CONTRIBUTED BY LUCY B.
No, it’s not you. Germans love rules. They love to tell you you’re doing it wrong, or that you’re in the way, or you’ve broken a cultural norm you never knew about in the first place. “Falsch! Verboten! Nein! Stop!”
It took me over a year to fully understand the trash and recycling sorting system. Honestly, I’m still not sure I get it, but I play along the best I can. I still get scolded at the grocery store for bagging my groceries too slowly, not having my bags ready, or daring to have children with me. I’ve been shouted at for ten whole minutes for daring to park in someone else’s space by mistake (long after I apologized and put the key in the ignition to leave). I’ve been scolded for over- or under-dressing my kids in different kinds of weather, or for allowing my toddler to eat certain foods. I’ve been told my son is too large for a stroller and I should make him get out and walk. I’ve been chastised for showing up for a doctor’s appointment 20 minutes early. I’ve been laughed at for not knowing where the hand baskets are at the drug store. Sometimes it’s enough to make me want to just stay in my house and avoid criticism for one day, but that’s not really an option.
Customer service in Germany is not very well developed. If the workers at stores in the US treated me like the cashiers treat me here, they would likely not be working for long. Scolding is a cultural barrier that you have to overcome, and you have to accept that you can’t change it.
The very best solution is to brush it off. Once when I put my card in the card reader in the checkout line at the grocery store, the cashier shouted, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” as if I had jumped over the counter and grabbed her by the neck. It startled me so much that I didn’t go back there for two weeks. When I told my German husband I’d been “yelled at” in line, he said, “That’s not yelling. That’s just information.” Apparently, the tone is pretty neutral. The stress of not understanding what you’re doing wrong, and the sound of the language make it seem much stronger than it is. You can descend into terror every time you have to pick up a carton of milk (as I did for about a month), or you can choose to let it go.
You have to realize that this is not about you (which is not easy when you’re the one being criticized.) At first I assumed that I was the only one breaking the norms and getting yelled at. I meticulously planned my grocery sacking as I shopped so that I could swiftly arrange each item as the cashier tossed it at me. I would break into a sweat if I felt like I was lingering too long. After a few very stressful trips to the grocery store, during which I broke every rule there is, I figured out that it’s not just me. The ladies in front of me and behind me are also getting the stern looks and their groceries are also being chucked down the chute with little consideration from the cashier. They also couldn’t figure out where to leave their empty baskets, or forgot to bring a bag, or tried to pay for a 2Euro loaf of bread with a 50Euro bill. They also got “yelled” at. In their turn, the shoppers find it totally appropriate to shout, “Second cashier!” or “Where are the workers?” when the line gets backed up.
My new policy is to take my sweet time bagging my groceries, especially if I have children with me. We’ve accidentally smashed too many eggs and yogurt cups in our shopping bag due to the hurry brought on by a cashier’s scowl. If we have a lot of things to scan, and someone behind us is just getting a soda, we let them go ahead of us, thereby balancing our grocery store karma.
Patience is not necessarily a (German) virtue. You can get offended, or you can just ignore it. I spent a lot of time rehearsing snide remarks in my head over and over again, waiting for one of these tense encounters. Most of the time, though, it’s really not worth it. I do admit that I have given out a few sharp remarks, but none of them infuriated the cranky person as much as shaking my head and smiling at them.
Note: Click pictures for photo credits.