Germans can be weird when it comes to greetings. We alter our greetings depending on how well we know the other person, which can be a bit tricky at times. Germans usually go their own way and don’t make much use of small talk. When we see a colleague or person we barely know on the street they usually get a nod, maybe a smile and sometimes a hand wave.
Meeting for the First Time
If you are being introduced to a person you do not know yet, give them a good handshake. Make sure your hand is dry, you 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. This also applies to any kind of business meeting, where you usually shake hands at the beginning and at the end of the meeting.
If you would like to dig deeper into doing business with Germans, here is a very good guide to try, (affiliate link) No Such Thing as Small Talk: 7 Keys to Understanding German Business Culture by Melissa Lamson. It reads easy, like a good friend telling you what's what over some Kaffee und Kuchen.
Meeting for the Second Time, Non-Business
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.
Personally, I hug all my friends and close family members. If you get a hug from me, that means I really like you and have no problem being close to you. Most Germans will hug their immediate family but might shake hands with other relatives such as uncles and aunts, depending on how close they are to each other.
If You Don't Know What to Expect
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.
Did you ever run into a similar situation with a person from another country? Share your experience in the comment section.