Cultural No-nos in Germany

Cultural No-nos in Germany

by Erin McGann

Updated November 8, 2022

Getting along in Germany

In every culture there are things that every local takes for granted, but newcomers find bewildering. It’s hard to know ahead of time what you’re going to run into, but here’s a list of some of my key cultural learning points since living in Germany!

Saying hello in German waiting rooms

Nearly everywhere else we politely ignore each other: on buses, in cafes, in the public washroom. However, it all changes when you enter a doctor’s waiting room. Now, you’re expected to say ‘Morgen’ or ‘Guten Tag’ upon entering, and ‘Tschüss’ on leaving. Not absolutely everyone follows this rule, but you will never been seen as strange for doing it. 

Opening and closing windows

There are strong opinions about air circulation in Germany, and it just takes sharing a meeting room or an apartment with a local to learn this one fast. It is critical to air out your living or working space by opening the window for 15-20 minutes for ‘Luft’. However, a draught, ‘Zug’ or ‘Luftzug’, somehow is different and will give you unspecified illnesses. I say unspecified, but the person complaining about it will probably be specific. At length. And you’re taking your life in your hands if you choose to open a window on the bus or tram.

Home blinds window shades woman opening shade blind during winter morning. Asian girl holding modern cordless top down luxury curtains indoors.

Baring your neck or ankles from autumn until spring

Related to the danger of draughts is the effect of moving coolish air on your neck or ankles. I would say this isn’t so much that local Germans don’t do this – people do. But you will receive tutting and comments from older folks for sure. Anywhere from late September into early May means scarf and socks weather. To do otherwise is to invite illness. Obviously.

Sorting recycling

Depending on where you come from, the state of recycling here might be a bit of a shock. Where I lived in Canada required a similar level of sorting, but many Americans I’ve met seem completely taken by surprise. I will say that the vigilance of your ‘Nachbarn’, your neighbours, on what goes in each bin is intense. My Hausmeister will stand and watch me tear the cardboard going in the Papier bin, and comment on the appropriateness of the size. 

Recycling, reuse, energy. Young family sorting light bulbs, batteries, other electronic waste into containers with recycling symbol while sitting at kitchen

Cross the road against the light

In the same vein of public shaming, crossing against the pedestrian light will invite people shouting at you, particularly if there are ‘Kinder’ about. The idea is a child will see you cross against the signal and think it’s okay for them to do too – with possibly tragic results. This belief is a strongly held one, so it’s best to just behave yourself. 

Bringing a cake on your birthday

You would think that on your birthday, someone else would be in charge of bringing the sweets, but not in Germany. If you work in an office situation, it’s expected that you bring your own ‘Kuchen’ for your birthday day. That’s why you see so many people on their way to work with various ‘Tortenbehälter’ carrying their special treats. If you go out with your friends on your birthday, you have to pick up the tab too! But if your birthday falls on a weekend better get the timing right because…

Party Candles on a Slice of Birthday Cake

Don’t wish anyone a happy birthday early!

This is a superstition that will cause a German to wince every time. To wish someone ‘Alles gute zum Geburtstag’ before the official day is very bad luck, and I have yet to meet a German who can ignore this one. So it’s better to be a day late than a day early.

I’m sure your fellow German-learning classmates have experienced at least a few of these. Helpfully, Lingoda lessons often involve a bit of cultural learning too. Now where is my scarf….  

Related articles