Rules of the Street No Blood, No Entschuldigung

Walking in Germany is a contact sport. So why don't Germans say "excuse me"? They do, at least if blood is drawn.

Check the language section of most travel guides to Germany and one of the first words to be learned, after ein Bier bitte of course, is Entschuldigung. The word means "excuse me"; you’d think it might be useful. One doesn't want to draw attention to oneself in a foreign country by acting impolite.

Having struggled to master the four-syllable locution, it's may come as a shock that -- in real life -- some Germans seem to avoid the word completely.

Not that Germans are intrinsically rude. No, mostly they've just learned to come to terms with more day-to-day physical contact that many of us. Walking down the street can often feel like a rugby scrum. In a crowd, many Germans will plow grimly ahead like Arctic ice-breaking ships. Boarding a subway, some Germans like to pretend no one else is there. The guy who tromps on your foot will look surprised -- as if you should be somewhere else. Occasionally Germans go looking for physical contact. This writer was jabbed decisively in the ribs by a bitter old lady wanting to clear space for her grandson to watch a parade. (No Entschuldigung was forthcoming.)

If someone draws blood, of course, the magic word might be uttered. And don't jump to the conclusion that all Germans are immune to what passes for politeness in the rest of the world. Young men will still give up a hard-won subway seat if an elderly person shuffles on to the train. Then again, this may be a symptom of fear. After a lifetime of battling it out on the German streets, it would surprise no one were the old grandma to cane someone off the bench.

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