Like any culture in the world, Germans have different customs than you might be used to. To avoid awkwardness and help you feel like a local, here are etiquette tips from someone who grew up in Germany.
Be On Time
There is no translation from German to English for the phrase ‘fashionably late.’ In Germany, or when meeting someone German, you are simply late. Germans tend to be very punctual, and also expect this virtue from others. Basically, don’t be more than a few minutes early and don’t be more than a few minutes late. In my family you get 15 minutes of Karenzzeit, which translates to grace period. If I have to wait 15 minutes or longer past the scheduled time and I do not hear from you, I will most likely leave. So if for some reason you find yourself late to an appointment or a get-together, call to let the person know that you are running late and when you’ll be there.
The exception would be casual parties at a friends house. The more guests there are invited, the wider the window of time is within which it is still appropriate to show up. If the invitation reads that the party starts at 8pm, there are always people that do not show up until later that night.
If you happen to be very early for a get-together, take a stroll through the neighborhood or a nearby park. Nobody wants to show up too early and catch the host while they are trying to get the last items for the party together or take a shower before the big night. This will also give you some extra time to get something to bring for the host, which brings us to my next topic.
Don’t Arrive Empty Handed
When you are invited to a private house or home in Germany, be it for a fancy dinner or for casual afternoon Kaffee und Kuchen, it's a always a good idea to bring a small gift for the host or hostess. The easiest are flowers with an odd number of buds, as an even number is said to bring bad luck. Also, take any plastic covering or wrapping off the flowers before arriving. When selecting flowers, try to avoid red roses, which symbolize love, or lilies and carnations, which are common for German funerals. If you do not want to bring flowers, candy or wine is also appropriate. Basically, do not show up empty handed and expect them to feed and fawn all over you.
Now that you are on time and you have a small gift, what happens next?
Germans can be weird when it comes to greetings. We alter our greetings depending on how well we know the other person. If you are being introduced to a person for the first time, expect a handshake. Make sure your hand is dry, look them in the eyes and have a firm handshake. Don’t break their hand, but also do not just lay your hand onto theirs. Germans like firm handshakes. When joining a group, it is very common for a person to shake hands with every single individual.
Once you know the person better (and you are in a non-business setting), Germans will take the greeting up a notch and replace the handshake with kissing on the cheeks, one on the left and one on the right. This is often shocking for Americans, who anticipate that its going to be a hug exchange and end up with a kiss on the cheek, but then upon releasing Americans anticipate the greeting is over, only to be pulled in for a second round on the other side. If you end up in Switzerland, three cheek kisses are customary. Yesterday it was handshakes. Today its cheek kisses.
If in doubt, let the German make the first move and be prepared for both. Nothing is worse than leaning in for a cheek kiss and running into their hand that is out for a formal handshake.
Now that you are inside and have greeted everyone, there is some drinking etiquette to be aware of.
Drinking with Germans
When you toast and clink glasses in Germany, say "Zum Wohl" (good health) or "Prost" (cheers) before drinking. Also, make sure to look the person you are toasting into his or her eyes. Otherwise both of you will have seven years of poor intimacy, if you know what I mean.
“Guten Appetit” is said before eating and means enjoy your meal. Wait until everyone has their meal in front of them before you start and respond to the host’s “Guten Appetit” by repeating the same greeting or answering “Danke, ebenfalls” (Thanks, you too).
And one more bonus tip for you to look out for:
Trash is usually separated in Germany, in private homes and in public bins as well. Many Germans take recycling seriously and ignorance of or indifference to this practice may be frowned upon.
You will find separate disposal areas for glass, paper and packaging in airports and train stations. In private homes we usually have a separate container for organic waste, such as coffee grinds and food leftovers plus separate plastic and paper trash containers. While recycling in the United States often only goes into one container and then gets sorted at the recycling facility, Germans separate their recycling at home already and pay attention to the different recycling pickup days. They also return bottles and cans in order to receive their deposit back, learn more about this process, called Pfand in our previous article.Am I missing something? Do you have any additions to German etiquette? Leave a comment or send us an email.
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