Cultural Differences IV

In North America it is common for retail salespeople to wear name tags. Turns out they do in Germany too, but there’s a big difference.

The name tag is so much a part of the uniform that those wearing them often forget they are there. If I see a clerk wearing one I tend to address them by name, figuring that is the polite thing to do. It used to be they would know my name when I handed them my credit card, but nowadays the clerk never touches the plastic. When I call a clerk by name I sometimes see the expression on their faces change as they try to figure out where they know me from.  Occasionally they figure it out, more often they ask how I know their name.

If I am feeling expansive, I explain how the name tag is one of the ways their employer tries to protect them from abuse. Retail clerks are on the receiving end of a lot of abuse – just ask anyone who has worked in a store. In the customer’s eyes, everything is the clerk’s fault.

The nametag humanizes the employee. Angry customers are less likely to scream at Donna or John than at someone whose name they don’t know. That’s my theory anyway; no-one has ever disagreed with me.

The nametag worn by clerks in Germany don’t tell me that I have been served by Hans or Jutta. They inform me that I am being served by Herr Schmidt or Frau Muller. Apparently, things are much more formal here.

I wonder if that formality will lessen as I get to know the people who serve me on a regular basis. It’s a small town and a unilingual Anglophone like me sticks out like a sore thumb. (There must be an equivalent German expression but I haven’t learned it yet.) Tongues are wagging I am sure, though politely. We may be the first Canadians these people have ever seen. Certainly all conversation stopped in the pizzeria the first time we stepped into the place. The tourists go to the expensive restaurants, not the cheapest place in town.

Formality has its place, but it feels rather strange, coming from a very informal society. It will seem different if I spend my time here as Herr Anderson, but that may be my fate. In time the barriers may come down. But maybe not – I’m too new here to know for sure.


  1. Some formality is good. I had trouble calling any prof by their first name in uni. They weren’t my friends. They were the Godfather! lol Seriously, I think Europeans start with formality to recognize that one is indeed a stranger. Respectful, but estranged. The French use ‘vous’ (plural ‘you’) to respect the difference, and ‘tu’ (singular ‘you’) afterwards when there is more familiarity. They will get to know you…and then the relationships will actually be meaningful.

  2. Get a dog. A good way to meet the neighbours and speak some easy German is to walk the dog a few times a day and hang out at the dog park.

    1. Haven’t found a dog park yet. All the dogs here seem to only understand German, which could be a problem. So is keeping a dog in a small apartment.

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