Waiting for a Waiter Surviving Germany's Service Wasteland

You'd think getting a beer in the world's beer capital would be easy. But first, you have to get the attention of a German waiter. They, on the other hand, are genetically programmed to ignore you.

Germans know they have a problem. They even have a long, Teutonic name for it: Dienstleistungswüste, the "service desert". The phrase, though, is not quite apt. Deserts tend to be warm, whereas customer service in Deutschland can be decidedly frigid.

Not that Germans are mean. Far from it. "The average German is friendly, he just has to show it," insists Economy Minister Michael Glos. But the universal sign of friendliness while providing service in hotels, restaurants and shops -- the smile -- is something most Germans just can't muster on the fly. It really isn't personal. Neither is the slow delivery of food and drink, which seems almost a matter of pride for German waitstaff. Which, come to think of it, may be where the idea of a "service desert" originates: there's a danger of dying of thirst before a fresh mug of beer shows up.

The country has been trying to fix the problem before the World Cup, with the recent launch of a "service and friendliness" campaign. The program aims to change centuries of hostile habits ingrained in charm-challenged Germans within a few short months. It seems like Sisyphean task. American-style friendliness is, after all, often equated with extreme superficiality by Germans. Treating customers as an unwelcome intrusion on an otherwise perfectly fine day in the shop is the norm.

If you walk into a store and say "Do you sell such-and-such," don't be surprised to hear a simple "No." Don't expect to hear "No, I'm afraid not," followed by an explanation of where you might find it. Accusatory complaints -- even outright refusal to complete a transaction -- when you are unable to cough up exact change is hardly uncommon. There are no official estimates of how much damage such obstinacy does to the German economy, but it must amount to the GNP of some of the smaller countries qualified for the World Cup.

What to do?

  • Never, ever show up to a restaurant in Germany absolutely famished or dying of thirst. "Appetizers" here refer to the excruciating wait until food and drink finally make an appearance. No matter when you last ate, you'll be plenty hungry by the time a waiter deigns to bring you your chow.
  • Don't swallow your anger. If you're being treated badly, feel free to pitch it right back. Germans admire directness and a show of resistance or even anger can lead to an immediate improvement in service. At the very least, it will make you feel better.
  • Be advised that when someone in the service industry says "I'll be right there!" it means you'll be served sometime within the next half hour.
  • If you're in a hurry, ask to pay as soon as you get your meal. Otherwise you may find yourself trying to attract the waiter's attention three times: first to order your food, then to ask for your bill, and finally to hand over the money because they often wander off after they've handed you the bill. Getting up, putting your coat and heading for the door prior to having paid may do the trick as well … .


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