The waiter grumbled and continued issuing us a single check. In America, you might be told that you can’t split the check, but you’re told straightforwardly and often with a smile. In Germany there are no pretenses of friendliness.

    The funny thing was, this waiter was generally kind and fun. After we paid (in one shared check) he stayed to joke around with us and give us advice on where to party in Berlin. He was in a jovial mood. I think he liked us.

    But if a worker doesn’t want to do something in Germany, their response often seems childish from an American perspective: grumbling, rolling their eyes.

  • German bureaucracy is notoriously awful. As a foreigner, I had always heard about German efficiency; I assumed their government was equally slick and fast-paced. What I didn’t realize is how painful German bureaucracy is.

    Americans who have moved to Berlin say that the bureaucracy here is 10 times worse than at home. For example, buying an apartment here can take 8 months of government paperwork before it’s officially yours (as happened to my friend).

    Even setting up a German SIM card requires a government identification check. My German friend spent a whole day trying to set up a German SIM card for her American partner. I decided the setup time wasn’t worth it, and just made do with slow international data from my American phone plan.

  • On the other hand, the German government is competent in several ways that America is distinctly not.

    For example, a bunch of scooter and bike-sharing companies operate in Berlin. Rather than having to download multiple micro-mobility apps, you can rent from any company using a universal app run by the city. The city’s app is very good.

    On the other hand, I cannot think of a single piece of American gov-tech that I’d classify as “very good”. Perhaps as a result of seeing their tax money put to good use, Germans are less wary of taxes and government power (according to my German friends). They seem to have a default trust in their government, that we lack.

Those are the top differences I’ve noticed so far. They’re subtle but consistently present.


[1]: Another data point: both apartments I’ve stayed in didn’t use paper towels. They used reusable kitchen towels instead. I’m not sure if this universalizes to other households since n=2.

[2]: Different approaches to waste management is downstream from government policy. Strict separation is based on a German law, “the Closed-loop Waste Management Act,” meant to reduce the country’s environmental impact. Berlin in particular (which is where I’m staying) runs an annual waste audit, and then updates their waste management strategy to further reduce waste every year. The policies have been effective, with Berliners reducing their trash by 60% from 1992 to 2012.

[3]: We wanted to pay separately because we were mixed nationalities so we didn’t have an easy way to pay each other back. Germany doesn’t have Venmo, presumably due to their strict financial regulations. We made a new friend in Berlin who is working on a Venmo-like financial app for Germany. They’ve been working on it for two years and still aren’t through all the German legal hoops they need to jump through before they can officially launch. Germany is very “consumer friendly”…