Differences between living in Germany and the US

As some of you may know, I grew up in Germany, but for the past 13 years, I’ve been living in the US. First, I’ve called beautiful San Diego my home and after a short stint in Beijing, I moved to San Antonio, and now I am back in San Diego.

During this time as an Expat in the US, I’ve seen and experienced the differences between living in Germany and the US firsthand. I don’t want this post to turn into a stereotype kind of post, I merely want to point out tendencies that I, as an individual, have observed as someone, who has lived in both countries for extended periods of time. If you have any other observations or opinions, please feel free to share them in the comments! I am looking forward to reading your thoughts!

9 Differences between living in Germany and the US

1. Customer Service

Compared to the United States, Customer Service is a dry and barren, almost dead land in Germany. Returning something to a store? You need a receipt, the product in its original packaging, and must return it within 7-14 days. No questions asked return policy like at Costco? Doesn’t happen in Germany. Need assistance in a German store? You better be ready to hunt down a store employee and pin them down, or otherwise, you might never get any help.

2. Politics

Politics is a hot topic and I don’t want to start a heated debate here. But one of the differences between Germany and the US politics that stuck out to me the most is how much more polarized political opinion is. In my opinion, this stems from having a two-party system versus a multi-party system. In the US, the parties have to differentiate themselves more and more to appeal to the more extreme points of view within the party.

In Germany, parties never form a majority and therefore have to build a coalition to reach a governing majority. While the parties still each have their own point of view, they are forced to work together and compromise. They also cannot burn bridges, because they might find themselves in a pickle, when they have to work with that party after the next election.

I feel that the US could do with a little more working together rather than building up more walls, whether it is around them or within their own boundaries. 

Berlin Wall Graffiti - Differences between living in Germany and the US

3. Guns

To be honest, the whole US gun culture thing still freaks me out. I understand that if you live in the middle of nowhere or pursue hunting as a sport, you want/need a weapon. If I’d lived in some remote part of Montana, heck yes, I would have a gun in the house. But the idea of going to the grocery store and buying semi-automatic weapons off the shelf seems just completely bonkers to someone from Germany.

I see the historic relevance of why the first settlers depended on guns for their survival and to bring order to a brand new and very diverse nation. Things have changed since the 2nd amendment has been put in place. We have a stable political environment, a functioning society and the US is no longer the ultimate frontier that it used to be.

4. Everything is bigger in the US

Well, for starters, the US is about 26 times the size of Germany. It takes me longer to drive through Texas than it does to drive through 5 countries in Europe. I love to drive long distance and enjoy the wide open space of the United States. There are really remote places, where you are the only human being for hundreds of square miles. This is something that just doesn’t exist in Germany. It is beautiful to have the opportunity to jump into the wild like this and disconnect from society.

But it isn’t just the size of the country, everything else is bigger too. The cars, the houses, the grocery stores and everything in it is just ginormous. A bag of chips would fill half a grocery cart in Germany.

Another thing that makes the eyes of Germans pop out during their vacation in the US are the restaurant portions. A typical burger in a restaurant in the US is about the size of three burgers in Germany. And lets not even talk about the taste. Germany has some great food, but when it comes to burgers, the US is simply in a league of its own. This is probably one of the biggest differences between living in Germany and the US that is also obvious to people who only visit each country briefly.

5. Taboos and Prudishness

Differences Between Living in Germany and the US - CultureWhen I told my host mom in Louisiana that many German girls don’t even bother to buy the top to their bikini, I saw an expression of shock and surprise. Topics like nakedness and sex are much more openly discussed in Germany.

It is not that Germans are talking dirty all the time, but they tend to see it more as a matter of fact and a natural thing. Women have breasts and men have a penis. Ok, let’s move on.

6. German Bluntness

If you ask a German friend for their opinion, you will get it. In all its honesty and, sometimes, brutality. “Does this dress make me look fat?” “Well, yes, your ass looks huge in this one. Try the blue one, I think it’ll look nicer.”

Germans are very blunt compared to Americans. In the US, parents teach their children: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” This is quite a different culture and sometimes can lead to some hurt feelings and misunderstandings.

7. Renting vs Buying Houses

The decision to rent or buy a house is also one of the big differences between living in Germany and the US. The dream of the house with a picket white fence is alive and well in the US. Due to low down payments and relative easiness to get a home loan, buying a house in the US is something many young adults can already achieve.

People also tend to buy homes for their current situation rather than waiting for their “Forever Home”. The Real Estate market in the US is much more fluctuating, house prices are much easier to compare and people tend to buy and sell houses much more frequently. The majority of houses in the US are also built by developers and even brand new homes are built in a cookie cutter style.

In Germany, on the other hand, most people buy one house. THE house where they will settle and live the rest of their lives. This is why many people in Germany build a custom house to make sure it will fit their needs in the long run. Also, in most cases, the bank requires you to have a rather high income, a stable job and a minimum down payment of 20% (most people tend to put up more down payment though). 

8. Consumerism

I always feel that there is probably nothing that you cannot buy in the US. There is a gadget for everything. Americans buy a lot of stuff and in huge quantities, sometimes even more than they need. Food waste is a real problem in the US and I have to admit that I am sometimes guilty of that as well, especially when I travel a lot and don’t get around to using up all the things in my fridge. Luckily, my neighbors are happy with my frequent food donations πŸ™‚

I find it fascinating that Americans found a way to make a business out of almost everything. While I love that many of these products and services free up your time and make things easy on you, it comes at a price and I sometimes wonder, if people just spend more time working so they can afford the luxury to pay someone to do other tasks for them. 

9. Work-Life Balance

US Capitol Sketch - Differences between living in Germany and the US For me, this is one of the biggest differences between living in Germany and the US. In Germany, people get a minimum of 21 days of paid vacation a year, unlimited sick leave and paid maternity leave, and workers are protected by a variety of laws to ensure that they are fairly compensated for their work.

On the other hand, when you look at the output of a German employee, you can see that they are very productive. They tend to be highly focused on their work and chitchatting and dilly-dallying is kept to a minimum. Meetings have an agenda and are to the point. There is a different mindset as well. If you work overtime every day in Germany, you’ll leave a negative impression with your boss, because he/she will think that you don’t get your stuff done in 8 hours and are not efficient and productive enough.

In the US, there is no minimum number of vacation days or even sick days, there is no maternity leave and you can get fired if you get sick. People work very long hours and if they are lucky enough to get vacation days, they don’t even take them. Did you know that last year over 50% of paid vacation days were not used? On the other hand, people can earn a much higher income in the US, taxes are lower and it is generally easier to find a job.

These are some of the biggest differences between living in Germany and the US that stood out to me as a German expat living in the US for the past 10 years. Each country has its advantages and disadvantages and it depends on your personal preferences of which country’s values and believes fit best with your own. I have to admit that I sometimes suffer from the “the grass is greener on the other side syndrome”. Some of the things in the US still don’t make sense to me, even after such a long time.

Have you lived in Germany or the US? What were the biggest differences between living in Germany and the US in your opinion?

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