After our first few months of living in Germany, I came home from work one evening and felt overcome with a deep sense of loneliness. At first I couldn’t understand why I would feel lonely in a city of 3.5 million people. On top of that, I was newly married and lived with my husband, so I always had someone to talk to. Don’t get me wrong–I love talking to my husband! But I began to realize what I really missed was having friends nearby. We had just left our close-knit community at our university in the states, where we lived with friends and had department parties on a very regular basis, and that was hard to leave behind. By that point in Berlin, my husband had met a few people at the university, and we eagerly accepted any invitation extended to us for any social engagement in the hopes that we would begin to make friends. Every event we attended seemed to have the same ending: we would have interesting conversations with a few people, only to feel like they were completely indifferent to ever seeing us again at the end of the evening.
While the concept of “making friends” is ubiquitous in American culture, many of my German friends tell me they find this concept quite puzzling. Obviously, humans are social creatures and need interaction, companionship, and community. However, different cultures go about achieving this sense of community in different ways.
Americans tend to label almost anyone a friend. In American culture, if someone introduces me to a friend of theirs, I can expect this relationship to be almost anything that runs the gamut from a childhood best friend they have known since kindergarten to a friend of a friend they met a week ago and had a pleasant exchange with. However, in Germany, the term “friend” is typically reserved for those friends you could call up in the middle of the night if you needed to. In fact, Germans make a clear distinction between Freunde (friends) and Bekannte (acquaintances), whereas in the United States the term acquaintance is rarely used.
Many Americans feel that they are not as able to break into German social circles with the ease they experienced in the United States. This is in part due to that special status that friendship carries. Although it takes much longer to build a friendship in the German culture, once you’re friends, you’re pretty much friends for life. It would take quite a lot to destroy a German friendship. Additionally, friendships come with a lot of obligation: a fair-weather friend is almost unheard of in Germany! Consequently, Germans would rather have a few close friends than a number of acquaintances, and they are more selective about who they let into their lives. Part of this stems from practical reasons: Americans typically move around a lot more than Germans. A 2013 Gallup survey found that over 21% of Americans had moved within the last five years, compared to less than 5% of Germans. Because of our inherent need for social interaction, many Americans are forced to go actively make friends in order to fulfill that need. As a result, our culture seems more flexible with who we consider friends, even though these friends sometimes come and go.
As I mentioned, friendships come with obligation in Germany. There are some implicitly understood “rules” that I’ve learned about German friendships. First, friends will expect you to be honest and straightforward with them, even if the truth is difficult to hear. Another expectation is that you are loyal to your friends and defend them whenever necessary, even if you think they’re wrong! It’s also expected that you make time for your friends. For friends who don’t live nearby, it’s expected that you visit if you’re in the area. It would be a major faux pas for me to take a trip to Berlin and NOT contact my friends. I can’t even imagine that, and I can’t imagine my friends coming to my area and not visiting me! Except for some rare, complicated circumstances, it just wouldn’t happen. In addition to honesty, loyalty, and making time for friends, It’s also expected that you remember your friends’ birthdays. I’ve noticed that my German friends are much better about sending cards and gifts for holidays and birthdays than I am. That’s definitely an area where I’m trying to learn from my German friends’ examples.
Another striking difference I’ve noticed in German vs. American friendships is that Germans tend to have friends (so, good friends in the American sense) with different political persuasions or religious convictions. I think having a multiple-party parliamentary system helps in this sense because there are several reasonable parties someone can vote for, which tends to make politics much less polarizing than in the United States. In any case, though, I’ve noticed my German friends discussing topics they disagree on (and having somewhat intense conversations, at that), only to move to a different topic and act like nothing happened. They’re still friends, and they don’t seem the least bit upset with each other. I asked some friends how they’re able to do this, and their response was pretty simple: There are deal breakers in friendships, and they wouldn’t become friends with someone in the first place whose values were antithetical to their own. Then, they assume their friends are reasonable people, and even if they disagree on issues, their friends have their reasons for their convictions, and they respect that.
Last, Germans talk about their friendships, and they do it often. It’s not uncommon for a friend to make comments such as, “It’s so great that we’re friends!” or begin a sentence with “because we’re such good friends.” This is likely a result of having a more direct culture in general. In the German culture, it’s important to be honest, direct, and straightforward, and not to beat around the bush. This is one of my favorite aspects of German friendships. Hearing your friends tell you they enjoy your friendship is really nice. It seems Americans can be a bit bashful about telling people how they feel (less so depending on how long you’ve known the person), but in Germany, as soon as you’ve become a friend, you will know it.
Although it took us longer to “make friends” in Germany, we now have some incredible, life-long friends who we would do anything for and who have inspired me to cultivate deeper, more sincere, lasting relationships with my friends. It was worth the wait.