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All Abroad! German etiquette

University of Copenhagen student Sofie and the subtle cultural differences of Berlin

German greetings from the heart of Europe, from a capital with its own distinct rhythm and from me, Sofie, a student from the University of Copenhagen. At the moment I am well situated in the peculiar city of Berlin, where my 5th semester of political science is taking place.

356 kilometres make up the distance between Copenhagen and Berlin. This distance could also bring you 2.5 times around the small Island of Bornholm. The flight would have been awfully short, about an hour, so to make it feel like a real relocation my dad drove my bike and me in the car. Crossing the border is by far not the biggest change I have experienced. After three months I am not done mapping these changed patterns in living and behaving, it is still indeed an ongoing process.

Getting settled and being troubled

You might not think the differences in rules of behaviour and norms are very different in Germany, but honestly I am just getting grounded after having had my feet swept away.

First of all, all my lectures at Freie Universität (FU) Berlin are in German, and with no particular considerations to foreigners. That means I am taking part in the courses on equal terms with my fellow German students. This was also what I had expected in advance. In my own opinion my German-skills were reasonable upon my arrival, but still I must say, that my punchlines and reasoned arguments are taking more time in the creation process than for the native speakers.

My statements proceed through many more steps, which are as follows: (1) thoughts, (2) grammar, (3) look-ups in the dictionary, and (4) sentence construction. The result of this is often that the discussion has moved on by the time I am able to contribute, and a repeated process starts then over in the hope of getting in once more. This has been an exhausting process, but as good luck would have it (fortunately) I am making small progress.

The world is a place of subtle nuances

Secondly, I am finding it a challenge to differentiating between the use of formal and informal language and manners when addressing teachers (and in general adults who look more than 30 years old). Here, it is extremely important to be aware of the insulting perception teachers might get when you seem to be on first name terms with them. Since I am Danish, the equality-perception in addressing people in my surroundings would only change if I were to meet with the Queen of Denmark.

That does not happen every day, so of course it is a different practice to explicitly express the hierarchy in the society. In Germany, you are not on first name terms with your teacher, unless he/she explicitly gives you permission to do so. This rule is important, but unfortunately unwritten. It has the complexity of a whole chapter in a law-book and does not always follow a logically line of procedure.

Finally, I have my general everyday issues in regard to the existing library rules on campus. When I wish to bring my jacket with me into the library, why must the “jack-in-office”/ “defender-of-the-books” always remind me of the regulations, stating: no jackets, no cell-phones, no taking-pictures, and most important of all, no non-transparent bags. There is a profound distrust and fear of book-robbery, which means I can either choose to buy a transparent plastic bag or I can try to manage with what I can carry in my arms.


A single horror of this semester, so far, has been the observation of seeing my English being reduced to ashes as my German is continuously improving. Not long ago I was invited to a dinner party with an English text message saying: “…would be great if you could make it”. I had no doubt that the goof of a friend was trying to invite me over so that I could make the dinner… Well, the joke was certainly on me. I hope I have made my point clear, and if not: try to read the sentence again. Thinking in another language and having it so close to you that you start organizing you thoughts around it is certainly a mixed pleasure.

International friendships. That is me Sofie on the right.

The time in Berlin was golden in the 1920’s. My time here, however, is not of any material value. However, I am being filled with values like close international friendships, exclusive insight into the many faces of an unfamiliar city and gradually also the ability to understand unaccustomed rules and norms.

Ultimately I hope you will go out and explore new ways of understanding, regardless of the awkwardness it might bring you. In addition to that I hope you will treat people nicely so that they will have no excuse for not doing the same.

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