09 September, 2015

Misconception #4: Germans Love Their Rules

My sister visited me years ago and after going downtown shopping, came back very miffed and with this question, “Why can’t everyone mind their own business?” Apparently, no matter what she did…walk down the sidewalk (on the bicycle lane), cross the street (on a red light), or sat on a seat in a bus (those meant for the elderly and handicapped), people were always barking out instructions at her.

It is easy to see how she got this impression. People will generally speak out if they see you doing something wrong. For example, heavens forbid, you try to cross on a red light at a pedestrian crossing.

The other pedestrians will likely yell out “Vorbild!” (role model). This one word translates to “You idiot! There are slews of children here who saw that. An adult, crossing the streets on a red light! With that one act, you have given them permission to commit anarchy. You have potentially corrupted their poor innocent souls and now they will ignore the years of, “Stop and look both ways” and just march blindly across every red light they see in the future. What a horrible person you are. Completely lacking in any sensibilities about civic duties…” This message goes on in your head as long as it takes you to walk away from the maddening crowd of irate pedestrians who were standing at the light you just crossed.

Therefore, you have to watch where you step in this society of everyone minding everyone else’s business. It is usually about safety though and trying to act the role of an upright citizen.

Admittedly, the bureaucracy here is atrocious. But, where isn’t it so? I could tell you stories about German bureaucracy that would raise the hairs on your back, but instead I want to say something positive in its defence. (I can’t believe I am going to do this!) Even though it can be Kafkaesque at times, it is also generally transparent. You generally know who is responsible for doing what when and where.

If you don’t know who is responsible for handling you questions, you can call a number and the person on the reception will give you the responsible person’s name and contact number. You are able to talk to a person and not a machine. This is not the case in many other countries. That is not to say the conversation you have with the civil servant will be an enjoyable experience, but at least it is not anonymous.

There are rules to follow everywhere you look, but not everyone does. And that is the art of living happily here. Knowing the rules and knowing when not following them. When not following them will cause no harm to anyone else … even those poor innocent children standing at red lights with prepositions towards anarchy.

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