Top Ten Situations Where the American and the German/Austrian Ideas of Morality Clash

There are numerous blogs, YouTube channels, and articles about the culture shock American expats face when they come to a German-speaking country. The fact that you have to pay cash here, that stores are closed on Sundays, and that everyone is very direct can always be found on every single list about the cultural differences. Yes, this is something that takes time to get used to - the same goes for the other way around, when Austrians and Germans come to the US.

However, an issue that almost all of the texts and videos avoid, perhaps because it would soon turn into a heated debate instead of a funny little traveling story, is that when you live longer in any foreign country, you will notice sooner or later that the cultures may clash in some rather fundamental beliefs, views, and morals. These can be very challenging to cope with if you have learned to accept yours as a social norm - no matter if it's from an American or German/Austrian point of view.

I will try to explain how these differences come to be. This should not be misinterpreted as a justification or me taking sides. I am not saying that any of the two approaches are always better than the others, as many of them actually do apply to the people that live in the respective country as a result of having developed differently. In some instances, I'd rather go for either of the two cultures, but it's all debatable and I will stay neutral on this list.
The Top Ten
1 When Discussing Politics

When the election season starts in the USA, you can see many people devotedly advertising their preferred candidate, including international celebrities who support their party on stage and with money. In Germany and Austria, pretty much everyone keeps their mouths shut when it comes to their party affiliation. When asked, they often brush you off with "that's none of your business." Celebrities also refuse to take part in political talk, and many of them have repeatedly stated that while their songs have a clear message, they won't support a particular party.

This significant difference most likely lies in the range of the parties available for elections. The USA is essentially torn between two opposite approaches: the left-wing Democrats and the right-wing Republicans. Associating with them is rooted in fundamental beliefs, and people are usually registered as voters. But in both Germany and Austria, there are many, many political parties, only a few of which are distinctively left-wing and right-wing, and there's a large scope in between.

At least in Austria, people vote for the party that best suits their needs in the current situation, and it's not unlikely they abandon one party for another in the next election if they were dissatisfied with the results. Often, someone will vote for a party they are not 100 percent convinced of because they want to prevent an even worse party from winning. They do this when they know that their actual favorite party is more unlikely to win. (For example, your favorite is party A, but you know that it's probably going to be a close race between parties B and C this year, so you vote for party C because you hate what party B stands for and don't want them to win).

As a result, they are less devoted, and sometimes they are even up for experimenting ("let's vote for them this year. If they don't do a good job, we can still vote for another party in the next election"). An exception where people are outspoken... more

2 When Confronted with Blackface

Probably the most internationally famous incident where this happened is when Kim Kardashian was paid by Austrian TV personality Richard Lugner to attend the Opernball and fled. This is an event the entire nation of Austria annually observes, and Lugner's dates have been a crucial part of it for years. He is known for his embarrassing remarks and his horrible English, and he has said more than one memorable quote. But most Austrians misunderstood why Kardashian fled. Actually, it wasn't because of Lugner, but because Austrian comedian Chris Stephan showed up, dressed as Kanye West, in full blackface. It may come as a surprise, but this was NOT meant to be shocking. It was simply meant to be a parody of West. If Victoria Beckham had shown up to the ball, he'd probably have come dressed as David Beckham - or maybe even the other way around.

The international press wrote about racist humor, but the few Austrian articles that actually understood the issue had to explain to the reader that in the USA "dressing up as a black person" (there's no German term for "blackface") is frowned upon. Of course, it is, as in the USA this is associated with racist minstrel shows that made fun of African Americans. Austrians and Germans have never heard of these and are exposed to such makeup in rather "positive" associations.

For example, year after year on January 6th, German and Austrian kids dress up as "Sternsinger" (star singers), who are the Three Kings that brought gifts to baby Jesus. The one who plays Kaspar always wears blackface to resemble him, which has never been questioned once. Another example: One of the biggest heroes of German-language pop culture, maybe even bigger than any comic book superhero, is Winnetou. He's a Native American who is friends with the white Old Shatterhand and wants to bring peace between the Native Americans and the whites.

These stories were popular in novel form first (written by Karl May), but later on, there were... more

3 During Sex Education

If an American living over here has children and has to bring them to a German or Austrian school, they might have two issues with sexual education. Firstly, at how young the sex ed class starts - usually before the age of 10. People over here feel that the earlier kids start learning about this topic, the better they are prepared.

This leads to the second issue: German sex ed goes further into detail than American sex ed. The students are allowed to ask all sorts of questions and they are accurately answered. Topics include safe sex, different kinds of sexualities, self-exploration, positions, relationships, STDs, and more. Teachers want the students to learn a responsible and mature handling of sex, not to see it as something to be ashamed of nor as something to take lightly.

Sex and nudity are treated very naturally over here, and instead of making the kids feel dirty and avoiding the topic, they want them to be fully prepared before their first time. And it works. The teenage pregnancy rate is much lower than in countries with less sexual education. Another issue that will likely upset American parents is that the classes are designed in a way that assumes the students will have their first sexual experiences in their teenage years (the age of consent is 14 in both Germany and Austria). But let me tell you that they also emphasize in detail that it's okay to say no, and they make sure students realize when they are being taken advantage of. Sex ed is required by law and parents are not allowed to let the kids miss the classes.

4 When Purchasing Alcohol

There is no such thing as a liquor store over here. Alcoholic beverages can be bought in every supermarket or discount store. Sometimes they have an individual section in the market. Sometimes they are right next to the sodas, juices, and lemonades.

Depending on the region you live in, some of these might be legal to buy and consume at age 16. This might be very uncomfortable for some Americans, as they are pretty much treated like every other drink.

How this came to be, I don't know. I guess it's always been like this and was never questioned. Maybe it's part of the German/Austrian approach not to avoid confrontation with things children aren't old enough for yet and instead talk to their kids about it. I never felt the urge to drink myself, so I was never really interested in it, so I don't know.

5 On Television and Radio

While in the United States, you can turn on the TV and expect all curse words and sexual content to be toned down. Be prepared to see full-frontal nudity and sex on TV in German-speaking territories, also during the daytime (most channels watched in Austria are German, a couple are Austrian, but the same applies to them). During the day, movies and shows rated suitable for all ages or 6 and up are allowed to air. Movies rated 12 and up may air at 20:00 or later, movies rated 16 and up at 22:00, and movies rated 18 and up at 23:00.

But sex and dirty talk alone will barely get a movie to be rated anything higher than 12 (American Pie, Borat, Blue Valentine, etc., are all rated 12 over here). Nudity is often not even a reason for any restriction at all. The only exception is talk shows and sometimes reality shows that do slightly censor raunchy stuff, but the only reason they do that is as a gimmick because the US shows do that as well, and they want to give you that same feeling.

That doesn't mean that all movies and shows air uncensored. In order to be aired earlier, they might cut the movie's more dramatic scenes of violence or some scarier stuff down. A movie that airs at 20:15, which is the start of primetime over here (it's never a full hour), will always get higher ratings than at 22:00. So sometimes they edit the movie to get the lower rating. The edits can vary from a few seconds to essential scenes. For example, the removal of an unimportant knife-throwing scene that lasts for less than 10 seconds was all it took to lower "The Matrix" from 16 to 12. However, horror movies or thrillers often have large and important parts removed due to the gruesome violence and gore they contain, and the channels don't care if the movie is still comprehensible.

The reason is that, as pointed out in other items on the list, Germany and Austria are very liberal on sex and nudity and view it as something natural and positive. However, they are still afraid... more

6 When Discussing Patriotism

This one heavily varies between Germany and Austria. It has something to do with post-war guilt and that Germany immediately took responsibility for what happened, while Austrians couldn't have cared less about their participation in the Third Reich until the late 80s/early 90s and viewed themselves as victims (which is, obviously, not true). A large number of Germans hate patriotism, no matter which country it originates from. Patriotism means thinking one's country is great, and that can quickly lead to thinking one's country is better than others, and we know from history where that ends.

That's what many Germans have felt for decades now, and many still do. They also dislike patriotic movies from other countries, which is a point I will address later on. In Austria, it's quite the opposite. If you criticize anything about Austria, especially when Austrian yourself, you will have people of all ages, political views, and lifestyles against you.

Also, this is rooted in history but differently. Austria was once a big empire and monarchy, and that thinking is deeply embedded in people's heads. After WWI, it shrank down to the little state we know nowadays, and people felt devastated, even depressed (known as "Resttrauma"), which is why many fell for Hitler, who promised them to become part of something big again. Nowadays, Austrians acknowledge the dark chapter of their history, but the mentality to be proud of everything they resemble is still huge.

Whenever a celebrity is slightly noticed abroad, they become legendary heroes over here. Falco is often hailed as one of the greatest music artists of all time next to stars such as Michael Jackson or Phil Collins, and Conchita Wurst arguably became the biggest celebrity of the 2010s decade. Ironically, Austrians often don't realize their patriotism themselves. So, as an American who's patriotic, it'll be a bit hard to communicate with people from both countries about this issue. Germans will tell... more

7 In Teenage Magazines

This topic aligns closely with sex education. If you're considering purchasing a teen magazine for your child, filled with celebrity gossip and interviews, and perhaps even an introduction to some German stars, the most common recommendation would be "Bravo". This magazine, established in the 1950s, has been a staple for generations of teenagers. Initially, it was a symbol of youthful rebellion, but it has since evolved into a cult classic that many parents willingly purchase for their children. The magazine covers a wide range of topics, from rumors about Taylor Swift's new album to reports on YouTube star Bibi H.'s pregnancy, and even a day in the life of rapper Bushido. However, as you delve deeper into the magazine, you'll encounter a section called "Dr. Sommer", featuring images of naked teenagers presented in an educational context. This section, which includes a montage of images comparing different types of genitalia and a two-page Q&A where readers can ask questions about sex, relationships, and insecurities, aims to help teenagers on the cusp of puberty feel comfortable with their bodies and unashamed to ask about sex. This column has been a part of Bravo since the 60s, and many parents who found it helpful during their own adolescence continue to allow their children to read it. I received my first copy of Bravo at age 10 and continued reading it until I was about 15. The first issue I read featured a report on Sarah Connor's latest album, "Soulicious". While I had been educated about sex from a young age, it was still interesting to read about the problems other teenagers were facing. While the graphic depiction of underage individuals may be problematic for Americans, Germans and Austrians view these images as educational tools designed to help teenagers feel comfortable with their own bodies.

8 When Watching a War Movie

While Americans often praise war movies as emotional and the protagonists as heartbreakingly heroic, going through hell for doing the right thing, both Germans and Austrians hate when war movies don't criticize their protagonists. To them, soldiers are killers, and killing is never something to be proud of. It may be necessary to prevent even more damage, but it is not something to be seen as heroic in and of itself.

"American Sniper," a movie nominated for several Academy Awards, was likely the most panned movie of the 2010s decade over here for exactly this reason. War movies that were praised over here include "Platoon," "Letters From Iwo Jima," "Paths of Glory," and retrospectively, "All Quiet on the Western Front," which is usually watched in school classes to teach that war is terrible, that we're all the same in the end, and that something like this should never happen again.

Of course, much of this comes from the countries' past. A glorification of war acts is always seen as propaganda. It is, however, highly regarded when there is a differentiated depiction of the events with good and evil people on both sides, and when the movie has a pacifistic, peaceful message.

9 When Discussing Firearms

This one is easy. In the USA, the right to have guns for self-defense is written in the constitution. It is understandable that when guns are all around and everywhere, you'd feel scared not having one yourself. In Germany and Austria, owning guns as a regular citizen is illegal. Nobody has them, so there's no reason to have one yourself for self-defense. Now, it is nearly impossible to think from the other nation's perspective.

That's why we get these two arguments (and I witnessed those several times):
German/Austrian: "Without guns, there would be no gun violence."
American: "But when someone is about to point their gun at you, you would want one as well to shoot the killer."

Both are absolutely right, but they were made for two different societies: one in which guns are the exception, and one in which they are part of everyday life. It doesn't help that whenever the topic of guns is in the German media, it is ALWAYS about shootings in the USA. This has led to a particularly nasty stereotype: the gun-loving American.

10 When Discussing Communism and Capitalism

While in many countries people learn that either of the two ideologies is the best, and often that the other is seen as immoral, Germany and Austria aren't as devoted to either of them. A very common opinion on the topic is this one: "The theoretical ideology of communism is better because it ensures all people get treated the same and nobody has to be homeless or live in poverty. But it is nearly impossible to execute it fairly because people in higher positions will abuse their power. So we have to settle for capitalism, which often can be unfair to people who were born in bad or poor circumstances while others whose parents were already rich have an advantage. But at the moment it is easier to control capitalism."

Especially Germany has experienced both sides of the political fence and knows that both systems are massively flawed but also have advantages. Most people don't blame either ideology for having failed, but put the blame on the people who abused the system. That's why you can openly say you're either a capitalist or communist over here.

Many people dislike the idea that more money means more freedom. In modern times, many view that everyone should be able to do whatever they want without first having to make a fortune. They don't want a role in society, but self-fulfillment. Of course, they also want to get more money whenever they work harder than others, which is why there's the current discussion of a basic income. It would ensure nobody had to live in poverty while those who work more would also gain more. This would essentially combine the ideas of communism and capitalism.

Another thought: the fact that both Germans and Austrians often refuse to devotedly follow an idea may also root in the countries' past.

The Contenders
11 When an Artist Commits a Serious Crime

I witness this one very often on the internet (more often than it should be the case), as I follow and befriend both Germans and Americans online. An artist (musician, actor, director, producer, etc.) is accused of a crime so horrible that it makes your body shiver. It's clear this person is an evil individual and needs to be punished - this far everyone around the globe agrees.

But now things evolve differently: Americans tend to completely distance themselves from the artists and their work as well. Germans and Austrians, while being shocked, tend to still appreciate their artistry and even continue being fans of them. Several German people were disappointed when it was announced the final season of "House of Cards" would be shot without Kevin Spacey. They thought he was brilliant in this role and that the series would lose its most essential quality.

The difference may be in the amount of identification people from each country have with their idols. Americans like to look up to the entire empire the artists built, including their private life. Germans and Austrians mostly care for the works themselves and might even be devoted fans of someone's artistry even if they despise the person behind it.

The only exception I know is the scandal regarding the movie "Last Tango in Paris." It's a drama movie from the '70s about two strangers whose lives are miserable and who regularly visit each other in an apartment to live out all their fantasies and forget reality. The film was widely loved in German movie circles, but in the 2010s, it turned out that one scene of sexual assault captured on film is actually NOT staged. Director Bernardo Bertolucci (who was Oscar-nominated for this movie) actually asked Marlon Brando to touch Maria Schneider against her will for a movie scene - her tears during this were not acted, as was assumed for decades.

This movie became controversial in recent years in Germany and Austria as well. Many say that except... more

12 When Discussing Christianity

Overall, Americans value the Christian religion much more than the average German or Austrian citizen. I think this is what foreign articles focusing on our countries get wrong most often. What they write is essentially true, but they interpret it wrongly. Yes, most of us are registered as Christians, yes, there are crosses in the classroom, and yes, almost all of our holidays are Christian holidays. But that doesn't mean that people devotedly believe in it.

In the big cities, Christian people often don't regularly attend church. Many only believe in the most essential things (there is God, there was Jesus, etc.), and believe in the values Jesus talked about. What they adapt from the books is the basic philosophy. In the bigger cities, it's uncommon to find Christians who are devoted Bible readers and try to follow all of the messages. Creationism is even widely frowned upon and seen as outdated.

As for holidays, this has something to do with tradition. Even non-religious people celebrate the holidays because everyone has always done so, not because they really believe in anything. Of course, for Christians, the big holidays like Easter and Christmas have more significance. But the smaller holidays where you have one day off of work or school often bear no further meaning.

In the countryside, this is all a bit different. There, people go to church regularly, they also read the Bible more carefully, and they do celebrate holidays for religious reasons. I still think that the strongly religious Austrian Christians are on one level with the averagely religious American Christians. Unlike in the USA, Austrian Christians and Austrian atheists get along well. Also, expect reviews about a movie or a music album with a strong religious tone to be criticized for it. It's often seen as kitschy.

BAdd New Item