One of the oft mentioned hallmarks of the German culture is its efficiency. After living here for 6 years, I think this is an illusion. The illusion is not malicious or even intended. It is just a misinterpretation. German society is based on planning and setting expectations. This gives an air of efficiency and proper running of things, but that is only true for actions that have been expected for.
The unexpected is not planned for
Proper planning to set expectations is the central point of the system and how it works. Any amount of inefficiency is dealt with by knowing about it ahead of time. Ordering things weeks in advance and following rules to make society function.
If you however try to do what is unexpected, things are very inefficient and chaotic. Exceptions to the “standard way of things” cause a fair amount of stress and work that make you feel like you are being explicitly harangued.
Crossing the Street
Walking only with the green man is a well known German phenomenon. Even at 2am with no cars in sight, much of society will stand on the curb if there is a red man showing at the crosswalk. Beware if you try to cross in broad daylight near children or older people. They might jer or just stand there with a flabbergasted look.
This is orderly. The drivers know that if the light is green there will be no pedestrians. They can expect this. It is not, for the pedestrians, very efficient.
Much of the economy and government run on appointments. Depending on what you need done though, appointments can be 6 weeks in coming. Need to have trash especially picked up? 4 weeks lead time. Need an appointment to deal with visa issues, be ready to wait weeks as well. Missed a form, hopefully you can get another appointment soon. Getting your internet hooked up? It takes the guy 20 minutes, but you might have to wait weeks for him to come do it.
Places without appointments ahead of time can mean long wait times on your chosen day. The Finanzamt is a big exception of this. I only rarely have to wait more than 20minutes to get my questions answered. Guess money can grease the wheels of planning as well.
Trains and expectations
If you are sitting on a train in Germany and it is 5-10minutes late, at least one person in the car will begin mumble into their phone about the “Deutsche Bahn” falling apart. Most of this is because the system is so tightly wound. 10 minutes late could mean you miss your 7 minute change in Mannheim and have to wait an hour for the next train. This gets you late for your meeting which causes cascading problems.
In many other countries, the fact that the train showed up and is going in the right direction is a great thing. A typical German expects the trains to run to plan and can get antsy if that doesn’t happen. Not that the public transport is not a great system, it really is. It just occasionally breaks down due to unexpected circumstances. This just throws people into the scary land of the unexpected.
Rules and their enforcement is important
If expectations are the most important part of the system, then they must be known by all. Imagine the shock and anger if someone just ignored the queue and walked to the front. Everyone in the line expected that waiting there was the accepted and expected way of doing things. (Don[t get me started about the crazy line habits in Germany, that may need to be another post).
Rules are thus posted everywhere. From ten points on how to use a park to where you are not allowed to let your dog go. And there is no shortage of older German women there to shriek at you if you are not following the generally accepted expectations on how something is supposed to be done. “No, the trash can needs to be turned around.”
It is how society continues to function and everyone has an idea of what is expected.
Efficiency or just well planned?
How does this come back to the idea of German efficiency? The Germanic system rewards planning heavily. Booking things ahead of time and having a plan is the way it works. When everything runs as expected, it runs really quite well. What is hidden though is the amount of effort to arrange the pathway through the complex workings. A better
Every culture and society figures out a way to keep itself running. This is not a judgement in one direction or another. Watching Italian or Vietnamese traffic is frightening, but there do not seem to be any more accidents than the heavily regimented German system, so it must just be ok.
What does this mean for expats? Be ready to make your appointments and understand that timing is very important. Give yourself a lot more time than you expect for most things. The system is built on planning, not on convenience like the US. Stores may not be open on Sunday which is not very convenient, but it is plannable.
A note about cultural generalities
As with most posts on the blog, this is the way I experience the Germanic system and German society. These are generalizations and abstractions of perceptions. Of course a society is made up of millions of individuals. I am noticing in Berlin just how much having a more diverse group of people changes the feel of society as well. So there does seem to be something about talking about a Germanic system.