What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about German people?
You’ve probably heard things like “German people are always on time,” and “They’re direct and have good manners.” Well, I would say this is almost always the case. But now the question is: What are these so-called good manners and what does German etiquette look like?
Almost every nation defines this a little bit different. Let’s just take some Asian countries, such as China, for example. While in most European countries, you can’t burp, smack, or slurp at the table, in most Asian cultures this is called good etiquette. This means that the food was tasty and that you’re satisfied. But when doing this at the table of a German family, this would be considered bad table etiquette; they might think your parents didn’t show you how to use a spoon at home.
But on the other hand, in Asia, you shouldn’t touch your nose at the table. Can you see anything bad about touching or scratching your nose at the table if you need to? At least in Germany, this wouldn’t be a problem.
What I want to show you is this: Other countries = Other morals and manners.
In this article, we want to show you the Do’s and Don’ts in Germany. Be aware that these German etiquette tips might apply to other German-speaking countries, such as Switzerland and Austria (but not necessarily, as their cultures differ from ours in Germany).
Table of Contents
Do’s and Don’ts for Dining German Social Etiquette in Public Places German Greeting Etiquette: Do’s and Don’ts for Greetings German Guest Etiquette: Manners When Visiting Another House German Travel Etiquette: Do’s and Don’ts in Public Transports German Business Culture and Etiquette: How to Behave in Business How to be a Good Part of German Society How GermanPod101 Can Help You Learn More German
1. Do’s and Don’ts for Dining
As mentioned above, when it comes to etiquette at the table in general, it becomes really difficult to handle as every culture is different. Even within Europe, you’ll find differences. For example, while French people like to extend their dinners until very late, Germans just try to finish as fast as possible. I guess we just try to be more efficient. Here are some German etiquette dining do’s and don’ts.
1- Don’t: Eat with an open mouth or make unnatural noises.
While in other cultures, burping or smacking might be a signal that the food was good and enough, in Germany you try to eat as quietly as possible.
That doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to talk; quite the reverse, you should talk as much as you can to boost your German. But don’t open your mouth while eating, and don’t make any slurping sounds when eating soup.
We prepared a free lesson about manners in Germany. Take a look before reading the rest of this guide to German etiquette to make the most of it!
Schmatzen — “to smack” Bitte hör auf zu schmatzen. — “Please stop smacking.” Mit vollem Mund spricht man nicht. — “You don’t speak with a full mouth.” 2- Do: Say Prost and make eye contact.
Beer and alcohol have a long German tradition. You’re probably familiar with the Oktoberfest. But even outside of this famous festival, beer is highly accepted in Germany. When you’re out with your family and friends, alcohol will be a subject. We like to enjoy a nice Weizen or a cold Lager with our meal.
There can be many reasons you’re with your family or friends in a restaurant. Usually, it’s one’s birthday, you’re joining your weekly Stammtisch, celebrating the graduation of a family member or you just went with your family for a Sonntagsessen. Whatever it is, you’re there probably for a reason, and you’ll want to cheer (or toast) for the occasion. Maybe the party organizer even makes a short speech if he’s not too shy.
At a certain time during dinner, usually before the food arrives at the table, you’ll raise your glasses to cheer the occasion you’ve gathered together for. Everybody will raise their glasses and say Prost. Then you’re supposed to answer with Prost, and you’ll try to clink glasses with everybody at the table.
Important when clinking your cup with someone: MAKE EYE CONTACT.
It may sound a bit stupid, but Germans say that if you don’t look each other in the eyes when clinking glasses, you’ll have seven years of bad luck in the bedroom.
3- Don’t start eating until everybody has their food.
I know from my own experience that some cultures in South America have the attitude that when you’re making a barbecue, or even when coming together with friends and family on the weekends, there are a lot of people around you and it’s quite normal to have lunch or dinner with ten or more people.
This sometimes makes it difficult to get everybody at the table at the same time, and everybody starts eating whenever he or she wants. But be assured that this isn’t the case in Germany. When you come together, you serve everybody first, and then you start eating.
4- Do: Say Guten Appetit.
There is one similarity between French and German culture: We enjoy telling our guests that they can enjoy their meal. And we don’t just say it for fun, we really mean it. We hope that the food we prepared is tasty and will satisfy everybody.
But this isn’t just to say that you’re supposed to enjoy the food. This is also a good indicator for you, as a foreigner, to start eating. Earlier, we mentioned that you shouldn’t start until everybody has their food. When the cook, or the person who prepared your meal, says Guten Appetit, this also means that we’re ready and everybody can start eating.
There’s even a phrase that we teach our children when they’re fairly small: Pip pip pip – Guten Appetit – “Enjoy your meal!”
2. German Social Etiquette in Public Places
When going out in public, you should at least maintain a certain level of politeness. But no worries. With common sense, you’ll survive this.
1- Don’t: Cross the street on the red traffic light.
In many countries the traffic lights are only for orientation and the people mostly ignore them. Not in Germany. Remember that we’re talking about a country which is known for the phrase:
Ordnung muss sein “There must be order”
Germans value their laws, so being in Germany you should do it as well. Crossing the street on a red light in Germany might draw the attention of other pedestrians and it might end with getting a ticket which will cost you around 5€. For ignoring the red light while being on the bicycle, the fine can grow even up to 60 – 180€ and you can even earn some Punkte in Flensburg, which might cause losing your drivers licence for a few month.
Watch out especially when children are around. Germans are very sensitive when it comes to their children. Be a good role model and show them how to behave properly in the road traffic.
2- Don’t: Squeeze in lines facing people.
You know that feeling when you’re arriving a bit late to a movie in the cinema, or you come to the theatre and your seat is right in the middle of a row?
Well, the first hint we can give you is this: If there are other free and empty seats, it might be better to just choose one of those seats, though it’s also fine to make your way to your booked place.
Just remember to be friendly at all times. While passing other visitors, you can say:
Entschuldigung “Excuse me.”
But always remember to pass the people in the same row face to face. If you don’t do so, you might offend them. They probably won’t say something to you, but why offend someone when you can avoid it?
3. German Greeting Etiquette: Do’s and Don’ts for Greetings
German etiquette and customs for greetings can be really different from what you may be used to. You may ask yourself questions, such as:
“Should I greet everybody?” “Should I give a hug or a kiss on the cheek?” “Should I shake their hand, or maybe just say hello?”
To give you more insight on the topic of German cultural etiquette for greeting people, we’ve published a video about greetings on our site.
1- Do: Say “Hello” to everybody.
When entering a party or a family meeting, you’ll usually be introduced by the owner or the host to everyone who’s already there. But if this isn’t the case, you should introduce yourself to everybody. You don’t need to tell your life story, but a nice Hallo, ich bin [add your name] is perfect. Make sure to shake their hand.
This also applies when entering a restaurant, shop, or most other places.You don’t need to greet everybody, but for example, when entering a small shop, at least say a friendly Hallo or Guten Tag, and Tschüss or Auf Wiedersehen when leaving again. If you’re more extroverted even a short small talk is fine. That’s more than enough. This especially applies when you’re entering a waiting room at the doctor’s office.
2- Don’t make the polnischer Abgang.
British people call it the “French leave”, French people call it the “filer à l’anglaise” or “to leave English style” and Germans use their eastern neighbours to name this specific style of leaving.
Polnischer Abgang means literally “Polish leave”, and it describes when you’re sneaking away from a party or some other place without saying goodbye to someone (or even everybody). This is considered rude, and you should avoid doing so. Don’t be shy, and let at least the owner know that you’re leaving.
3- Do: Use the correct form of the day.
According to proper German etiquette, there are different ways to greet people depending on the time of the day. We won’t give you an extensive guide for this, but be sure to remember this:
Guten Morgen — “Good morning” (used until noon) Guten Tag — “Good day” (used until it’s dark) Guten Abend — “Good evening” (used when it’s dark or you’re out for dinner) Hallo — “Hello” (almost always used in an informal situation) Tschüss — “Bye” (almost always used in an informal situation) Auf Wiedersehen — “Goodbye”
For some better insight, we have a lesson in our free course about greetings.
4. German Guest Etiquette: Manners When Visiting Another House
If your lucky, on your trip to Germany, a stranger or a friend may invite you to his home. It might be for a party or just to hang out. But in either case, there are some unwritten German etiquette rules that you should follow.
1- Do: Use the formal Sie first.
In English, addressing a person is fairly easy as you just have one word for formal and informal situations: “You.”
In German, there are some differences that you should know, and even some rules. We’ll give you a quick overview.
The formal way to talk to someone is by using Sie. The informal way is to use Du. The actions are called siezen and duzen.
When to use which form can be confusing, so here are some general rules:
Rule: If you’re not sure which one to use, be formal. Rule: When the person is older than you, use formal. Rule: At work, use the formal way, until the other person offers you the informal way. Rule: If you know the other person will use the informal way, also be informal. Rule: Offer du if you’re older.
If you want to extend your knowledge about formalities and etiquette in Germany, take a look at our free course.
If you want to address someone in a formal manner:
Herr [last name] — “Mr. [last name]” Frau [last name] — “Mrs. [last name]”
If you want to offer the du, say:
Du kannst ‘du’ sagen. — “You can say du.” Ich glaube, wir können uns duzen. — “I think we can use the informal you.” 2- Do: Make a small gift.
This is an easy one. When you come to the home of a friend or family member, just bring something small. You don’t need to invest too much time into thinking about the gift. This can be something quick and small, such as:
Chocolate A bottle of wine Some beers 3- Don’t choose the wrong topics.
Have you heard that there are some parts of German history that aren’t as bright as those of other nations? I’m talking about the Second World War.
Actually this is a very important topic to talk about, especially since Germany has shifted to the right in the past few years, giving opportunities for politicians who are denying German war crimes to grow in popularity. So if you’re interested in the topic, ask people about the war and discuss with them, but be aware of some things:
This is still a very sensitive topic for some people. Don’t be too harsh, many people have emotional connections to this time. Try to remember that there are still many people who fought in the war, lost their families due to the war and suffered from the consequences. Don’t make stupid jokes about this time. Sure, they might be funny to you, but remember that there is a possibility that someone in the room lost their family members in the war. Evaluate what people have told you. Germany has a growing problem with fake news and with people denying or marginalizing the crimes of the Nazi Germany. It’s always better to double-check the information.
Other than this, you should avoid the topics that generally make people uncomfortable and make things awkward, like politics, money, or religion, at least when talking to people you don’t know very well.
In general, be careful with potentially sensitive topics.
5. German Travel Etiquette: Do’s and Don’ts in Public Transports
1- Don’t: Listen to loud music.
I know you might have a long ride on the subway from home to work, or the other way around. It’s also just fair that you listen to your music and enjoy the time that you’re there.
But it’s not necessary to share the music that you like with the rest of the train. They might like some other type of music. So just plug in your headphones and listen to the music without disturbing anyone.
Listening to your music loudly is even considered offensive to some people, and at some point someone will surely tell you to “Shut the f*** up.”
2- Do: Offer your seat.
When there are free seats and you have a long trip to your destination, feel free to sit down. But during the ride, people will enter and leave the train, and the closer you come to the center, the fuller the wagon gets.
Public transport is the easiest way in German cities to get around, so everybody uses it. Even pregnant women, older ladies and gentlemen, and disabled people.
Be polite and offer your seat to them. They’ll thank you, the people around you will see it, and it gives you a good feeling. We say in Germany:
Jeden Tag eine gute Tat. “Every day a good act.”
To offer your seat, you can say:
Möchten Sie sich vielleicht setzen, hier bitte. “Do you want to sit down here, please.”
Point to your seat while saying this.
3- Let other people leave the train first.
As in most other countries, the metro and buses are fairly full, and even more so during the rush hour. Everybody is stressed and just wants to get home to their loved ones.
Before entering the subway, make space in front of the doors so that other people can get out first. This ensures that they don’t need to squeeze past. If you’re standing in front of the door, I’m sure that someone will be impolite to you. And to be fair, with good reason.
6. German Business Culture and Etiquette: How to Behave in Business
In this section, you’ll learn about some German professional etiquette rules. When it comes to German etiquette, business depends on knowing your way around it! Here are some German etiquette do’s and don’ts for doing business in Germany.
1- Do: Bring your own cake.
This mainly applies to business culture as opposed to private birthday parties. But when it’s your birthday and you’re working in an office, then colleagues expect you to bring something to the office to share with everybody.
From experience, this doesn’t have to be a cake; a small breakfast or something for lunch is good as well. The idea of giving something to them is more important than what you give.
2- Don’t: Be late.
Don’t be late, but neither be early. It can be quite difficult for some people to be exactly on time.
Trains, buses, or anything else regarding public transport, won’t wait for your arrival. They’ll leave without you. This can also be the case with friends. You agreed on a certain hour to meet, so you’re expected to be there at that time.
When it comes to punctuality, Germans don’t mess around. Of course, no one will kill you because you’re five minutes late. But it’s better to be five minutes early, than to be five minutes late.
If you’re too late, you can lose your hour at the doctor, miss meetings at work, and miss out on other important times and events.
3- Do: Shake hands, but don’t overdo it.
While in other countries, such as France or most parts of South America, a hug or a kiss on the cheek are common, even in daily business culture. In Germany, however, you shake hands with both genders.
In more relaxed situations, you can give hugs and people won’t refuse them. But in business, a handshake is more acceptable.
Don’t get too touchy. Once a person has accepted your handshake, that’s enough. You don’t need to touch their shoulders or grab their waist, or anywhere else. Give them their personal space.
Take a look at our website to learn some helpful business German.
7. How to be a Good Part of German Society 1- Do: Recycle your garbage.
The “green” movement has already taken place in Germany, and we’re trying our best in everyday life to not stress the environment more than necessary.
For this, we have a recycling system. For glass, for example, we divide them into brown, green, and white glass; there will be extra recycling containers for each sort.
Also, you should separate your waste between plastic, paper, and natural garbage.
In addition to this, we have a recycling system for plastic bottles. That means that when buying a plastic bottle, you have to pay a certain amount extra. After you bring the bottle back to a machine in the supermarket, you’ll get back the extra amount you paid. This system is called Pfand. Believe it or not, foreigners love this.
2- Don’t: Open closed doors unasked.
Sometimes Germans just need time for themselves and don’t need to be out in public. For this, we have a common practice of keeping the door to our room shut when we don’t want anyone to come in.
At the same time, this means that if your door is open, a person can enter the room almost unasked.
This applies to almost every situation: at home when sharing your flat, or in the office.
8. How GermanPod101 Can Help You Learn More German
In summary, we’ve introduced you to important German etiquette regarding: public transport, greetings, visiting public places, being in friends’ homes, and the business culture in Germany. Apply our do’s and avoid the don’ts, and you’ll be more than fine visiting all parts of Germany.
Are there similar etiquette rules or cultural customs in your own country? Let us know in the comments!
If you’re interested in boosting your German skills faster, we recommend you our private teacher program. It focuses on your personal goals and your current German level, to help you improve at your own pace and toward your own goals.
We won’t just release you without making you even happier. So we’ve prepared some free-of-charge lessons on GermanPod101.com. There are classes for:
Make sure you get a spot today and boost your German to the sky. But don’t forget German etiquette on your way to the top.
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