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Every culture has its own particular traditions and customs, as well as social etiquette – that set of unspoken rules about how to behave. The rules differ from culture to culture, yet most reflect the fact that, as humans, we are a species comprised of infallibly social creatures. Learning about a country’s etiquette can help us navigate awkwardness, establish personal boundaries, and determine the appropriate ways to express and conduct ourselves in social situations. Here’s what you need to know if you find yourself in Germany.
In German etiquette one thing is for sure: extending greetings to those you encounter is critical. When entering a room, at restaurants and shops, at the gym or doctor’s office – it is expected that one say hallo (hello) in greeting and tschüss (bye) on the way out, even if you don’t know anyone there. It’s not limited to interactions in person either. On the phone, for instance, don’t forget to extend greetings to housemates and relatives of the person you’re speaking with, even if you don’t know any of them personally. In German, they are known as the unbekannterweise, or the ‘unbeknownst.’
In German culture it is important that people make eye contact with one another when clinking glasses. This rule is bolstered by the belief that failing to do so will condemn you to seven years of bad luck… more specifically in the form of bad sex. Also, while in some cultures refusing a beverage when offered might be a sign of politeness that prompts the host to insist, in Germany it’s best to back off when someone declines a drink. Overall though, Germans have an admirably lax attitude towards consuming alcohol – the legal drinking age for beer and wine is low, at merely 16 – and it is acceptable to drink outside, so don’t be surprised by open containers in parks and on public transport.
No list of cultural etiquette practices would be complete without a rundown of proper comportment at the table. For starters, it’s important to eat as quietly as possible. Making slurping sounds, snorts, or other noises as a result of eating is quite inappropriate. Furthermore, it is polite to keep your hands visible on the table. Lastly, when eating out, don’t be surprised if a waiter seats others at the empty spaces at your table. While this is common mainly at more casual eateries, it does happen, so be forewarned.
We are all familiar with the awkwardness of having to squeeze by people who are sitting in the same row as us, in an effort to reach our seats at the theater or cinema. One might consider winging it, but in Germany order tends to prevail. Crossing people front-wise is the law of the land. Should you slide to your chair with your backside to the people seated, your are likely to offend with each successive step.
Many languages have both formal and informal means of addressing others and, if you plan on practicing your German during your visit, it’s good to differentiate between the two. Sie (you) is the formal way of addressing others, and it is often used with elders, acquaintances, and in professional settings. Feel free to interchange Sie with the person’s name, as Germans tend to make a particular point of doing this. However, leave it up to the older or higher ranking person to decide when it’s time to switch to the friendlier, more informal du (you).
Germans make concerted efforts to minimize their carbon footprint and generate less waste, and take recycling very seriously. Most garbage zones consist of bins for landfill waste, paper and glass, which is often further divided into ‘brown,’ ‘green’ and ‘white’ categories. Take the time to separate your waste or you might risk a reprimanding. Pro tip: Return your plastic and glass bottles and get a portion of their price returned. Or, leave glass bottles beneath garbage cans for those in need to collect them and get back the pfand.
Birthday celebrations come with their own set of commemorative rituals, one of them involving cake. However, unlike other cultures that practice the ritual of cake-cutting, on their birthdays Germans are expected to bring their own cake or treats to share with work colleagues, class mates or friends. The unspoken reasoning behind this ritual is that the birthday person supplies the cake and refreshments, while the guests shower them with gifts in return. Fair enough!
Speaking of birthdays, Germans are exceptionally at ease in their birthday suits. From naked conversations between acquaintances in locker rooms and saunas, to commercials on basic cable with people bearing all, the human body undressed is not necessarily met with shock or horror. At beaches, parks and even nightclubs, public nudity can be a commonly accepted aspect of life. It is important to note, however, that this culture of nudity does not carry sexual connotations.
Despite public nudity and extending greetings to strangers, Germans are still fairly private people. Such is evident by a common practice to keep doors closed, even when the rooms are unoccupied or when visitors are welcome into them. If you need to enter a room with a closed door, at the office or the home of a friend, simply knock before entering. It’s not necessary to wait for a reply and chances are you won’t be disturbing anyone.
Most people would agree that leaving the house with wet hair on a winter day isn’t very comfortable, while attending a business meeting with wet hair certainly isn’t very professional. However, Germans take this matter to another level, and it is in fact quite frowned upon to leave the house with wet hair. The same applies to the gym after a shower, or after using the swimming pool, so be sure to pack a hairdryer if necessary. You’re welcome.