After living in Germany for nearly three years, I’ve slowly picked up on the most important German manners and etiquette. Some customs were easy to adapt to (or very similar to what I was used to in Canada), while others continue to elude or puzzle me to this very day.
I’ve compiled a brief guide to German manners and etiquette here to help you out during your first social encounters in Germany. This list is by no means comprehensive, but I think you’ll find it a good jumping off point for learning about German social customs.
- It is considered rude to show up late to an appointment or when meeting people. Aim to arrive at least five to 10 minutes early to important appointments. If you really cannot avoid being late, call to let others know you cannot make it on time. (I really hate to be late, but of course now and again it’s unavoidable. I’ve noticed that I’m generally a lot more punctual now since living in Germany).
- It is common to shake hands with people when arriving and departing. Also, it is considered polite to shake women’s hands first if there are women and men present. Kisses on both cheeks are reserved for very close friends only but are not required.
- With strangers and superiors, always use the formal form of address, ‘Sie’, unless explicitly invited to use the more informal form of address, ‘du’. The older or higher-ranking person should always be the one to suggest switching to the more familiar form. An invitation to use ‘du’ is also an invitation to be on a first name basis with each other. This form of etiquette is extremely important and should be adhered to as much as possible to avoid causing offense or assuming over-familiarity. (One of my German teachers told us an awkward story of her prematurely using ‘du’ with a slightly older colleague at university and being told, ‘Oh, I don’t think we’re quite there yet’. Be forewarned!)
- When entering a shop, elevator, or office, it is polite to greet everyone inside. A simple ‘Guten Tag!’ (‘good day’) will do. When departing, say ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ (‘good bye’) even if you’ve not said anything else between then and your opening greeting. (I found this a little bizarre at first, especially in a doctor’s office. Everyone says hello to fellow patients in a waiting room then promptly ignores everyone afterward.)
On the Telephone
- People address themselves by their last name when answering the phone. (Ex. ‘Schmidt’ rather than ‘Hello?’). If calling a family home, children will answer the phone with their first and last name, while parents will only say their last name. (I am not a big fan of answering the phone, and when I do, I usually can see who’s calling on my mobile phone ahead of time with caller ID so I know whether to answer in German or in English).
- It is considered polite to pass on your greetings to the spouse, partner or children of the person you are talking to on the phone, whether it’s been only a day or an entire year since you last talked. This is the custom when speaking with friends and family and is not done in the workplace.
Eating a Meal
- When dining at home or in someone else’s home, wait for the host or hostess to say ‘Guten Appetit!’ (the equivalent of the French ‘Bon appetit!’) before eating. Beginning to eat before this signal is considered impolite. (I am guilty of forgetting to wait for the signal and diving in to my plate a little too early sometimes. I’m working on it!)
- Try to finish everything on your plate whether you’re a guest in someone’s home or eating at a restaurant. It is considered wasteful to leave lots of food on your plate.
- At a busy restaurant or beer garden, it is not uncommon to share a table with strangers, especially if most tables are full. Before sitting down, first ask if a seat is free (‘Ist dieser Platz noch frei?’). You are not required to chat with the other diners at the table, though it may be welcome. Before departing, bid your fellow diners farewell.
- To accept an offer, you can say ‘bitte’ (which means ‘please’). To politely refuse an offer, you can say ‘danke’ (which means ‘[no] thank you’).
- When offered a beverage in a business or social setting, say immediately if you want one. If you refuse the offer, it will not come around again since you’ve already been asked once. It is considered pushy for a host to offer again.
- When toasting, it is important to look everyone in the eye. It is common to clink glasses and say ‘Zum Wohl’ (‘to your health’) or ‘Prost’ (‘cheers’).
- When drinking a round of beer, everyone should tap their glass on the table before taking their first sip.
In the Office/Home
- Germans generally appreciate quietness and privacy. Therefore, it is common to close doors to rooms whether they are occupied or not. A closed door does not signal that someone does not want to be disturbed. A closed bathroom door does not mean that the bathroom is necessarily occupied. When in doubt, knock first. (I am terrible at closing doors. To me, an open (or half-open) door means ‘Come in! No privacy needed here.’ I am constantly forgetting to close doors in my own home and in others’ homes. Sorry!)
- In Germany, it is customary for the person celebrating their birthday to bring in something to share with their classmates or coworkers, such as cake, muffins or pretzels. Not doing so is seen as inconsiderate. (I got in trouble for not doing this on my birthday when I was taking German classes. I didn’t mention my birthday since I thought I would be calling attention to myself. It turns out I was being rude for not bringing in treats to share. Whoops!)
These are just some of the customs I’ve picked up since living in Germany. Of course, there are also particular regional customs and differences in opinion on what is considered polite. When in doubt, just ask a local what would be considered appropriate in a particular situation or follow the lead of others around you.
What customs and manners were new to you when you moved to Germany or to your new country? Let me know in the comments below!
P.S. I’ve put together a new category of all my Expat Focus articles to make them easier to find. Check them out here: Expat Focus articles.