I’ve experienced some new things since I started my intensive German language classes at Goethe Institute in Hamburg. I’ve experienced an entirely different subset of German culture every morning on the train. When we lived in Chicago, we rode the “El” into the city every now and then. But riding the train in Germany is a little different because of the unspoken cultural rules. Sometimes, even though we know aspects of a culture, we still have much to learn and experience. We are still discovering the ins and outs of German culture, more than a year into living in Germany.
There are two types of trains in our area, a regional fast train (Regional Bahn) and the slower, city train (Street-Bahn). The trains carry various posted and un-posted expectations for the rider. During rush hour, the fast (regional) train is almost exclusively filled with professionals commuting to the city to work. The train arrives in Pinneberg at 7:27a.m. and departs at 7:30 sharp! There is very little room on this particular train. In fact, I have not been able to find a seat most days. People do not talk at all. You can hear a pin drop. Last week, the bottom of my shoes were wet and made a squeaking noise on the floor during the ride. To my horror, over the half the train looked up at me when this happened! I learned quickly that when riding a train filled with German professionals, quietness is of utmost importance.
The slower “S-Bahn” takes longer to arrive in Hamburg and has more stops. The culture of this train is more relaxed. The crowd often includes families with small children, people traveling to visit friends and even some business professionals. While this train is also efficient and quiet, some noise is tolerated. When we hosted visitors this summer and tried to explain the “quiet culture” to them, it didn’t translate. They may have been thinking — the U.S. and German are both western cultures and the trains look and operate similarly. But the two countries are worlds apart in some ways.
We enjoy the cultural lesson we receive from comparing the cultural differences between the fast and slow trains in Germany. This reminds us of how God allows different cultural subsets to exist even within one region of one country. 1 Corinthians 9:13-23 comes to mind: “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible…I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”
This text is important because we cannot just ignore cultures and customs that differ from our own. We must rather work to embrace them. We are working diligently at doing this in Germany, even when we don’t yet understand many of the differences we see. Do you see an application in your own neighborhood, work, or family culture? We encourage you to keep looking for these differences and not to shy away from them. We know the shock and fear that initially comes when we experience a lifestyle or set of opinions that differs from our own. But if we can push past that initial shock, and look deeper and be present with the people we are with, we might be pleasantly surprised at the outcome.