Of course, some don’t know all the rules or do not feel comfortable sticking to them. Normally, it’s just a problem with nakedness–and there are workarounds for this (after all it’s pretty dark in a sauna). In my traditional sauna (in a hotel), an American couple actually managed to break 7 (seven) German sauna rules (and unwritten rules = customs) in one go today. Amazing. Let’s count:
1) They were not naked in the sauna. (He wore swimming trunks and she did the roulade and wrapped a big towel around her.)
Why is this bad? a) Common belief ascribes this to plain ignorance, but it is not true: everybody would wonder why everybody else is naked. It is a deliberate breaking of rules and traditions, and this is arseholery b) It’s antidemocratic. People might (or might not) take a glimpse at the body of a fellow sauna goer (without staring or being weird (rather like you see the face of a passerby in the street)), but they are, in turn, potential objects of such a brief and shy gaze–which, sort of, makes it okay. To wear clothes in a German sauna destroys this democratic reciprocity.
2) He wore swimming trunks in the sauna.
Why is this bad? a) Swimwear is normally made of fabric with synthetic components. These components are not made for temperatures above 40°C (this is why you wash such items at lower temperatures). If exposed to higher temperatures, toxic plasticisers are released into the air. So wearing swimwear in a sauna at 90°C actually puts the health of every sauna goer at risk as everybody inhales the vaporised toxins.
3) He sat on the wooden bench with his swimming trunks and without a towel.
Why is this bad? a) Clothes absorb sweat and dirt and, if you don’t wash them at at least 60°C, they become something like an old sponge that you use to wash your dishes: a breading ground for all sorts of bacteria. Especially if textiles are wet very often–like swimming trunks. b) The sweat as such. It leaves stains on the benches and bleaches the wood over time. This is why you put a towel under.
4) They had their bare feet on the wooden bench. (She because, you know, the roulade wouldn’t reach down to her feet, and him, well, he seemed satisfied with his trunks.)
Why is this bad? a) See 3b.
5) She used her mobile phone in the sauna. (I mean, not only in the chill-out and relax area of the sauna, but really in the 90°C sauna.)
Why is this bad? People frown upon mobile phones in the sauna because it a) contradicts the very idea of the sauna. You are there to relax. Staring at a screen isn’t relaxing. Having someone else’s screen stare at you isn’t relaxing either (imagine people using mobile phones in the cinema). b) Taking a camera (i.e. a phone) to a place where everybody (else) is naked is totally fucked up. (c) I don’t care about this point: It’s probably not good for the phone either.)
6) He took a plunge in the cold-water tank without showering first.
Why is this bad? a) Well, if you come out of the sauna, you are all sweaty. All this greasy mess will swim in the tank after you’ve had your dip.
7) He wore his swimming trunks in the cold-water tank.
Why is this bad? a) Please combine 6a) and 3a). Basically he rinsed his sweaty, greasy, germ-infested trunks in the tank for everybody else to share in. Thank you very much. The water turned from clear to the look of the brine you find in cans of tuna.
Should I have said something? Yes, definitely. But, where to begin? That’s just too many breaches of the god-given rules of the German sauna. And of common sense and reason.
PS: Does it matter that they were American? Probably not. There are people who do weird and dangerous things because they are prudish all over the planet. There are people who are totally ignorant of other (sub)cultures or of rules and traditions in general all over this planet. There are certainly people who break such rules knowingly and cannot be bothered. These people, commonly referred to as “arseholes” originate from all sorts of places. Just because the two were such clichés of Americans abroad doesn’t mean anything.