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Differences between the US and Germany (2)

A while ago I came across an article doing A subjective comparison of Germany and the United States. Back then I wrote an e-mail with comments and corrections to the author, but never heard back. So, I thought I'd just blog my thoughts:

  • One of the technological differences he mentioned was Bildschirmtext, known as Minitel in France. It was basically a way to access pages of text on a computer network by typing in a number. He basically marked it as a failure, even though BTX was pretty popular when it came to home banking ages before the Internet became widely available.
  • Based on technology similar to Bildschirmtext, we also still have Videotext. It displays electronic TV guides for the current channel, and any other content you want (typically that's news and phone sex ads these days). It also supports closed-captioning through the use of partially-transparent pages. For years I used to watch Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno with German Videotext subtitles.
  • He also complained about the rigid structure of US phone numbers that cause people in a city to memorise oodles of area codes for a single city, while in Germany bigger cities have shorter area codes and thus longer numbers inside the city. An advantage of the US system is that it's very easy to determine what part of a number is what. E.g. with German numbers I often have problems determining where the area code ends and the actual number starts.
  • He also complained about US cable TV using a set top box, which he thinks is kind of outdated tech. That's because the US have pay-TV. Germany's Premiere used to have a set-top-box, too, as do the new digital TV services (Premiere Digital and ZDF MediaVision). It's a general problem when you don't have the receiver built into the TV set or VCR, as we do with analog TV. It's also a problem people owning satellite dishes have. But there it's even worse, because the single dish can only be tuned in to a single satellite in general, so even if you attach several receivers, you can only watch stations simultaneously that are broadcast via that same satellite.

    I think this comparison point should actually be changed: The difference is not in technology, but rather in the popularity of pay-TV. In Germany, pay-TV is a niche commodity, and cable TV has lots of free analog channels. In the US, what they call "cable" is usually pay-TV, and it's very widely used.

    Similarly, that you buy the dish in Germany and get it for free with your pay-TV subscription in the US is likely so because pay-TV is so rare in Germany. You *do* have to pay for some satellite channels in Germany, in particular you need a decoder for US and other foreign stations. It's just that the German stations have traditionally financed themselves from commercials, and those don't care whether you see them via terrestrial radio, satellite or cable.
  • He also talks about trains being much less frequent in the US than in Germany. That difference seems to be due to the existence of the Greyhound and similar bus companies. I've found that they pretty much fulfill the function of Germany's regional train lines. We don't have many services such as Grehounds in Germany. We have public transport via bus and tram for inner-city transport and for getting from one city to a close one (e.g. the "twin cities" Mannheim and Heidelberg), but every longer distance is usually done by train.
  • He complained about the sloppy construction of sidewalks in the US, how they're made of concrete slabs that break easily. I'm surprised he found that many sidewalks... When I was in Cleveland, the suburb I was in only had sidewalks on one side of the street. When a friend who had just moved there walked from her house to the next shopping mall, people stopped to ask her whether her car had broken down and should they give her a lift... Consider how few people walk around their suburbs or to the next mall and the whole cliché of the overweight US-American gains a whole new perspective. Maybe the build of the cities and lesser distances in Europe explain why people there tend to have less weight problems.
  • While Air conditioning in the US is more pervasive, the difference is only really large in private homes. Many companies in Europe do have AC in their office buildings (especially skyscrapers), and more and more cars come with AC these days. But I agree, it's not deemed very important, and generally seen as un-ecological.
  • He mentioned that US vending machines all accept bills, while German ones didn't. Well, that they accept bills is necessary because the US have a one-dollar-bill, while everything up to 2 Euros exists as a commonly-used coin. In addition to that, many of the bigger vending machines do take bills here in the Southwest, in particular ticket vending machines (and have been for over ten years here in the south and southwest). Okay, whether they successfully process the bills is another issue entirely: Depending on the weather, many suddenly turn off some of these features, and depending on how heavily they're frequented, they may pop up a sign saying "pay precisely - no change left".
  • On how good US public TV actually is, and how much German private TV stations are like their US counterparts: With the fall of the law against split-screen TV (two years ago?), private TV has become more US-American... RTL2 and MTV are especially bad with their animated advertisements for the upcoming show or "movie of the day" *during* the currently running movie. Even worse are the late-night VIVA split-screen-scrolling-text shows, but at least that isn't on at human hours... What I've seen like that on US TV was just a tad less obtrusive.

    Oh, and what you see on US public TV seems to be similar (but still better) than what you can get on the digital ZDF MediaVision these days... they even have a drama channel, BR alpha (knowledge) etc.
  • He claimed Germany had had a communism hunt at the same time as the US. AFAIK, they weren't forbidden because they were communists (after all, we still have PDS and a few other - though mostly insignificant - "communist-ish" parties). The KPD was forbidden because they were openly opposed to the constitution. The KPD was simply the last party to be forbidden that way, most right-wing parties had (IIRC) already been forbidden before that.
  • He's right that home schooling isn't possible to the extent it is in the US. However, sex education in particular is the one exception where parents can choose to home-school their children. Most parents accept to have their children receive sex education at school, but all parents are asked for permission before this happens. At least here in the Southwest. Since education is the domain of the individual states, that may be different in other parts of Germany.
  • He also mentions diplomas are granted in the US for passing classes, while Germany requires final exams. This may be a recent change, but German universities are moving more and more towards "module exams" which are taken at the end of each term and contribute to the overall grade. Though you still have to write a thesis of some sort in the end. There are some exceptions, though. IIRC law and some other degrees still have you attend lectures pretty much for years before you take your first exam that actually counts towards your final grade.
  • He also claims students couldn't be seen studying as much in public in Germany as in the US. I would agree that you rarely see students doing their homework in public, but then sitting there with two notepads and stacks of books isn't really that well received in the typical German cafe.

    OTOH, you see many students doing such work in campus cafes and in the workrooms most unis provide for their students, and in libraries and computer pools. What I don't agree with is not seeing students "study" in public. Every day I ride the train I see students reading and marking up books, learning from a stack of filing cards or reading papers they were handed out. I would just guess that, since reading on the train isn't rare at all in Germany, and reading in a cafe isn't seen a lot (mostly because the waitress will complain if you're taking up a table without drinking fast enough), it's not as noticeable in Germany. After all, we don't have cafes in bookstores like it's common in North America.
  • While it's true that people coming back to uni after having had a career is rare in Germany (we sadly don't have that much mobility in our job system), you do see retired people as a noticeable group at universities. And they're usually not very well regarded among students. As in "they constantly ask stupid questions", "they use up all the chairs and tables and then don't take notes" or "why are they here if they don't need a degree anyway".
  • While degrees from universities in Germany are really considered as mostly equivalent, we're heading the same way as the US. Fachhochschulen and other schools besides universities have gained the right to give out diplomas, and to avoid discrimination graduates are allowed to leave away the "(FH)" from their diploma. So, I'm pretty sure we'll see more people mentioning "Diploma (University of Augsburg)" to indicate it's not "just an FH-diploma". The University is also seen as a secondary criterion occasionally, because there are some that are just considered better in their fields than others.
  • While it may be an advantage if you're dying to try out experimental treatments that are supposedly more easily available in the US, they are still experimental. Germany has very strict laws protecting people from being used as guinea pigs.
  • He also claims that trains and buses weren't wheelchair-equipped in Germany. This isn't true for the south and southwest of Germany, at least. We only have a few long-distance buses not equipped with wheelchair lifts, and all the S-Bahn wagons have the lift built-in or even provide ground-level entrance, as do most trams ("Niederflur-Wagen"). Also, every larger train station in Germany has a mobile wheelchair lift (for the older train carts). The only problem I still see (only with trains, though) is that, often, you need someone to take the lift out and operate it, which means most disabled still have to call ahead or ask at the information counter before they take a train. For buses, you just get in the front (where the lift is) and the driver will operate the lift from his seat at the push of a button.
  • It's rare for mentally disabled students to be educated in the same classrooms as their healthy counterparts, AFAIK that's a deliberate decision of the German school system to allow each student to learn at their speed without hindering the others. However, schools are working on improving wheelchair access and access for other lower-body-disabled students is already well on its way. I would chalk this up to the older architecture in many German schools and such the need to create access ramps more than I'd say it's actively discouraged. In the US, everything is generally laid out wider and with more space, so I doubt wheelchair access requires many changes.
  • From the fact that people who don't speak proper German and have dark skin are generally considered as foreigners in Germany, he deduces that racism was less prevalent in the US. I can't really agree with that, simply because people considered as foreigners are usually treated better than locals... well, at least unless they go into a tourist trap, of course. I freely admit that, living in a tourist and university town, my picture may be a bit skewed from the rest of Germany.
  • One thing that reminds me of is that analphabets and people not speaking our language are way better off on German streets. Just look at the traffic signs: If you can't read, you can't understand half of the signage in the US. In Germany, we use symbols, even more so than the rest of Europe.
  • When talking about the higher percentage of home owners in the US and the availability of more disposable income for luxury items, it might be handy to remember the construction of most houses in the US. If you got a house like most people in the US have past the construction inspectors in Germany, you could have a house much more quickly, too. So, yes, houses are cheaper (both to produce and in actual monetary cost), and ergo people have bigger houses and more spending money.
  • Regarding politeness being more popular in the US than in Germany, the best way I've heard this summarised is:
    If in Germany your boss tells you you did great work, you're in for a promotion.
    If in the US your boss doesn't tell you you did great work for one day, you'd better start looking for a new job.
    It may be a little exaggerated, but it also sheds light on the value of sincerity vs. politeness in Germany and the US. Many Germans consider US-Americans as less sincere because they keep telling people they don't like how great they did and how nice they are, while US-Americans consider Germans as not polite and discouraging because they don't tell them they did great. I think both points of view have merit, though being a German I have grown up preferring our brand of brutal honesty.

    Still, he's right with the lines in shopping centres to some degree, and a "give a penny/take a penny"-basket also wouldn't work. I know many people (some even what an American would consider "friends") who would just pay their bubble gum by picking the whole amount out of this basket, even though they have the money. Still, it's not as bad as he makes it out. It's just that Germans like to be more explicit. First come first serve, but if you're in a hurry or have few items, you can usually ask people and they'll let you go in front in the queue.
  • Blasphemy, "if capable of jeopardizing public peace", is a crime. Just about as much as every car in Texas has to be preceded by a servant holding a lantern. Both are laws that aren't applied anymore today. And Germany, due to the way our legal system works, actually has way fewer laws like that.
  • Also, I disagree on alcohol being more readily available. There are frequently arrests and fining of supermarket sales personnel and closing of bars and clubs where alcohol was handed out to underage customers. I would say it is enforced. Children actually had to resort to things like buying wine in a tetra-pak to get their booze.
  • Can't agree on the "gang style" of dressing being unknown in Germany, either. Go to Mannheim into the Jungbusch or near the G-area and you'll see lots of people in such clothing. Well, maybe less gold chains, but the baggy pants and bandannas. That's something that started in the late 90ies, and has gained more and more traction among high school students.
  • I wouldn't say taking along your food in the doggy bag in Germany was really frowned upon. I haven't had a restaurant where anyone objected to that or even looked askew. It is, however, not a very common thing to do. This may be different in 5-star-establishments, though. But your average Greek tavern or Italian restaurant will happily let you take food home.
  • While we don't have anyone assigning you a table in a restaurant in Germany, we do have "table reserved" signs, though. So, you may just sit down anywhere, but we still have reservations. Oddly enough, you don't usually sit down at someone else's table, even if it's one person at a six-person table. Germans will try to squeeze a group into a small table before they ask a patron to share his table. In contrast, this seems to be pretty common in Prague, and was a welcome surprise to me.
  • I've also witnessed the US trend of having food that isn't made to be eaten comfortably. While I didn't have too long fries or huge hamburgers, I suffered blisteringly hot tea and coffee, and soft drinks so cold that your teeth hurt if you don't let them warm up a little. And that was in a shopping mall with seats and tables, not take-away.
  • The more regular start times for TV shows in the US compared to those in Germany are probably mainly due to the fact the US is stretched across several time zones and that they produce their material themselves. E.g. 45 minutes is a "one-hour-show" because they can have 15 minutes of commercials - in Germany, there's a law how many commercial breaks and how many minutes of commercials may be in a show of a certain length, so the stations that show lots of US shows have to start at odd times or show blank screens or additional short programming.

    Also, in Germany it actually makes sense to start shows at 20:15, because that's when a majority of people is home and has watched their news (Tagesschau has been a traditionally strong format nobody really wants to compete against with anything but a similar-length newsshow - and it's on at eight). In the US, the time zones mean that when one part of the audience is already one hour home, another part is still in their last work hour.
  • Claiming American jelly doughnuts contained more jelly than German ones is nonsense. We don't have jelly doughnuts in Germany, we only have Berliners ("Krapfen" - crumpets). There is exactly *one* kind of doughnut that vaguely resembles a Berliner, and the sugar levels are completely different. Comparing these two would be like saying a Flammkuchen (tarte flambee) was a really badly-made Pizza.
  • While we don't have "for sale" signs in the front yard of private homes, we do have them on shops and used cars, though. There are often papers in the windows that say "For sale, 270m^2, call 12345".
  • One interesting difference regarding telephone, at least in Canada: Local phone calls are free. In Germany, they generally aren't.
Just my comments on this article.
Reader Comments: (RSS Feed)
Ruth Less writes:
-- German politeness and brutal honesty: Dude you should come to Czech Republic. That's brutal honesty. :-) -- Doggy bag: Yes, you can ask for it, just don't call it DOGGY BAG! Maybe in the USA that's a euphemism for "of course I wanna eat it myself", but I'd consider that an insult towards cook to imply "the left-overs are only good for a dog". If you wanna take it home to eat, just say so. -- Prices of US houses vs German houses: Well duh. German houses are made of stone. American houses are made of... wood or something... Now you know why Germans are quite shocked to see images of vast hurricane damage in the USA! I always have to remind myself that those piles where not all 100-years-old solid stone houses before the hurricane. -- Donut vs Berliner: I think they taste different, too, don't they? -- "Children actually had to resort to things like buying wine in a tetra-pak to get their booze." Poor souls! Forcing them to drink wine out of Tetrapaks -- in a wine area like the south-west? The horror. Do you want to tell us some more about this "child" or is it the same one the whole blog is dedicated to? ;-)
Aaron Ballman writes:
A vast difference between the two: In one place they speak German, in the other, English. ;-)
Ruth Less writes:
Don't worry, Aaron, German is quite easy. For instance, "horse" is "Pferd" -- and everything else follows along the same lines. :-D
Dave Henderson writes:
Uli, you can remove the parentheses and ? around the d. The term is Closed Captioning, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Captioning for more information, but in a nutshell the reason is that the captions are "closed", ie hidden, unless one decodes them. Ruth, building out of stone wouldn't necessarily guarantee that a structure could withstand hurricane force winds just as building with wood doesn't automatically guarantee that a structure won't withstand such forces. Any structure no matter the material from which it is made must be engineered/constructed to withstand the forces most likely to act upon it. Although, I would agree that building steel frame rather than wood frame homes might be more economically and enviromentally sound not to metion safer.
Uli Kusterer replies:
Dave, thanks. I couldn't find the Wikipedia article for some reason when I wrote this posting.
Anja writes:
In reference to the working situation, SOO true. Either you are in the Group or out! America rates you less on your consistant performance more though if you are loved or only liked . America will NOT except the differences of other cultures ( Kulturen ) nor that they try to understand, it is easier for Corperate America to say " adjust your communicational skills "
David writes:
politeness - I do think that politeness means different things to different people and there are certain things that each culture takes importance to. At the grocery store - One of the first things words I learned was Entschuldigung. But it seems that I really didn't need the word after all. If I am in the grocery store, if someone runs into you with their person or with their cart they do not say anything.
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