Why I’m Afraid to Have Surgery in Germany

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privacy in germany photo of man with hospital gown

I’m having minor knee surgery in Germany tomorrow and I’m freaking out.  Of course there’s the usual angst of having surgery, being worried that I won’t understand what the doctors and nurses are saying to me, or most importantly that I won’t be able to communicate that I need more pain killers pronto, but my real concern?  PRIVACY.

Privacy in Germany is an interesting concept for foreigners.  On the one hand, Germans are very private.  When Google Street View finally came to Germany, such a fuss was made over the privacy issue, that Germans were given an option to have their house blurred out of the photos.

Is this me? I’ll never tell!

Germans are also exceptionally gifted at keeping their private lives private from their colleagues and employer.  The only reason J.P.’s (my German fiance) boss found out that he had a Canadian girlfriend was when last year he had to ask for a couple of extra days off so that he could be with me for knee surgery in Canada and he had to provide a good reason for asking for the additional time off.  And this was after we had already been together for a year and a half.   J.P.’s boss found out he was engaged and getting married in August only because he had to ask for a few extra days off for our honeymoon, and that was almost a year after we had been engaged.  J.P. says he usually finds out that his colleagues were married after the fact, as in “How was your vacation?”  “It was great, I got married.”  I find it amusing that private lives are kept just that in Germany, private, from colleagues.  This is certainly not the case in Canada, where colleagues usually have at least some idea of what is going on in your personal life.

On the other extreme, privacy doesn’t seem to exist in certain aspects of life in Germany.    When it came time to providing us with our final grades in my German Language Course, the instructor verbally shared all of our grades with us before handing us our certificates.  When someone asked about the grades of a couple of students who were missing, she happily told everyone their grades as well and commented on their weaknesses.  I was completely shocked.  Absolutely no privacy.  I don’t think my grades are anyone elses business but my own, but my entire German class was now privy to my grades and vice versa.  It is  much different than in Canada where grades are kept confidential.

Privacy is also not required in Germany when it comes to the human body. Most saunas require that you enter naked, i.e. bathing suits are not allowed, although you can bring a towel.  So perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised at my first doctor’s appointment for my knee, when the doctor said, “OK, I’ll examine your knee now.”  J.P. who was sitting next to me, whispered “Take off your pants.”  I whispered back, “I will once the doctor and his assistant leave the room.”  J.P. bit his lip to keep from laughing “They’re not going to leave the room.  We’re not shy in Germany, like you are in Canada.”  OK, then.  So red faced, I proceed to take off my pants, while another assistant entered the room as well without knocking.  I was beyond grateful that I had worn a longer shirt that day.

I was commiserating with some expat friends, who then reveled in their stories of going to the gynecologist.  No blanket, no cover up…absolutely no privacy.  If I was worried before, I am now petrified and have been grilling J.P.  with daily questions such as “Will they make me walk down the hall with no pants on? Will they give me a gown? Can I insist on changing in private?  Will they let me cover up if I pretend that I’m cold? Can I explain that Canadians are more modest and that I want to be covered  up at all times?”  The last thing I want to worry about  as I’m getting ready for surgery is “Is my shirt covering my butt?”. J.P. finds it beyond hysterical that I’m so worried about it, but while I’m happy to share tidbits of my personal life with colleagues, I really like my privacy when it comes to certain things, like not walking down a hallway showing my butt to everyone in sight,  thank you very much!

Update:  See how the surgery went at:  Culture Shock in a German Hospital.

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About Author

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Laurel
Laurel Robbins is the founder of Monkeys and Mountains Adventure Travel. She's passionate about getting outdoors as often as possible and helping travellers do the same on their vacation in a sustainable way. She's Canadian and grew up in the Canadian Rockies but now lives in Munich, Germany. You can find her skiing or hiking in the mountains most weekends, hanging out with her cat or with her nose in a good book.

Comments

Kikicat
March 31, 2011
"Will they make me walk down the hall with no pants on?" I couldn't help but laugh. You get through this, and I think you'll find the other aspects of German Culture a lot easier to deal with! Good luck from C, F, and Q!
Laurel
March 31, 2011
@Kikicat - Glad I made you laugh. I guess it's better that I'm worried about this than whether the doctors are qualified or if the operating room is sterile, in the whole scheme of things :)
Sabrina
March 31, 2011
Oh, I feel for you! I have never been fully comfortable going to the doctor here, because of a multitude of things (different customs, medical terms I might not know in English, etc.) . I guess it's just about what you're used to. Regarding getting naked in front of your doc... I actually feel it's weird how there's such a big fuss about it here in Texas. In my mind, it shouldn't be sexual or weird. He sees this stuff so often. By trying to hide things, I feel as though it is more sexualized than it should be... Does that make sense? But I guess it's all about what one is used too :) Anyways, good luck for the surgery!! I'm sure they'll give you all the pain killers you need. If not, keep telling them "Ich brauche mehr Schmerztabletten!!!".
March 31, 2011
I hope you don't have to walk down the hall with your pants off! It's an interesting point you make though- why are we private about somethings and not others? Why are grades private but people will talk about their private lives at work? Seems incongruous and yet because it's our culture we think nothing of it. Good luck with your surgery! I hope all goes well!
March 31, 2011
Haha funny post! Hope the op goes well, I'm sure it will!
Laurel
March 31, 2011
@Sabrina - Thanks for sharing your experience. My German fiance finds it really strange as well at how much it bothers me, and you're right we probably overdo privacy in Canada and the U.S. but it's what I'm used to and comfortable with. Thanks for the German, this is really all I need to know :) @Jillian - I agree, it really is interesting how privacy is viewed in different cultures. @Jozef - Thanks and thanks everyone for the well wishes, I appreciate it. P.S. Announcing I'm having knee surgery is a very unGerman thing to do, since Germans would normally be private about such a thing :)
March 31, 2011
This is one of those parts of society that takes longer to get used to. It just feels freaky and weird. I have however had really good luck with the quality of care here. Just be honest and explain that you want to be covered. I did have one incident where a doctor harshly criticized the nurse, about my care and time I had to wait while I was still in the room. Maybe it was normal somehow, but it really bugged me. The reverse is also a bit strange for them. To be so open like we would be in the Americas to someone you just met seems to freak them out a little bit. Not to mention discussing such things in the open internet. I had to have blood taken at one point for alergy test. Yet they didn't tell me this until I got there, so I was so stressed that they pricked me and the blood wouldn't flow. I didn't even know that COULD happen. But she was really patient and said no problem. The second one even talked in English about her trip to LA with me. It helped. Good luck on Surgery and Privacy
Laurel
March 31, 2011
@Andrew - Agreed and I have had good care here too, it's just been different. I think your suggestion of being honest is a good one, since it will likely be foreign to them. When I had knee surgery in Canada, my German fiance couldn't believe how careful they were at making sure nothing was peeking out. He found it unnecessary and verging on ridiculous, although I was comfortable with it. Glad to hear that you've had good experiences with the medical system. I was really surprised that when they had to draw blood a few days before my surgery and was being a baby, the nurse was also very nice and understanding.
March 31, 2011
Hi Laurel! I'm so glad I found your blog. I'm originally from Germany but have just moved to... wait for it... Canada! The privacy conundrum is interesting, I agree. I guess the issue with doctors is quite simple - he's the specialist, you're there for his professional services, and that's all it is. I do understand your point though. I had the reverse experience when moving to England!
March 31, 2011
Laurel, I love your blog! It reveals so many things to me about the Germans I just thought would be normal... :) and that I'm often not German at all... I do LOVE talking about private stuff at work. But yes my house is also blurred out on Google Street View (one of my neighbours did...) actually I dont care...:))) good luck for the surgery!! and: please please come and visit me in Berlin! :)
March 31, 2011
Interesting! So far any time I've needed to take anything off at the doctor, they gesture me behind a curtain to do it. I actually like this better than in the US where the doctor would leave the room and be gone at least five times as long as it actually took me to undress - it's faster this way! I had to cross a hall pantsless once and I was ready to go ahead and do it, but they gave me a little towel to cover up. I like the gyn chairs here too - I think they're much easier to get in and out of than climbing on and off the little beds in the US.
March 31, 2011
Oh gosh, this post had me chuckling and feeling a little uncomfortable too :) I had never thought about the privacy issue before. Guess I just assumed everyone did it like we do in the US! So much more to this expat thing than I thought! Best wishes with your surgery!
March 31, 2011
Laurel, I understand exactly what you mean. I couldn't imagine having to undress in front of someone....just goes to show you how different we can be culturally....but it does make life a whole lot more interesting!
March 31, 2011
You have left me wondering if your anxiety or the knee surgery is the greater threat. ;-) Each culture has different rules and perceptions. I say, go for it. Relax and enjoy something new. Have some fun. And best wishes on a excellent experience. I am sure everything will work out just fine. Next time, it is not necessary for you to cover my butt in the photograph. After 36 years of marriage and raising daughters, any semblance I might have once had about personal dignity is long gone. I say, flaunt it, girl. Bonne chance, mon amie!
March 31, 2011
Ooooh, this was a fantastic insight into German privacy. How bizarre the contradictions are. I'd be mortified if the teacher shouted my grades out.
March 31, 2011
I spent three years teaching in Berlin and I remember well my horror at the lack of gowns for gynocologist exams. I learned to wear a long tee shirt or something that covered me. I will say the care and treatment is exceptional. I had great doctors and was really pleased with all my medical care. My single complaint....German's seem to have a high pain tolerance and when I had dental surgery I had to call my family dr and request additional pain medication because the dentist was insistent that what she gave me was strong enough. I don't think so. I got more and finally was comfortable as I healed. I hope you're surgery and hospital care offer you the privacy you need.
March 31, 2011
A few teacher friends here in Canada told me that some schools aren't even allowed to use red ink when they correct tests anymore -- makes the student feel like a failure when the see red. I think it's hilarious they actually yell out the grades. Hopefully you were on the honour roll and had nothing to worry about...:>)
March 31, 2011
Don't have any experience with German privacy issues, but can totally understand your apprehension. That said, relax, don't worry about anything, and just take care of yourself so that you have quick recovery! Good luck with your surgery -- let us know how everything goes (and if you had to walk down the hall with no pants on)!
Grace
April 1, 2011
This is very interesting. I really thought that Germans were pretty private. Coming from a conservative culture I would feel very uncomfortable undressing in front of a crowd of medical professionals. Ugh!
April 1, 2011
Ok now I have another reason to be freaked out about moving there. So you mean at the gyno you're just *totally* naked?!? Why on earth would you not tell coworkers you're engaged but then be completely fine with a bunch of strangers in a hospital seeing you naked? So far I've mostly only been freaking out about the things & people I'm leaving behind, but now I'm freaked about getting to Germany & dealing with this medical non-privacy stuff. Ugh.
April 1, 2011
I'm enjoying getting to know your blog since I "discovered" it the other day. This getting naked thing is much discussed here apropros beaches. On most (probably all ) beaches topless is ok, and there are a few where naked is ok........and they are frequented mostly by? Yes, Germans. I would love to be so relaxed about it, but I just can't! Then again, I really wouldn't want to afflict my aging body on anyone's eyesight either!
April 1, 2011
I guess being a guy it might be a little bit easier. If they want to stare I'll let them stare, haha.
April 1, 2011
oh laurel! i'm thinking of you today and hoping it's going well...and that you didn't have to walk down the hall with no pants! LOL love this post! just sorry you need surgery.
April 1, 2011
I've never been completely naked at the GYN but I haven't gotten a gown either. I just leave my shirt on and then lift my shirt for a breast exam after I've put my panties back on. I've had surgery while in Germany and I don't think I was ever completely naked in front of anyone ever. You wear your own nightgown while in the hospital and before surgery was given a gown to wear plus anti thrombosis stockings to put on before surgery. I stayed in my bed the morning of my surgery and was wheeled down in it to the OR prep area. What you may have to get used to is that if you don't have private insurance you'll likely have to have a room and many times they're rooms for four patients. And there's no privacy curtains in them. Of course every hospital can be different and most of my exams and pre-op prep was done in a separate private room. I am a very modest person and I was able to just grit my teeth and get through it. After a while you just forget about it.
April 3, 2011
So easy to laugh along at this post - because I know it's not me in that situation. :) Hope your surgery goes well. I've heard nothing but good things about German medical treatment. Julia
Laurel
April 3, 2011
@Christina - Thanks for stopping by, where in Canada are you living? I agree that the doctors in Germany have been very professional, there's nothing sexual about it, but it is still strange for me. @Yvonne - Thanks so much. Sometimes the best way to learn about your culture is through someone else's eyes. I've learned so much about Canada from immigrants to Canada who notice things I've never thought twice about. Will definitely come and visit you in Berlin, hopefully soon. @CN Heidelberg - I like the idea of a curtain as well since it would save a lot of time, but I would like a curtain :). I haven't seen the gyn chairs here, but have heard of them. They sound fine, but I really would like a towel to cover up. @Debbie - Glad it made you chuckle. I find expat life is much easier when you can laugh at the things that make you uncomfortable but I have a follow up to this post on something that made me REALLY uncomfortable. @Renee - I never would have thought that getting undressed would be a cultural difference, but clearly I was mistaken it and you're right it does make things interesting. @Barry - You recognized the photo? Oops, sorry about that :). After 2 years and 23 doctors later looking at my knee, I'm used to the pain, but am not used to getting undressed in front of strangers, which is normally a good thing. @Ben - I know, complete contradictions right? One of my German friends said that some teachers find it "motivating" to share grades so that the students that didn't do so good, will try harder next time. @Lisa - I agree, I've received exceptional medical care in Germany. Interesting that you mentioned the pain killers, as I've heard that from several expat friends as well. Fortunately that wasn't an issue for me. @Raymond - I've heard about the red pen thing too and think it's ridiculous. I guess it just goes to show that something like privacy can be very different culturally. I did good, thanks :) @Cathy - Thanks so much! I'll be sure to wear big underwear - just in case. @Grace - I think that Germans are pretty private, just not with the human body. It's been an adjustment for me as well. @Ali - I think at the gyno you're naked from the waist down and you're allowed to leave your shirt on, so perhaps it's best to go in the U.S. before you move here. The quality of care here is exceptional though and far better than what I've received in Canada so while you may be uncomfortable, you will receive excellent medical treatment. @islandmomma - Thanks so much. That's the interesting thing about Germany, is that many Germans (not all) are comfortable walking around naked regardless of their weight, size, wrinkles, etc. Talk about body confidence. @Matt - LOL, yes, you guys have it easier in so many ways! @Julia - Glad you got a laugh and laughing about it makes it easier to get through it :)
Andrea
April 4, 2011
Hope it goes well and wishing you a speedy recovery! John had day surgery in Australia last year and I didn't feel like much was private, even in the private hospital. Recovery rooms tend to be big open rooms everywhere in the world from my experience (I worked in one once for general surgery). But can totally understand your fears!
Eastgale
April 5, 2011
That’s the interesting thing about Germany, is that many Germans (not all) are comfortable walking around naked regardless of their weight, size, wrinkles, etc. Talk about body confidence. That is one of the things I really envy the Germans-they can be so comfortable with their body. Coming from an Asian culture, I can never do that - and in that regard, I think English culture is a lot more comfortable to me compare to the German ones, but I still envy them. One of my German colleagues had made an interesting remark about body parts/sex and violence in the films. He said that in German movies, no one bats an eye about body parts and sex, but everyone freaks out when there's a tiny ounce of violence; but for American movies, viewers are much more concern about sexual themes and not that much about violence. I find that very interesting.
Laurel
April 5, 2011
@ Thanks Andrea and interesting that the open rooms are common. The only other hospital I've stayed in was in Bangkok, and they had curtains (or at least my room did). I guess it's not a big deal if you're not expecting them, but nice to have if you are used to them. Eastgale - Me too, I which I was that comfortable walking around naked. Interesting what you said about sex and violence in the films. I haven't seen many German movies, but I've heard what you've said is true and you're definitely right that everyone is very concerned about sexual themes in American movies and ensuring that the correct rating is given to to the film. Funny how different cultures view things so differently.
Mich
April 6, 2011
And yet the Germans are shocked when they come to the US and the public bathrooms have slits around the door whereas in Germany the public bathrooms are all almost in their own private room. My American friend got locked in a German bathroom once -- the door wouldn't unlock once she was done. She had to wait at least 15 minutes for someone from the restaurant to let her out. THAT couldn't happen in the US!
Laurel
April 6, 2011
@Mich - Excellent point, the bathrooms in Germany are usually much more private. Your poor friend, I'm always worried that would happen, but didn't think it actually would.
Marita
April 6, 2011
What a fun post! I grew up in Germany, live in the US now and unfortunately have hospital experiences in both countries. All I can tell you is that surgeons have the ability to look at your body in a complete detached objective way and many doctors I've dealt with (US and German) have made my modesty go right out the door! My tip: When you're at a hospital (US and German) simply ask for two gowns, one to cover the front and one to cover your backside. So basically you wear one the right way and one in reverse. Also, in a German hospital it is usually ok to bring your own gown. Yes, Germans are extremely private when it comes to personal information. This hails back to the nazi days when people where watched, phones tapped and every word you said about yourself or anyone else could be used against you. We were all brought up this way to 'not share' personal info because it could be dangerous. There was always great anxiety about it. (My parents grew up during the war.) This also shows in the fact that pretty much none of my German friends are on facebook! They're all worried about surveillance and actually the German terms of use for facebook include much stricter privacy controls. But as you have noticed the German people are usually very comfortable in their physical bodies - no matter how they look! I'm not like that, but I did try going to saunas and nude beaches - not for me - at all :)
Laurel
April 7, 2011
@Marita - Great tip, and I was pleased to see that after my surgery I was allowed to wear my own clothes, much more comfortable. Regarding the privacy issue, what you've said totally makes sense now, especially in regards to Google Streetview. Interesting about Facebook, but now that you mention it, a lot of my German friends aren't on Facebook either, or if they are, their profiles have limited info. I admire how comfortable Germans are with their bodies, although I don't think I will ever feel comfortable walking around naked in public, no matter how long I'm here. Very interesting discussion, thanks so much for your comments.
Marita
April 8, 2011
@Laurel Glad to hear you're done with your surgery - hope it went well? Yes, Google Streetview was another story that made people very nervous. Germany was the first country to negotiate with Google to allow citizens to opt out before the service went live. I've also read that as of last year over 250,000 Germans have requested that their properties' pictures be blurred so they're not recognizable. Oh and the issue about violence and sex in the movies is so true! There is no problem with some nudity in German movies without rating, even kids' movies. It's just a very natural thing. But when it comes to violence, there is no joking, in movies and video games as well. The most violent video games aren't permitted to be sold at all, or have to be modified beforehand. Other violent games have to be kept under the counter and can only be sold upon request. BTW, do you have a way to sign up for emails when you post?
Wanted Adventure
April 19, 2011
Hello! Great post! I live in Munich, and my German fiance and I found this post extremely amusing. I know just what you are talking about. Really interesting how a culture of people can be so reserved in everyday affairs but then fine with exposing their bodies to each other! lol I mean, I can chat with the woman checking me out at the grocery store, but we can hang out naked together in the community sauna? lol
Laurel
April 21, 2011
@Bluegreen Kirk - The cultural differences between privacy is such an interesting one. For me it's not a big deal if my house shows up on Google, but when it comes to the human body, that's a different matter :) @Marita - I didn't realize that Germany was the first country to negotiate with Google and that 250,000 opted out of Streetview, very interesting. Thanks for sharing. Regarding the Email, excellent point. I don't have one, but you can subscribe by RSS, but I will work on getting one in the next couple of weeks. Thanks for pointing this out. @Wanted Adventure - Glad someone else could relate and appreciates the juxtapositions :)
Skytimes
April 23, 2011
Interesting read... thanks for sharing. I clearly remember the (us) doctor's shocked face when I started to take off my pants right beside her. She started to leave the room right when I told her I was done and we could start (already on the chair, spread legs and all). She smiled confused and asked me if this is how we roll in germany. I guess so. Before that I wasn't aware of the differences and it's interesting (and admittedly giggle-inducing) to read your story from the other point of view.
May 2, 2011
Really interesting post. When I read the headline, I thought that you were afraid about the skills of the doctors - English wouldn't be a subject for me because German doctors speak English. To think about the privacy issue never came to my mind. However I don't think that somebody makes you walk up the hallway with your butt for everyone in sight. It isn't that they want you to feel bad because you are so exposed, maybe they just don't imagine that you feel this way about it.
amandapoverseas
October 16, 2011
On one hand I think American convention to have the Dr leave and then come back only to move the gown and see the same thing you covered up is a little silly. On the other hand it's also kind of awkward to just undress. I didn't realize they do that in Germany so I'm glad you mention it (although I'll most likely have a doctor on the military installation so I think they'll probably go by American conventions, though I don't know). As to the privacy at work, on one hand that's kind of cool because, really, personal life isn't much of the employer's business. On the other hand, usually people do sort of have an idea what's going on. In the case of my last job, actually, I don't know how many of my coworkers would function in a country where everyone didn't allow them up in their business lol. I usually don't mind sharing my life with people I work with to a degree. If they judge or disagree with it, well that's their issue. But I probably wouldn't mind not being asked either.
Lara
June 23, 2016
It is kind of funny seeing it from that perspective, although, being German it is hard for me to understand why being naked is a big deal. I notice sometimes in the sauna. the Americans behave very strangely ,insisting on keeping their bathing suits on. In German this is not a good idea because usually a lot old ladies will start bitching at you for being nasty and unhygenic. Also in Germany only strange and mentaly disturbed people leave on their clothes in the Sauna. I find it odd and sad, that Americans and Canadians are so ashamed of their own bodies. The first time I met my husband parents was at the beach and everybody was stark naked. I told this to an American friend and she just could not believe that I did not leave. Americans seem to associate nakedness always with sex for some reason. She also was of the opinion that she herself should not be naked , because she was to fat. What the hell has that got to do with anything? I think it comes form the association with sex. Ah well, cultural differences :-) Stil it must be very exhausting to be so ashamed of your own skin. Just practice, everybody is beautiful.

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