German Efficiency is an Illusion

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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

Karlsruhe, Germany

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.

Clock on a stand in German town

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.Β  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.

38 thoughts on “German Efficiency is an Illusion

  1. This is so accurate! It is true we can not say everyone is like that, but most of them are! There are some things about planning that I do love, and the others not so much, but it is a matter of embracing it. After all it was me who decided to stay in Germany, for now…
    Thanks for sharing πŸ™‚

  2. Totally agree!! I thought I was the only thinking like this. Makes me feel good πŸ˜‰ the freaking organization it’s ok, but the lack of “efficiency” it’s a real waste of time, drives me crazy!

  3. A nice take on the efficient German stereotype! I do believe that we are all partly shaped by the systems that are at work in our lives. Put a German in the colourful chaos of Kathmandu for a few years and watch them adapt!

  4. You’re so true! I’ve been living in Germany for some time and they were so proud about their efficiency… that one I couldn’t find many times I needed it! But what can we do, we have to love them anyway πŸ™‚

  5. I used to believe in the In German performance, but it seems it’s not a very awesome position to be in, if you’re not used to such specific preparing.

  6. Fun reading.
    I have been to Germany for a short stop-over, but I always find it funny to see how some Germans are ultra-organized when they travel abroad.

  7. Crossing on red is against the law and, if you’re hit by a car while doing it, you’re not likely to get much sympathy from the German police πŸ™‚

    Personally, I’ve always found the Germans to be incredibly efficient whenever I’ve been in Germany.

    That being said, I definitely agree with the complaints about the red tape, but then that’s normal just about anywhere in the EU. (And here in Thailand, where every application for anything requiring governmental approval requires 100 photocopies — I kid you not πŸ™‚

  8. That is an very interesting insight. I thought there were a lot of rules and definitely noticed the shock on peoples faces as I crossed on a red man but as you say maybe it is just planning an expectations.

  9. Never knew that the German system, while well organized, falls like a house of cards when things don’t go according to plan…!

    • “Fall like a house of cards” is a bit of an overstatement. It tends to be a few people that just get confused and the illusion of extreme efficiency drops away. At that point things are no less efficient than anywhere else in the world, which usually means days or weeks of waiting for simple things. This is normal, just not what you might expect in Germany.

  10. Ha ha ha great article. I can’t really say as I only visit Germany as a tourist. But I like this well organized way. I’m sure that you get completely impression once you live there and have to deal with all every day life stuff….Something for me to have in mind for my next trip to Germany, to observe it πŸ™‚

  11. This is funny. I used to believe in the German efficiency, but it seems it’s not a very nice place to be in, if you’re not used to such detailed planning.

  12. This is quite funny and quite true! I am in the process of setting up my own business and the bureaucracy is LUDICROUS. SO much so that I recently said to my husband “so much for German efficiency!!” — whatever happened to that efficiency thing? the string of bureaucratic “stuff” you need to do for things that are relatively simple is anything but efficient!

    • It’s like getting onto the onramp of a highway. It is stressful and there are a thousand things to watch for and get right, though the idea is that once there things run forward. Until there is a problem that is.
      What kind of business are you trying to do?

      • ha! you are right. But I have to say I much prefer the “zipper” method of merging on to a highway here in Germany than the “stop and hope for the best” method that I am used to in the US… or have you ever driven in Italy? good lord, there basically is NO on/off ramp and well you know, no one ever drives between the white lines either! chaos.
        in any case, we’re in the bereich of “gastronomie” so a ton of tinkering with “laws” πŸ˜‰

        • Yup, doing food in Germany has tons of rules I can imagine. Good luck.
          I don’t drive anymore, and never in Europe. Thankfully.

  13. Pretty interesting. These kind of things are hard to learn unless you’re living in a place for a while. Timeliness of trains and buses is one of the nice things here in Korea. Public transportation is so convenient.

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      • Sorry, I’m Italian and I’m often more precise than Germans…
        Prejudice is hard to die… so sad.

        • Most things are about cultural tendencies and societal norms rather than any specific individual’s abilities and proclivities. German society in general runs quite efficiently due to the vast amount of planning behind it. That is the point I was trying to make.

          • “cultural tendencies” … a new way to say “stereotypes” ?
            Or maybe you used the wrong words…

            You said “to keep the Italians at bay maybe” : what do you mean exactly ?

            Some Americans make silly jokes about Italians but they don’t dare to do the same to Afro-American (unless you are a black comedian) or jewish who both normally fight back.

            People don’t realize that , TRYING to be funny, make a bad joke that displease others.

            Take a look to some bad American stereotypes:

            -Materialism, overconsumption and extreme capitalism
            -Lack of education, tendency of ignorance and gullibility
            -Racism and racialism
            -Gun-loving, violent culture
            -Environmental unconsciousness
            -Arrogance and boastfulness
            -Many people see Americans as arrogant people
            -Unwarranted military intervention

            How would you feel if you, as an American, would be considered as part of those categories by the Germans or Italians ?

            Think twice before making silly jokes, you can hurt people.

          • First off, I didn’t mean to hurt or offend you. I write a lot about Germany and Germans and how the country appears from a foreigner who lives there. This is from my own experiences and views. This post is actually about the stereotype that Germany is an incredibly efficient place and how that is a misinterpretation.

            As for the line you mention, I quite honestly don’t remember what the thought was behind it. It was in response to Rick, a good friend of mine who is an expat in Italy.

            The stereotypes you mention about Americans, an awful lot of them are actually true for a large group of the population. I understand that holding such a passport that I do many nationalities will assume things about me. I am ok with that and take it as a challenge to show them that I am an individual. The one stereotype that you left off is that Americans can only speak English, and loudly. I encounter this as I travel a lot. I speak fluent German and enough Italian to buy bus tickets and get directions.

            And while I certainly agree that stereotypes, when negative and taken to a hurtful extreme can be bad, the human mind really like to catalog and categorize things. We seek to understand based on rules and similarities to other things we know. At that level, what I call “cultural tendancies” do help to get a very quick (albeit very very shallow) understanding of someone with the simple idea of “Where are you from?” That said, it should provide a basis to talk to whatever individual and get to know them.

            So I will ask you. You say you are Italian. Where from? In my experience traveling there, each region and city has a different personality and what is important to people is different. Are you originally from there? Do you still live there?

          • I comment here because the original thread is too deep and there’s no more a Reply button.

            Because you asked me, I’m Italian and I come from Bologna, Northern Italy, my parents are both Italians.

            I live in Germany since 1 year and a half with my family (multi-kulti).

            If I read your posts it’s because I generally like remarks about the German culture. That’s why I was surprised you made a lighthearted comment about German vs Italians (you are too smart to forget what you meant…).

            Since I live in Germany I can feel this pressure of prejudices against Italians, not only in Germany but also in USA: yeah, just jokes here and there, people try to be funny, a smile.

            Is there another way to be funny AND polite?

            Just imagine: you and your partner at dinner, everybody relaxed, and the German host make a joke about Americans dumbness… Well, maybe you don’t care or you don’t have any American pride, but I guess you will not like it, even if they say “of course that does not apply to you, you are so different…” (and BTW, is it polite to make such remarks during a dinner?).

            And funny thing some jokes have no counterparts for Germans: have you ever tried to make jokes about N@zi? Wow, never touch that subject. That’s a taboo!

            In my opinion, even though you feel free, not linked anymore to your “Heimat”, a really special one, the reality is that somehow we are still linked to our culture (at least to our parents and close relatives).

            I even know people that try to hide under another identity because they are pissed off by that: maybe they change their lastname (Italian-Americans too), or simply mimic the “standard guy” of the new Country where they live in… I guess it’s just a survival behaviour.

            I hope now it’s more clear what I meant.

            glad to hear your friend lives in Italy, where exactly? what is his feedback? I cannot wait to read his blog… πŸ™‚

  15. Oh dear. I think I got a mild anxiety attack from all this planning and tension! That’s why the Germans drink so much beer πŸ™‚

    Can’t believe the USSR got a bad rap for its 5-year plans…

    • Even beer can require planning. Either that or the planning was done once long ago and every other beer just follows the same plan. Same place, same beer. Consistency is to be rewarded.

  16. I enjoyed your article and it definitely made me smile. Lived in Stuttgart for 2 years and can totally relate. Looking forward to returning to the ever so efficient Germany hopefully in 2014.

  17. All good points and probably not something most non-expats don’t see.

    They also look even more efficient sharing a continent with the Italians πŸ™‚

    • Yeah, as a visitor everything seems reasonable. It is when you have to start making appointments for things that it begins to come out. Though you can get a glimpse of it in a bank. There are 4-5 ATMs in the hall. When I go into the bank, I often see 4-5 lines, with each machine having a line, instead of the more efficient feeder line style thing. Same for BurgerKing. Lines are not something that the Germans are good at.

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