Making Friends in Germany

by Christina Geyer on October 24, 2010 · 23 comments

I read a Japanese proverb about friendships a little while back and it got me thinking about making friends as an expat in Germany.  It said something along the lines of, if you are a flower, you will attract butterflies.  Butterflies are there when you are beautiful and in bloom, but when you’re struggling and your flower fades, butterflies move on to the next flower.  If you are a tree and work to build strong, deep roots, you will attract other trees and be part of a forest.

I was thinking about this and how it relates to German and American cultures.  This is a generalization, of course, but it seems to me that Americans often have the flower/butterfly type friendships.  When things are going well, you are surrounded by friends, but the moment you need help, they vanish, and if you’re lucky, you have one or two friends left who do stand by you and support you through the hard times.

I went through a couple rough patches before moving to Germany and experienced this myself.  I had a large circle of friends, until I was sexually harassed, or when my dad died, and then suddenly I found myself pretty much alone.  I always found, during these times, that my true friends who stuck by me, were people I never expected, and the people I thought were my best friends were suddenly very “busy.”

I think Germans tend to be more of the tree/forest type of friends.  Sometimes, as an expat, you move to an area where the forest is so thick and dense, that it’s difficult to establish your roots.  Sometimes the forest wants to see that you make it out of the sapling phase before you become incorporated.  Luckily, I live in a village that nurtured and encouraged me while I established roots and I now feel part of life here and have friends in the village that went above and beyond to help me through my pregnancy with Leo.

I had a difficult time making friends when I first moved to Germany.  I was trying to make friends in the typical American way.  I had parties and invited everyone we knew.  They would come, but it never seemed to go anywhere.  Same with asking people out for drinks after work or for coffee on the weekend.  Finally, someone told me to stop trying, to take things slow.  Say hello to people for a while, then ask them if they perhaps would like to have a coffee together sometime, then invite them for that coffee.  This can be a multi-year project, I was told, and it was probably the best advice I ever got on adjusting to life in Germany.

On the other hand, Rainer says he doesn’t think this is the case.  He thinks Americans and Germans both have these few strong friendships that take a long time to develop, but that Americans are more open and willing to spend time with new people, while Germans tend to be less open to these types of relationships.

I think this is also true, but I kind of like my (admittedly cheesy) plant theory.   It can be tough for a flower to survive in the forest, the trees block out all the sunlight.  You can cluster together with a bunch of other flowers in a small patch of sun, or you can take the time to grow roots and become part of the forest.

What do you think?  Do you have any thoughts or advice on building friendships?

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Maribeth October 24, 2010 at 2:12 pm

I think in many ways you are both right. I think it depends on where you are and what people tend to fall into your path.
I think American’s are less formal, and I think a fair number of them are butterfly friends, at least in their younger years. I have been finding that with age (I’ll be 52 next month) has come this amazing thing called deeper friendship.
I have found the ability to be a better friend now due to my experiences in life, and I see the people I know in similar places.
In Germany as a newbie, I found that there was this formal wall that stood around people. I tried to just be who I was, and I was puzzled by this attitude that I had never encountered before. (and I had people explain me away as “Oh, she’s American”, as if my friendliness was an illness)
But my best friend, Uschi, is German. (She lives in Berlin) She and I are as close as sisters and I know she has my back if I ever had a crisis in life.
I’ve often asked myself what it was about Uschi and me that clicked? I have no answers, except that I am still thankful to have found this wonderful sister!
.-= Maribeth´s last blog ..Movie Madness =-.

2 Susannah October 24, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Thanks for a thoughtful and very relevant post to life in Germany. I am with the previous poster Maribeth in agreeing that you and Rainer are both correct, and that friendships can definitely become deeper as one gets older; very generally speaking, I think that people in either culture who have lived through more of life’s inevitable ups and downs can be more willing to open up on a deeper level than ‘kids’ who are mostly just interested in partying, dating, and getting somewhere in their careers. On the other hand, here in Germany I have also found that it is the younger people – younger than me, anyway – that are much more likely to invite me for a coffee or to a party in the first place, or accept my invitation with pleasure. My experience with people my own age has and continues to be similar to what you and Maribeth described – years-long waiting to do something socially and having my friendly, out-doing nature be regarded, depending on the person, as somewhere on a scale between eccentric and not-to-be-taken seriously to off-putting. I myself found this very hurtful and without anyone to advise me on my own mistakes in approach, spent a number of years growing more withdrawn. You are very lucky to have been given such good strategy advice, and I certainly feel lucky to have found this site.

3 Holly October 24, 2010 at 5:06 pm

As someone who has recently moved to Germany, I really appreciate this post and the insight into what I can expect as I begin trying to build friendships in Germany. I’ve already made efforts to become friends with some native English speakers, but I am eager to make some German friends, as well. Guess I’ll just have to be patient and (gently) persistent!

4 Calliope October 24, 2010 at 5:24 pm

I personally don’t make friends easily anywhere. I find Americans to be generally more opening and welcoming during initial contact. The friends I made on my own (as opposed to the ones I have by association from my husband) are fellow immigrants and they also feel that Belgians (where I live) are hard to get close to. Thing is, at least in the circles I’ve seen, Flemings form their circle of friends during university and that’s that. Their coworkers remain coworkers and the pals they made back when they were 19 are the ones they get together with as friends. If you enter into the scene after university you’re kind of screwed.

5 CN Heidelberg October 24, 2010 at 6:46 pm

My personal experience with German friends has not been that different from American friends, actually. It is harder to get to know them, but of the ones I have gotten to know, I don’t feel that my friendships with them are any deeper than the friendships I made with Americans.

Do you feel that having children has tested your German friendships as much as the death of your father or the sexual harassment tested your American friendships? Despite the stress, having children is generally considered a positive thing that people are happy to get behind, no matter how difficult the pregnancy (as in your case!) or the other related stresses. Death in the family or something like sexual harrassment, on the other hand, are events where other people might really struggle to know how they can help since they can’t be positive about it.

I just ask about the comparability because I have only recently in my life ever had friendships drastically tested by personal tragedy, and I don’t think my German friends did any better job at reacting or being helpful than my American friends did.
.-= CN Heidelberg´s last blog ..Adventures in the Very South of Wales! =-.

6 Christina Geyer October 24, 2010 at 7:42 pm

@maribeth: I think we also tend to prioritize differently as we age. In my 20’s I thought mostly about having fun and building my career, now I think more about my family and friends.

@susannah: Well, I’d been here 3 years already when I got that advice ;-)

@holly: Good luck! Slow and steady is the best way to befriend Germans, I find :)

@calliope: That’s true in Germany as well. I know a lot of Germans who are mostly just friends with the people they went to college with. My husband is one of those guys. Apart from a couple friends he’s made along the way, he is closest to his college pals.

@cn: You bring up good points, children haven’t tested my friendships in the same way. Also the American friendships I still have are different from the ones that I had when I lived in the US. I do find that my German friends respond differently to my “positive” challenges, but they also live closer to me than my American friends. It’s all very confounded :)

7 Alyson October 24, 2010 at 10:26 pm

I’ve always found this theory very interesting–I’m American born & raised, but my father was German and my mother was the child of German immigrants. I very much operate in the “German Mode”–I have two or three very good friends that I can trust and rely on, and are closer than most of my family. That is very much not the norm among most people I know. Friends are friends, regardless of how well you know them. I do have quite a few people I call acquaintances, though–I’m friendly with them, occasional go out with them and such, but I don’t know them as well and trust them as deeply as my actual friends.

Personally, I think it comes down to two things: 1. Germans (imho) are very loyal people, and they want to be sure someone is worth that loyalty before really open up and let that person into their life. 2. Most Americans don’t differentiate between acquaintances and friends–everybody’s a “buddy”, from their college roomie who was their best man at the wedding to the bartender at the local bar. Americans are more causual about friendships, whereas the Germans consider friendship something much more serious. Not saying one’s any better than the other, mind you.

Germans are also a much more private people than Americans. Maybe because of history, I don’t know. But they’re more cautious in some ways, too. Even minor things are worthy of study and consideration, where Americans are more ‘damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.’

But to those trying to make friends with a German, I offer this advice: be paitient, be genuine, and don’t be afraid to disagree. At least, that’s what’s worked for me… :)

8 Tammy October 24, 2010 at 10:37 pm

I tend to think more like Rainer on this one, but it’s only based on my own experiences. I have a few very close friends (from various countries – mostly expats in some way) and a lot of pretty good friends who I can share everyday stuff with. My closest friends get me through all of the tough stuff; sometimes those that are far away are there only electronically. Even if we haven’t spoken in ages, they still know me in a fundamental way and can usually help just by being someone who knows me. Some of these friendships came quickly and some took years of building.

9 Christina Geyer October 25, 2010 at 9:22 am

@alyson: I think you put that very well! Rainer also thinks it’s a case of mixed signals. Germans generally only know German signals and Americans know American signals, and when you have crossover, one or both parties need to learn the signals of the other. I have heard from a lot of Germans that when they went to the US, they felt surrounded by friends, but when they needed someone they were alone and some of them became bitter about this and call Americans superficial.

@tammy: Yeah, I agree with you and with Rainer. I was just in love with my theory ;-) I too have a few friends who I’ve gone through a lot with and they know me, like you say, in a very fundamental way, that is difficult for a newer friend to match. We may not have spoken in ages, but I know when I need someone, they are always there to at least offer moral support.

10 deb novak October 25, 2010 at 10:05 am

Well, I think it also has to do with learning the language as well. There is nothing like connecting in one’s language. I have been here almost 3 years, and now can converse in German. And when I try to use German, the ladies try out their limited English – in this way, we connect.

I also ‘am a very intense and passionate’ American, and if this is seen as superficial it is not, nor will I apologize for our passion. When I first got here, I tried to ‘tone it down’. Now that I speak German, I mix this with speaking German. This is who I am, and I cannot give that part up of my Americanness. spelling/ :)

I do find making friends with German Moms (I had one child born in Texas, and one here) that the best way is like one person posted here. Visit a bit, say hello, and maybe as for meeting for coffee ask or invite the 3rd or 4th time you see them (let’s say in the grocery store or on the playground) – instead of the very first time you meet (which is typical of Americans, and which is still ok too.)

I have also ‘quit becoming so defensive’ when a German is so forthright, honest, and what I used to consider abrasive (My husband is German).

The Germans have also taught me to ‘speak my mind more often’ – :)

11 Susannah October 25, 2010 at 12:56 pm

I’ve enjoyed following this thread – I can relate to much of the various experiences others have posted.

Although I fear I have given more than my 2 cents worth already, I felt the need to make an addendum with my age (most of what I said in my original post here related to that, but I neglected to give specifics!). Anyway, I am 37 and have noticed my friendships – with my close German friend (10 years older than me), other Americans back home, and expats around the world -deepening as people in my circle go through ‘heavy’ things like marraige, becoming a parent, divorce, losing a parent or someone close, and ‘middle-aged’ realisations like maybe you aren’t going to become the next big writer or rock star after all. This is different to the king of friendships I had at uni in the US, everyone was too much in flux or confused to be a real support to anyone else I think! Now when I look at the friends around me, I know these people are there for me – there is some sort of common understanding of what it is like to go through something big, be it joyous or tragic and hard – and how a friend can really help you through. I would not say that this is nationality-related at all in my experience. And while it seems very true that it takes longer to befriend most Germans to get to this level, I think there is an age factor there too. Having been a English trainer for job seekers in Bremen, I had the opportunity to work with a number of people in their early twenties. Not only were many of these ‘kids’ more outgoing in a ‘city people’ kind of way as compared to those in my village, but this was a generation that grew up exposed to multi-cultralism in a way my generation didn’t: films, TV, Itnernet, pop music, backpacking abroad… I suspect making them more open to meeting new (foreign) people and socializing in a way that is being described in this thread as American. Invitations for a beer on Friday usually did not proceed into someone who I knew I could tell all my secrets too, but it was nice to have someone to hang out with once in awhile!

12 Migraine Meister October 25, 2010 at 4:43 pm

Thanks Christina for addressing this. I’ve become friends most quickly here in Germany with foreigners – the Turkish, Croatian, Afgan, Iranian etc. moms at our Kindergarten and fellow Americans in our town. There are a selective group of Germans who I’ve bonded with quickly, but these persons seemed to have an innate openness.

There is this wall I hit though once I reach a certain depth in the relationship with those whom I speak German – but this wall doesn’t appear with Americans. I’m almost afraid to investigate why this happens, because I think it has less to do with language and more to do with trust issues.

When I return to Germany from vacation in the States I tend to come back intent to force Germans to smile at me and squeeze some friendliness out of them – sometimes it actually works!
Y’all have a good one!

13 Anke October 25, 2010 at 5:00 pm

As a German who has lived in the States for a couple of years I think your tree/forest-theory about how Germans form friendships is really close to the truth. It also depends on the part of Germany you live in. In eastern Germany the tree/forest-theory really is the only way to go, in large cities in western Germany the flower/butterfly-approach might work, but still… to have a German call you a friend (and we use that word sparsly compared to Americans) you need to take the tree/forest-route. Relationship-wise, Germans take it slow. No kissing on the second date, and not yet friends after the second coffee together.
BTW: love love love the photo in your header :-)

14 Reez October 25, 2010 at 5:31 pm

For me, slow and steady is better. It takes a while for me, personally, to “select” friends. Here’s my personal take on this: My family is at the center of my social circle. Some people find this hard to understand (probably because it’s not “cool”) but I love hanging out with my family. They’re fun, we trust each other, and I can be my crazy unedited self. Needless to say, they have been with me through the good and bad times. So, I carry this on with friendships and relationships. I am not one for instant gratification, esp. not with friendships and relationships. In general, slow and steady is better for me. Of course, every once in a while, there are those that come into your life and you just magically click – and that’s pretty special, too.

15 Lulu November 10, 2010 at 3:52 am

Mom and I were talking about my trip to Germany last fall over the weekend. My Aunt and Uncle have neighbors that were always friendly with my Mom but never talked to me. Assumed that was because I don’t speak German. But, last year, I with a head of grey hair, the lady made it a point to come and visit, bring a gift and chat. It was very sweet. Even Mom couldn’t explain it.

When my cousin came to Texas to visit she was very impressed with people helping each other (ie jumping your car when the battery is dead). She said that would never happen in Germany. However, when I lived in Garmisch for a couple of years I was very surprised when an older lady literally reached down and snatched me up from a snow bank. (And I’m not a little thing!) Didn’t see it coming and really blew me away. Vielen Dank were the only words exchanged.

Still can’t figure it out but I love the folks in both places. :)

16 Sabrina November 12, 2010 at 7:14 pm

I just stumbled across your blog and am really intrigued. I am German and moved to the US for a little while in 2002 and have been here pretty much constantly since 2004. Seems like our timelines are very similar – except that you moved from the States to Germany  While you had trouble adjusting to the whole friendship-system in Germany (BTW, love the tree/forest metaphor!), I had the same trouble over here. People were so nice and friendly and kept saying that we need to “hang out” and introduced me as a “friend” to their friends and it made me really sad when I realized that I’d only ever see 5% of the people again. Then I started asking myself what I was doing wrong. And finally, after quite a few months, I realized that that’s just how it is here in Texas. It takes just as long to make friends as it does in Germany – except that they call you a friend here much, much sooner than really treating you as one.
.-= Sabrina´s last blog ..A Weekend in El Paso =-.

17 Ariana November 22, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Hi Christina,
I just found your blog through “expat women,” and I am enjoying this conversation. I have been in Germany (Amberg) for four months, and I have had some interesting experiences. For one thing, people seem very reserved, and slow to reach out to someone new. On the other hand, I have had a few women from my daughter’s school initiate with me. I am actually a little busier socially than I had expected to be at this point! I am more of a “tree” person myself, not in a hurry to get connected, but very loyal once I become friends. This seems to be the case so far, and I really appreciate that.

18 Crystal November 24, 2010 at 9:54 pm

I agree with a lot of what everyone else has commented. I have lived in Germany for 11 years now (with a German husband), and I do think that the slow and steady aproach to making friends is the best.
North Americans are open quickly, give a lot of personal information in 1st conversations with new people, and are ready to go out for coffee after meeting for 5 minutes in the park. The term “friend” is overused and is much more of what a German would call an “aquaintance”.
Germans make “aquaintances” quickly, are slow to give out personal information, and after a long time of knowing each other and developing roots, become “friends.” what most North Americans would call “best friends”.
I found it hard at the beginning, because I never could tell whether the people I met here in Germany were interested in a friendship, or whether they were just being friendly and hoping i would stop talking and go away. The reactions I got were different than what I had always had back home. People were more reserved here in Germany.
Eventually, I learned that Germans like it when you are genuine. If you ask “Wie geht es Dir?” , you really should want to know the answer, and you may not get a “Gut!”, like any North American would answer.

19 Sabrina November 24, 2010 at 11:21 pm

So true, Crystal! And the flipside is true too :) Can you imagine me, a German, in my first few weeks in Texas? :) People continuously would walk past me and kept saying “How’s it going?” and I would stop and start to tell them about my day and they just kept walking… Took me a while to figure out that “How are you?” here means “Hi!”. Now I do the same and like the friendly atmosphere it creates. But until you know what “How are you?” really means, it makes you feel kind of bad if people ask and don’t wait for your answer.

20 Beth Jennings December 7, 2010 at 2:44 am

Hi Christina, yes they are slower to connect, but once they connect, they connect with you for life. I met a German chap while travelling and his friends and family practically adopted me! (I think they would have been quite happy if I’d stayed!) and I know when I return to Germany I can see them all. But yes, slow and steady is the rule of thumb there. What I really love about Germans is the men and women balance is awesome, you don’t find women all congregating in the kitchen while the men hang out on the balcony, they mix really well. Ah, love Germany!

21 Rachael December 14, 2010 at 9:17 am

I really enjoyed looking at your reflections on friendship. As an Australian expat in Germany, I found the differences in forming friendships quite confronting and had to re-assess my own rather casual approach. Australians tend to be a “low-commitment” culture in this regard, and our famed friendliness is usally a front for polite indifference. Here I have come to see that friendships in Australia as well as Germany require a little more care and committment, and I will take that learning with me, whatever and where ever!

22 Francis Brown January 25, 2011 at 5:25 pm

I actually read a similar blog post about this (http://lifm.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/you-are-not-alone/) – Apparently we Germans are not easy to make friends with! But I think you have a good approach to it, too. Maybe Racheal is right, and some foreigners are too relaxed for German people to deal with.

23 hector r October 9, 2014 at 7:23 pm

What has cultural differences to do with true friends? If Germans are more difficult to make friends with it doesn’t mean they will be your true friends in the end.
Just like if you make lots of friends in another country, just because it’s easier that doesn’t mean they are all fakes.

Germans being cold, doesn’t automatically make all of them sincere.

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