Etiquette Essentials - Tips for Avoiding Awkwardness in Germany

Many people spend their first few months in a new country walking on eggshells, careful not to offend the sensibilities of their new neighbors. Fortunately, Germans tend to be well-aware of cultural differences, and will generally be understanding of your early faux pas. If you want to avoid this awkwardness, here are a few tips to help you understand interpersonal etiquette in Germany.

Saying Hello...

  • Germans shake hands when meeting and departing, and usually don't kiss cheeks.
  • Personal space is very important; be sure that you know you are close to someone before you start hugging everyone you meet, even if you're used to doing it back home. 

 ...and Goodbye

  • Always say goodbye when leaving a shop; a simple 'Tschüss' will suffice. The same goes for elevators; when you enter, it's common for everyone to say hello ('guten tag'), and when you leave, they'll say goodbye. 

Don't use the wrong "you"

  • Whenever you're not sure about how to address someone, always use the polite form ‘Sie’. Younger people generally don't mind the familiar 'du', but it's always better to be safe. If you want to ask to change, say "Könnten wir uns duzen?" but only if you have a reasonable expectation that the other person will say yes. 
  • If you switch to 'du' with someone, you can also start referring to them on a first name basis. This is especially useful in emails, but always lead with "Herr/Frau" until you're given the go-ahead to switch.

Meeting people

  • Germans are sticklers for punctuality. Always try to be at least five to 10 minutes early. If you're held up, call to make sure that they know; people understand there are extenuating circumstances, but they still want to be informed.

Eating out

  • Like most people from most countries, Germans start most every meal by wishing everyone at the table well. Always wait say 'Guten Appetit!' before starting you meal (or wait until someone else says it). You'll also hear 'enjoy your meal!' from your German friends; there's no good translation in English, so this is what they're taught in school.
  • It's common for a friend or colleague to pick up the bill when dining. They'll do so by saying "Ich lade dich ein," which translates directly as "I'll invite you". If someone tells you this in English, know that they're offering to treat you for the meal.
  • To accept, say ‘bitte’ (which means ‘please’). To politely refuse, you can say ‘danke’ (or 'nein, Danke').

...and drinking

  • If you arrive at a bar or beer garden and find every table full but see some space free at a nearby table, just walk up and ask ‘Ist dieser Platz noch frei?’ (Is this seat taken?). It's not uncommon for strangers to share a table, and it's a great way to meet people.
  • Before drinking, it's common to offer a toast. Always look your friends in the eyes when doing so; if you don't know why, asking for the explanation is a good icebreaker. 
  • In order to avoid potential injury, the half liter glasses that Hefeweizen is served in come with thick glass bottoms. Instead of clinking your glass at the top and breaking it, use the bottom section. Otherwise, your first few months may be especially uncomfortable.