When talking about cultural faux pas in Germany, John F. Kennedy's 'Ich bin ein Berliner' always springs to mind, but the ridicule directed towards the late US president was, it turns out, a little unfair.
A 'Berliner' is a type of donut in Germany, but Kennedy's statement of cultural solidarity was nonetheless technically correct. All the same, the episode demonstrates how easy it is to become the target of laughter when communicating in an unfamiliar language or getting to know people from another country. Sometimes, cultural slip-ups are more serious, causing great offence to local communities, as Richard Nixon's A-OK sign did in Brazil.
We thought we'd put together a guide to help you avoid getting into hot water when travelling through or moving to Germany. With these tips to guide you, you should be able to avoid causing a public scandal!
Greetings and Salutations
- German adults should always be referred to by their title and last name - Frau Schneider, Herr Müller, and so on - until you are invited to do otherwise.
- When entering a room, shop or public place always greet others by saying 'Hello' ('Guten Tag' in most parts of Germany but 'Grüß Gott' in the south). When leaving, say 'Goodbye' (Auf Weidersehen'). Failing to do this is considered quite rude.
- A good hand shake is the preferred physical greeting in Germany. Hugs and kisses are reserved only for intimate acquaintances and parents. If you do progress to a kissing greeting, give one kiss on each cheek.
- Always take off your hat and coat inside, or risk giving your host the impression that their house is cold and unwelcoming.
- Never wish someone a happy birthday before the actual day. Premature celebrations and well-wishes are considered bad omens and should be avoided. It is better to be late wishing someone a happy birthday than it is to be early!
- When offering flowers as a gift, present them unwrapped and hand them over stem-first.
- Germans appreciate straight talking. Don't tell fibs or make promises you can't keep. If you say 'I'll call you later', you better mean it.
Out and About
- It should come as no surprise that Nazi symbols, gestures and clothing are illegal in Germany. If you're lucky, you will be thrown in jail. If you're unlucky, you will probably get beaten up first. References to Nazism, even in jest, are not tolerated.
- As a pedestrian, never stand or walk in the cycling lane. You will likely be knocked over by a cyclist and yelled at to boot. Also, avoid crossing a road unless the pedestrian light is on green, even if there is no traffic coming.
- It is commonplace for strangers to share tables in restaurants and cafes. Don't be surprised or offended if you and your partner are joined by another couple at a four-seater table. Equally, you will be expected to join others if there is room on a table and may be considered pretentious if you choose to sit alone (you should always ask to make sure the empty chairs are not spoken for before sitting down).
- You will be considered very rude if, before you start eating, you fail to say 'Guten Appetit', or 'Enjoy your meal'.
- When eating in large parties, food bills are commonly split among the attendees. Do not be offended if your companions ask you to pay your share.
- In southern and eastern Germany, when leaving a restaurant table while others are still seated, knock twice on the tabletop. This gesture means you wish them good luck and a safe trip home.
- A northern German superstition is that lighting a cigarette with a candle will result in the death of a sailor. Never do this! Asking someone about their age, weight, income, religion or political leaning is considered very rude unless you know them extremely well. These details are considered personal and not suitable for normal conversation. Similarly, German people don't like to talk about work while socialising. Save the shop talk for the shop.
- When sharing a beer, never start drinking before everyone else in your party has a drink in their hand, and always clink glasses to wish each other good health.
- Germany loves its beer, but it is generally considered bad form to drink until you are unable to stay upright, and inebriated staggering in the streets is usually frowned upon.