10 do’s and don’ts in Germany

10 do’s and don’ts in Germany

by Sandra Köktaş

Updated August 12, 2022

New to Germany? Depending on where you come from, the cultural differences will be obvious. For others, everything may seem familiar. Still, each culture has its own etiquette, and Germany is no exception. We put together ten do’s and don’ts in Germany to help you settle in smoothly and avoid a major faux pas. Germans love their rules and they have many. Even throwing away your trash can get you into trouble. But no need to worry. While we cannot help you sort your rubbish, we will give you all the information to blend into everyday situations and steer clear of controversial issues. So here are cultural do’s and don’ts in Germany that will safely guide you through ten social situations.

  1. Greetings
  2. Conversations
  3. Eating together
  4. Birthdays
  5. Visits
  6. Appointments
  7. Traffic
  8. Recycling
  9. Nudist culture in Germany
  10. WWII

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1. Greetings

Whether you meet the neighbors on the stairs, enter a shop or come into the doctor’s waiting room: a friendly greeting is always in order. Say Guten Morgen (good morning) until about 10 am, use Guten Tag (good day from there) and switch to Guten Abend (good evening) after sunset. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never seen these people before and you don’t have to follow through with a conversation. Even a simple “Wie geht’s?” is reserved for people you personally know. Just remember to say Auf Wiedersehen or Tschüss (Goodbye) when you leave. When you meet with colleagues or clients at work or when introduced to a group of new friends, shake hands and make eye contact. Only close friends would greet you with a hug and/or kisses on the cheeks. 

2. Conversations

During conversations, the most important thing to remember is the difference between the formal and the informal you. The informal Du is reserved for good friends, everyone else will expect to be addressed with Sie. Never assume Du will be ok, ask first. However, this is only the case if you are the older partner in this conversation. If you aren’t, you will have to wait for the other side to make the offer. 

3. Eating together

Going for lunch or dinner with colleagues and friends is always an opportunity to socialize and practice German. Stick to a few cultural do’s and don’ts in Germany to make the most of it:

  • Don’t start eating before everyone is seated and got their meal. Wait for someone to say Guten Appetit (enjoy your meal) or Mahlzeit or give the signal yourself. 
  • Beer and wine are usually served at lunch and dinner. You can of course decline and order soft drinks or water instead. If you drink, don’t overdo it. Remember to clink glasses before taking the first sip.  Germans say you have to go through seven years of bad sex if you drink without looking each other in the eye, so don’t forget to make eye contact with everyone at the table!
  • Always have your fork in your left and your knife in your right hand and no elbows on the table. When you have finished your meal, put your fork and knife next to each other on the plate or on the left and right of the plate. 

4. Birthdays

Surprise parties are not very common in Germany. If you want to celebrate your birthday, you have to invite your friends. You will also have to provide the cake and prepare some food and drinks for your guests. In return, they will surprise you with a birthday present. Open it right away and say some nice words about it. As the birthday boy or girl, you would usually bring a cake to work or – even more important – send one to school on your kids’ birthday! There will usually be no gifts on these occasions. When invited to a birthday party yourself, bring a present and sing along to “Happy birthday”. You can also congratulate your friend with Alles Gute zum Geburtstag! But only on the day itself or after. Wishing someone a happy birthday before the actual day is believed to bring bad luck and is one of the few cultural taboos in Germany!

5. Visits

Germans take their privacy seriously. Be prepared for a culture shock in Germany if you come from a country that handles these things differently. Your German friends might come off as cold. They don’t like personal questions from strangers or even friends, depending on how personal it gets. They are also very selective in who they invite into their homes. If you are invited, you have probably made a friend. But even between friends, there are rules to be observed. Bring a gift to the host or the hostess. Flowers, chocolates or wine are fine. Some people prefer to take off their shoes at home, so it is best to ask where to put your shoes instead of walking right in. Ask if you can help with the preparations, but don’t just get busy in the kitchen. 

If you need to use the bathroom, again ask and also let them tell you where to find it. Nothing worse than opening each door and looking into every room. You will find that most doors are closed. If you enter a room, be it at someone’s home or the office, knock first. You don’t have to wait for permission to enter, just give the people inside a little warning. 

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6. Appointments

Appointments are a big thing in Germany. Even friends like to know if or when you will visit them. And whatever you do, don’t be late! If you run late more than ten or fifteen minutes, call to explain. On the other hand, know when to leave. If you are invited for coffee and it gets late, say something like Es wird spät, ich sollte wirklich gehen (It’s getting late, I really should go). Dinner is family time. If your host wants you to stay, they will tell you. 

7. Traffic

Have we mentioned that Germans love rules? This is even more true when they are related to safety. Before hitting the road in Germany, know the traffic signs and opt for a defensive driving style to be on the safe side. Getting loud or cursing is never a good thing in Germany!

8. Recycling

Not only is recycling important for the environment. There are different bins for different materials, and there is a fee for waste disposal that depends on the weight. Throwing everything into one bin can lead to tense relations with your neighbors. If you don’t know how to separate your trash, just ask. Someone will be more than happy to help.

9. Nudist culture in Germany

It’s not like Germans run around naked everywhere all the time. But there is room for nudist culture in Germany. In most saunas, bathing suits are forbidden, and some beaches might be reserved for nude bathing. Like always in Germany, there will be signs to clarify the situation. Just follow the rules. And don’t stare!

10. WWII

Every country has difficult chapters in its history. WWII, nazism and the holocaust are sensitive topics. If you want to discuss this part of German history, stick to the facts and ask for opinions. Generalizations or jokes are taboo in Germany. Remember that the subject is also legally relevant. Expressions like Heil Hitler will rightfully get you in trouble with the police!


Avoid culture shock in Germany

Rules are always helpful to navigate unknown terrain. Luckily, there are many rules in Germany. The ten most important situations include opportunities to socialize from greetings to visits and particular topics like nudist culture or history. If you stick to these do’s and don’ts you will easily avoid awkward conversations and embarrassing situations.

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Sandra lives in Istanbul, together with her kids, cat and dog. As a historian she thrives exploring this ancient city with her two- and four-legged loved ones. Together, they also love to go on adventures through all of Turkey and its neighboring countries. The perfect opportunity to put all the language learning into practice. If she’s not on the road, Sandra is busy putting her experiences into writing as a freelance copywriter for the travel industry and everything related to language, culture and family. Her particular interest lies in providing information on animal welfare with her website contentrundumstier.de.

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