If you come from the United States, Europe or much of the westernized world, you may expect everything in Germany to be as it is at home. If you do, you are in for a big culture shock. Germans have many customs and habits in their everyday life that make living in Germany quite unique.
Whether you arrive in Germany as a student, au pair, employee, jobseeker or tourist there are a few simple but important rules you need to observe if you want to get off to a good start with your German friends, neighbors, coworkers or hosts. But fear not, once you understand the basic cultural aspects of life in Germany you will quickly pick up on the even more subtle and interesting German habits and sensibilities!
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Visiting and dining
When you arrive at your German hosts’ house be sure to greet them by saying “Guten Tag” or “Guten Abend” (depending on the time of day, the latter after 6 pm). And of course you should throw in a “Vielen Dank für die Einladung” (thank you for your invitation). If you have been invited for dinner it’s appropriate to bring some flowers and/or a bottle of wine.
It is generally considered good manners to allow your hosts to guide the conversation. Try to keep it general and don’t get into personal details too quickly if you don’t know them well. Never start drinking before your hosts, who will raise a toast to you and say “Zum Wohl” if drinking wine and “Prost” if drinking beer, upon which you return the toast and take a sip while looking them in the eyes.
If you are offered more wine, beer or food, and you would like to have some, say “Ja, bitte”. Do not say just “Danke” until your glass or plate is full because “Danke” is generally taken to mean “Danke, nein” and you will be left with an empty glass or plate. Germans do not tend to repeat the offer either, which may come as a real shock to British and Irish readers.
Leaving your shoes at the door
In many German houses and apartments you will be invited to remove your shoes and may be offered a pair of slippers. German homes often have sanded and polished wooden floors or pale carpets, so it’s easier to keep them clean and unscratched by taking off your shoes at the door. Not sure of the rules? Observe whether your host takes off their shoes or not. There’s no quicker way to come across as inconsiderate than to trapse your dirty shoes around someone’s home!
People are extremely environmentally conscious in Germany and are therefore champion recyclers. There are separate bins for almost everything — compost, glass, plastic, cans, tins, cartons, paper, etc. Get well acquainted with the different recycling bins and make sure to put the clean items in the correct one. And remember, it’s important to wash out dirty containers or bottles before putting them in the bins or they will start to smell.
Although Germany’s traditional cuisine contains quite a lot of sausage and cold meats, many Germans are now giving up on meat altogether for environmental and ethical reasons. In fact, more than one in ten Germans have now committed to a meat-free diet, the highest rate in Europe. And a far greater number are reducing their meat intake. For many Germans the Wurst is behind them, so to speak.
Taking vacations seriously
The Germans are serious tourists. The trend for holidaying in Spain, Italy, Greece, France and further afield became a common feature of middle-class life in Germany as early as the 1950s and 1960s. And it still continues today. Although it was expected that it would take decades for Germany to recover after the Second World War, with the postwar Economic Miracle (Wirtschaftswunder) the Germans were among the first Europeans to have enough money for foreign travel to become a widespread pastime. Germany is also quite landlocked (apart from the North Sea and Baltic Sea coasts), so that’s another reason for all the holiday-making in warmer countries.
Furthermore, Germany is one of the countries with the most paid vacation days per year (Urlaubstage). The statutory minimum is 20 per year for full-time employees, though the national average is 28. Many companies also provide an annual holiday bonus (Urlaubsgeld) to their employees.
The high value placed on time off work is also reflected in the mandatory closing of shops on Sundays. Across Germany, supermarkets, clothing stores and retailers of all kinds are required to remain closed. So Sunday is very much a day to spend with family or friends, visit a restaurant or cafe and generally take some time to recuperate from the working week.
Placing a high value on personal privacy is one of those distinctively German sensibilities that people from the English-speaking world and elsewhere will notice very quickly. Don’t expect your colleagues to drill you on the details of your weekend, holidays, love life or family. This is in part due to an aversion to small talk, but also a deep respect for personal privacy. In Germany, your business is your business and this can be very liberating. This stance is reflected, for instance, in staunch internet privacy laws and resistance to any kind of CCTV surveillance on city streets.
The experience of state surveillance under the Nazi regime and post-war under Communist rule in East Germany has made people wary of being spied upon.
That said, people-watching is far more acceptable in Germany than in many other countries. ‘Big Brother’ might not be watching you, but there’s sure to be a few folks on the U-Bahn who will stare you up and down with no shame.
Custom and culture
Although some of the nuances of German customs, attitudes and values might come as a surprise when you’re new to the country, these aspects of cultural life in Germany also make the country unique and interesting. With a bit of time, an open mind and a few good friends willing to help you settle in, you’ll quickly learn to live and love the German lifestyle.
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Leona has her roots in the South of Ireland, where she grew up on her family farm. She went on to study World Politics at Leiden University College, The Hague and then completed her MPhil in International History at Trinity College Dublin. Leona has now settled in Berlin, having fallen in love with the city. In her spare time she is working on perfecting her German in anticipation of her doctoral studies, during which she plans to study modern German social history. Her hobbies include bouldering, dancing and reading a healthy mix of history books and corny fantasy fiction. You can find more info about her on LinkedIn.