The voice at the other end of the phone was accusing, the caller an angry manager from the human-resources department. Had theft of office staples been discovered? Was someone taking too long for a tea break? No, it was none of those.
“You have 10 days of your holidays remaining,” the voice scolded. “You really must take them, you know. You will not be able to use them next year.”
And with that, she hung up – but not before providing yet another piece of evidence to support what English-speaking employees in Germany have long known: Germans take their holidays seriously. Very seriously.
One local tells of receiving an Excel sheet to plan for a weekend away. Another talks about the defiant “screw you” attitude with which Germany closes down every August. In 2014, German carmaker Daimler introduced a new e-mail policy that epitomizes that approach. Sending an e-mail to a Daimler staff member on holiday would return a message stating: “I am on vacation. I cannot read your email. Your email is being deleted.”
Then there were the so-called “beach towel wars,” which broke out when German vacationers started putting their towels on lounge chairs at Mediterranean resorts early in the morning in order to reserve the best spots by the pool. The resulting fracas between German and British tourists made headlines in both countries' newspapers. Obviously, more easy-going travellers are fools who do not understand that sunbathing is a stern pursuit.
You could call that behavior “typically German,” psychologist Michael Thiel, who often appears on local television to discuss the national state of mind, told the Bild newspaper at the time. “Behind it is a desire to be in control. That goes for holidays too.”
In Germany, Holidays are a Human Right.
So why do the Germans take their holidays so seriously? There’s a short answer. As one German puts it: “We’re German. We take everything seriously.” But there’s also a long answer, which has much to do with the national disposition, workplace culture and history.
Before the 20th century it was usually only German nobles who took holidays. By 1903, German workers still only had about three days off a year. But by 1945, almost everyone was getting two weeks off.
This had much to do with the Weimar Republic, the unofficial name for Germany after World War I, between 1919 and 1933. At the beginning of that period, the newly founded Social Democratic party embarked on a renovation of the social welfare system. And by early 1928, around three-quarters of all employees in Germany could claim between eight and 12 days off. Political groups of various kinds, from the Socialists themselves to unions to nature lobbyists, happily organized instructive holidays for their members’ own good.
It was the era of the uber-organized holiday for ordinary Germans; and as anyone who’s ever received an Excel sheet about a weekend away will testify, the cultural hangover from that has lasted.
As the National Socialists came to power in the 1930s, they introduced a new institute called “Kraft durch Freude,” or Strength Through Joy, commonly known as the KdF. The Nazis curtailed the rights of trade unions and employees but offered more vacation time, between 12 and 21 days a year. KdF offshoots such as the charmingly named Office for Travel, Hiking and Holidays organized vacations for millions of Germans between 1934 and 1939.
This was more than the beginning of mass tourism: The Nazis believed that time off was vital for the efficient functioning of the German economy, the health of the German worker and, eventually, the success of the German war machine. This notion – that holidays are essential for the health of German business – is still around.
“My friends with 9-to-5 jobs at places like Siemens plan their whole year around their holidays,” says one Stuttgart native. “But it’s not just for fun. They definitely go on holiday so that they are in good condition to go back to work.” A Berlin local adds: “Germans vacation to work, rather than work to vacation.”
Other more poetic aspects also affect the German attitude towards holidays. “For natures like mine a journey is invaluable; it animates, corrects, instructs and develops,” the playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe noted in a 1797 letter. That is, a holiday should have a more noble purpose: self-improvement.
The standard clichés about behavior in the German workplace may also be applied to the German holiday: Punctuality, directness, clear objectives, an emphasis on rules and regulations, a sense of control and avoiding uncertainty.
Some of those clichés are proven by research. According to OECD numbers, on average Germans work less than most countries; in 2016 it was around 1,363 hours a year. They also have a comparatively high number of days off. German law says employees working a five-day week should get a minimum of 20 days off a year, and many employers offer more. Add public holidays, and the number goes up to around 39 days off annually. Yet German productivity, measured as GDP per head divided by hours worked, is valued at about $105.70. That's about $4 more than in the US, where Americans work over 400 hours more than the Germans each year and have fewer holidays.
Expats working here also encounter an unexpected and almost clinical separation between the private and public sphere when it comes to socializing. In Germany, the line is clear: Work hard, then play hard, and be sure to keep the two separate.
A 2016 Ipsos study for Europ Assistance, a travel insurance network, found that of all Europeans, Germans were most determined about maintaining that line between work and play. Eighty percent of Germans surveyed wanted to forget all about the office while on holiday. Other countries in the poll were at least 10 points less likely to log off, and Americans were even less likely, with only 53 percent shutting out their professional life while on vacation.
Americans tend to see long hours at their desks as a badge of honor. They “martyr themselves to the job,” one commentator suggests; another study found that only 31 percent of Americans take all of their allotted holidays. Germans may well see that differently. Too much overtime is an embarrassment, it means you couldn’t complete your allotted tasks in the given time.
Worth noting too: Germans – and in fact, most Europeans - take almost all of their vacation days. To this century, they see them as a federally-mandated, and completely necessary, human right. And what the German government has given, no manager (or any urgent business on August 1st) can take away.
Cathrin Schaer is an editor at Handelsblatt Global.