It is fast approaching: The opportunity to shower your loved ones with all the attention and treats that a busy life might have deprived them of. The day to prove your love in the most romantic (or maybe overdone) way imaginable. A couple’s night out without the kids, (although in Lockdown it will probably be a night in) … Valentine’s Day.
While this day has a long history as a religious holiday in Germany, the emotional (and joyfully commercialised) celebration of romantic love hails from 18th century England and made its way to Germany via the USA. In the 1950s, American GIs in Germany introduced the idea to their German “Valentines”, and since then flowers and sweets have become so much of a tradition, that Lufthansa Cargo transports an average of 800 tons of flowers each year on this day.
This stands in contrast to the reputation of Germany as a country that takes a rather cool approach to passion and love. To be frank: While I have some ideas where this reputation comes from, it is wildly inappropriate. After all, Germany has been the country of minnesong and romantic poetry since medieval times.
Yet, dating a German can be a challenging experience. And what on Earth do you have to expect if you decide to marry one? Prepare for the unexpected. Germans are weird.
Germans are not the fastest when it comes to having kids, marrying, dating or even flirting, and this is a complaint common among expats. Subtle flirting might go unnoticed. A more aggressive, straightforward approach is quickly too much for the reasonable German mind. Flattery will either not work at all, or surely not in your favour. So don’t be vague. Small signals and flirting doesn’t work the way you are used to. Small talk is not as valued in Germany as in many other places. But don’t be too fast. This is not how Germans tick.
If that sounds like a proper challenge, wait for the feedback you’ll get. Germans might appear blunt and even rude due to their habit of being honest and straightforward. And you might find they are quite opinionated when it comes to dress code. I remember having visitors from Germany who – after a work out session in a park – didn’t want to enter a pub in their trainers. “We are hardly dressed appropriate”, they said, until we were inside and looked around at the other guests. In general, Germans are rather aware of their appearance – tracksuits are not seen as sufficient attire for a date, and skirts should not be too short. From an English perspective, that might seem a bit conservative. Germans would call it refined.
This also applies to personal interactions. Keep your distance and respect boundaries – latino style kisses on the cheeks or hugs might be frowned upon. Long, lingering eye contact and a hidden smile is the best way to make a first connection. Once a relationship is established, however, public display of affection is not a problem at all. German couples tend to be all over each other.
So what to do if small talk isn’t an option? Do no stick to the weather when it comes to conversation! You are allowed to discuss philosophy and politics, and disagreeing doesn’t have to be a bad thing. But you will find that arguments can get heated and stubborn, which might not be the best start for a romantic relationship. The best way to go is to really be genuinely interested in your date and ask the right questions.
Nothing of that means online dating doesn’t work! Tinder, OKCupid and CoffeeMeetsBagel are the most popular dating apps in Germany. But cheesy pick-up lines will definitely not lead anywhere.
Besides that, German dating has less rules than what you might be used to. There are very few rituals to maintain, no “first, second and third bases” to reach, no “third date rule” to follow, you can call when you feel like it and being honest is the best choice, most of the time. “Dates” don’t always have a romantic intention, though. So asking someone out does not mean you are headed towards a relationship. Oh, and you can split the bill. Gender equality is highly valued in Germany.
Here is a very relevant disclaimer: Not all Germans are the same. Never forget that cultural stereotypes like these might lead you to wrong conclusions in conversations with an individual.
Dating in Germany can also be dangerous. Rituals and customs can seem strange for foreigners. Have you ever heard about the tradition of “Maibaumsetzen”, for example? In love with a maiden, the young lad will use the night of May 1st to steal a Birch tree from a nearby forest and plant it in front of his girl’s house. He will do his best to make it look pretty, although the time for this might be sparse, because the nearby forest is not the only place where one can find a tree. The young man will have to guard the tree for his beloved, as others might want to steal it for their girls. What could be a romantic gesture, all too easily turns into a night of brawling.
These kind of weird rituals will follow you until your wedding day. Traditionally, a man would ask a woman’s father for permission to marry her. While this is not required anymore, family is important to many Germans, so you should probably not be sloppy with it. It is not the dangerous part, though.
Prepare for Polterabend, the wedding eve party that does for a good reason sound a bit like “Poltergeist”. Friends and family will visit the home of the groom or bride to smash dishes and other breakables – ideally porcelain, which might include used toilet bowls, but far too often the party derails into throwing all kinds of confetti or other hard-to-clean materials, and it has happened that toilet paper rolls were thrown across the roof of the house. The chaos is immense, and the cleaning will take hours.
This kind of prank is absolutely common in Germany, where many a bride finds the door of her house bricked up on her wedding day or hundreds of alarm clocks hidden in the couple’s bedrooms, keeping them awake by ringing at different times. After the wedding ceremony, the newlyweds might have to saw through a piece of wood together, with a blunt saw, of course, to demonstrate the grind of married life. And it’s not uncommon for the groomsmen to kidnap the bride, leaving the new husband to search for her throughout the bars of his hometown, just to find her jolly and tipsy with his mates.
Which brings us to the worst danger of German weddings: Bureaucracy! Marrying involves a lot of paperwork and has to be prepared carefully. There’s no way to “elope for a wedding in Vegas” in good old Germany. Only if you have your passports, a “Meldebescheinigung” (official statement of residency), your birth certificates (originals, please!), birth certificates of any children the couple have had together, certificate of no impediment (yes, that’s a thing), the marriage questionnaire from the registry office, a certificate of finality of divorce (if it isn’t your first marriage), the marriage certificates of any former marriages, if applicable the death certificates of previous spouses, a confirmation of name change (if necessary) and a financial statement, you can apply for a wedding date at the registry office within the next six months. Oh, you need it all translated by a certified professional and of course, if you are not a German citizen, there’s some more paperwork to fill in. None of the documents should be older than six months – which obviously doesn’t apply for birth certificates.
(And yes, the divorce is similarly difficult.)
After the official wedding in the registry office, the church wedding is the next step. It has no official value, but nevertheless many people are very eager to marry with a proper ceremony. At the end, a typical German wedding will set you back anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 Euro.
Weddings rings, by the way, are worn on the right hand in Germany. On the left hand, they count as engagement ring – which might be an important information when dating.
With permission from the parents, Germans can marry at 16 years of age, which seems awfully young – but compared to the USA, where in many states even children can be married, it is rather reasonable. The age of consent, however, is 14 years in Germany. This might seem very young, but it is meant to allow teenagers to explore their sexuality. Teenagers take responsibility for their actions much earlier in Germany, and that seems to work just fine – since teenage pregnancies are not a real problem in the country.
Last not least, English native speakers can make an interesting round trip through the different stages of dating and relationships when visiting Germany. Don’t be offended – keep in mind these are official names of towns…
Find out more about German wedding traditions: