Things Not to Do In Germany: Cultural Do’s & Don’ts to Know

The old saying goes “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, which is sound advice; you won’t stick out like a sore thumb, and you’ll also ingratiate yourself with the locals. It’s good manners, and while good manners cost nothing, they can pay great dividends. However, bad manners or flippant faux pas can cost you BIG.

What is considered rude in Germany? What are good manners in Germany? Social etiquette is deeply entrenched in German society and it’s worth mastering this dance of do’s and don’ts if you’re spending any time there.

In this article, we’re taking a look at the cultural do and don’t in Germany, what is considered rude in Germany and things not to do in Germany in general. Learn helpful hints, phrases and behaviors to adopt for your next trip to Germany so you get the best out of your experience and the Germans see the best side of you!

See related: 41 Funny German Jokes That’ll Crack You Up

Etiquette for meeting someone new or old in Germany

For meeting and greeting someone for the first time, stick to the formal and be a stickler for accuracy and detail!

  • Greet with Guten Morgen (Good Morning) before midday, Guten Tag (Good Day) between noon and evening, and Guten Abend (Good Evening), once the sun starts going down.
  • Greet anyone you meet (children included) with a firm handshake whilst maintaining eye contact – Germans put great stock in this!
  • In male-female greeting scenarios, it is “proper” for the male to verbally initiate the greeting, and then for the female to extend her hand first.
  • For a first-time greeting, try introducing yourself with Ich heiße (e.g.) Steve (I am called Steve) [Obviously, use your own name].
  • Use formal titles Herr (Sir/Mister) Frau (Missus) Fraulein (Miss/Ms) and always use the “formal you”, Sie. The “informal you”, du is only really acceptable with people you know well.
  • When talking with people older than you and ANYONE elderly, always use Sie, NEVER use du.
  • If you’re greeting someone in passing, you needn’t stick with Guten morgen/tag/abend. If you’re in south Germany and want to sound more local, consider greeting with Grüß Gott (God’s Greetings) and in the north, try Moin (a regional form of Hello). Hallo (Hello) works too, but it’s a tad lazy.
  • When saying goodbye in person, say Auf Wiedersehen (Until we next see each other), when saying goodbye on the phone, say Auf Wiederhören (Until we next hear each other). There’s also the informal goodbye; Tschüss (Bye), but stick to the formal to play it safe, or only use Tschüss if someone uses it first.

Handshake

See related: The German National Anthem: Das Deutschlandlied

Be a good house guest in Germany

Whoever said “An Englishman’s home is his castle” obviously hadn’t been to Germany. The sanctity and privacy of the German home is serious and if you’re invited into a German’s home, you have been extended a terrific honor and level of trust. Don’t betray it!

  • A gift goes a long way with each visit. Yes, EACH visit. It doesn’t have to be crazy expensive, but bear in mind that the host is giving you the gift of coming into their home!
  • Expect to take your shoes off; it’s not a hard and fast rule, but pretty common in Germany to rock around the home shoeless. After you enter, it’s likely that your host will tell you if it’s a shoes on/off house. You can even go the extra mile and ask; Wo soll ich meine schuhe lassen? (Where should I leave my shoes?)
  • Close all doors behind you. Germans value privacy and quiet home lives, and closing doors aid these values! Front door? Close it behind you. Entering the dining room? Close the door behind you. Heading to bed? Close the door behind you. Need the bathroom? (Please) close the door behind you! Remember; close, don’t SLAM.
  • On the other side of the door (heh), if it’s closed and you’re unsure if it’s okay to enter, please knock and say; Darf Ich? (May I?). The occupants will let you know if you’re free to enter or not. Entering without knocking is bad manners in Germany.
  • Ask. Ask for anything you need, big or small. Don’t go searching every room of the house for the bathroom or raiding the fridge if you’re hungry. You’re a guest, but you don’t live there, and your host will provide you with whatever you need, so long as you ask politely.
  • Be helpful. It’s always good to ask Kann ich Inhen helfen? (Can I help you) with any sort of meal prep, cleaning up, or any chore your host is undergoing.
  • Be mindful of waste disposal practices. Most Germans are very disciplined when dealing with trash and recycling. If you’re not sure which bin it goes into, just ask.
  • If you’re staying on a Sunday, be aware of the unspoken rule of the “Quiet Sunday” in Germany
  • Use please (Bitte) and thank you (Danke/Danke Schön) ferverously. If someone thanks you, tell them they’re welcome by saying Bitte Schön.

Wilkommen sign

See related: 16 Best German Food to Try | Traditional Types of Food

Basic Table Manners in Germany

Are table manners different in Germany?

Yes, and we could all learn something from them! German dining conventions are similar to most Northern European nations, but there are a few key differences.

  • Mealtimes are generally communal and table manners essential. NEVER start eating until everyone is seated, and even then, it’s polite to wait until your host gives you the cue to eat. Phrases like Guten Appetit (Good Appetite) or Mahlzeit (Enjoy your meal) are common signals to dig in.
  • Don’t be lazy by one-handing your fork and resting your other hand in your lap. Use your cutlery in the European style. This involves keeping both hands on or above the table (no elbows!), use the fork in your left hand, and the knife in your right hand. The knife does most of the work on the plate, while the fork takes the role of holding food in place as you cut it, and having something for the knife to push food onto. Cut food as you need it, rather than carving up everything on your plate. BE WARNED; Germans normally won’t eat anything plated without cutlery, even pizza.
    Once you’ve finished eating, place your knife and fork together on your plate with the tines of the fork and tip of the knife facing 10 o’clock and the butt of each facing 4 o’clock.
    Hot Tip: if it’s a multi-course meal, you may be using your cutlery for more than one course – if this is the case, a fork and knife rest should be provided.
  • Like most countries outside of the US, water is generally not provided as a default for every diner. If you want water, ask for it.
    Hot tip: when at a restaurant, avoid asking for tap water if you don’t want to look cheap!
  • Expect booze. Lots of it. While there’s never any pressure to consume alcohol, it’s a very drink-orientated culture. It’s acceptable to drink at most times of the day. I mean, beer is taxed as a food(!) and costs less than bottled water(!!!). Courses are frequently broken up with shots of schnapps. Beer and wine are the chief accompaniments to any post-breakfast meal. Don’t get hammered and make a fool of yourself!
  • Don’t start sipping your beverage until someone offers a toast. You can be the one who leads the charge by saying; Zum Wohl! (Good health!) or Prost! (Cheers!), make eye contact with everyone at the table, sip, make eye contact with everyone again, and then set your drink down. Hot tip: The toast “Prost” is typically used when alcohol is involved.
  • Dining out? BRING CASH. Most eateries and watering holes outside major metropolitan areas (and some in cities too) are cash-only businesses. The typical tip for restaurants is 10%, and generally a little more at Christmas. Tipping at bars is also customary.

ham hock pork knuckle

See related: German Beer

Road Rules in Germany; On bike, on foot, or behind the wheel

As one could expect from the home of the automobile, Germany takes pride in safe roads and safe driving and has a bunch of rules, both written and unwritten for traversing (and parking throughout) the country.

  • Cars drive on the same side as the US.
  • Take time to study German traffic signs before you hit the road for the first time!
  • On the autobahn, stick to the middle or right lanes. The left lane is for fast drivers and the speed limit is (effectively) 155mph!
  • Never pass traffic on the right! It’s dangerous and it’s illegal!
  • Make paths for emergency vehicles if you see them in your rear-view.
  • NEVER EVER resort to ANY form of road rage, certainly not the “angry finger” – this is one of the gestures considered rude in Germany. Germans take this very seriously and will report it to the police – you may end up with a ticket or a night in jail!
  • Be cautious and courteous with signaling.
  • Drive defensively, not aggressively.
  • There are no “arrive first, leave first” crossroads in Germany, only “right side first” crossroads.
  • When parking, pay close attention to the plethora of different parking signs used in Germany. Each have different rules attached. Getting this wrong will very easily result in you getting fines and/or towed.
  • When parking in a designated parking area, you will likely either have to use a parking meter, a parking wheel, or a combination of both.
  • For cyclists, make sure your bike is tricked out to German road-legal standards. This means; brakes for both wheels, a front-facing white/yellow light and white reflector, a read facing red light and red reflector, two yellow reflectors on each wheel and a loud bell or horn.
  • Cyclists must obey the same road rules as cars. Exceptions will be signposted.
  • Helmets aren’t required for adults but some municipalities require children to wear helmets.
    Hot tip: US military personnel stationed in Germany are required to wear bike helmets while on base!
  • Cyclists under the age of 8 MUST ride on the sidewalk, but everyone older MUST ride on the road, sticking to cycle lanes where available.
  • Cyclists must ride single file. Riding side by side will get you fined unless you are in a group of 16+, but even then, no more than 2 rows!
  • Give clear hand signals when maneuvering.
  • In pedestrian zones, get off your bike and push.
  • Pedestrians always have right of way in any traffic, but don’t jaywalk! That’s a ticket and it will (literally) make you a pariah!
  • I know, there’s tons of great beer but, NEVER drink and drive or bike.

Munich Street

See Related: 9 Best Car Museums in Germany

Essential Do’s, Don’ts, & Things not to do in Germany

  • DO: Sprechen Sie Englisch? – Or “Do you speak English?” If your German is bad and you need assistance from a German, at least make the effort.
  • DON’T: Do you speak English? – Germans, like most continental Europeans, HATE it when English speakers ask them if they speak English IN English, especially if they’re IN GERMANY.
  • DO: ALWAYS use your pleases (Bitte) and thankyous (Danke/Danke Schön).
  • DON’T: Don’t be taken aback by the combined directness and reservedness of the German people. They hate beating about the bush, but they want you to respect the bush too! Be direct but not intrusive, keep your conversations brief and practical or at least purposeful.
  • DO: When in doubt use formal language.
  • DON’T: Don’t shout, or raise your voice, unnecessarily; it’s considered quite rude.
  • DO: Maintain eye contact during greetings, conversations, and toasts, and don’t put your hands in your pockets while talking.
  • DON’T: Compared to Germans, Americans are very forthcoming about their personal lives right off the bat, don’t expect the same from Germans when you first meet. Once you earn their, trust they will open up to you.
  • DO: Use titles and last names until invited to use first names.
  • DON’T: Is pointing rude in Germany? It’s kind of rude everywhere, and certainly don’t point your finger to your head or make the “OK” hand gesture. These are both rude gestures in Germany.
  • DO: Obey. The. Rules. Germany is a nation of rule followers. The fastest way to blend in is by following all the rules. No joke.
  • DON’T: Try not to be late. Germans are punctual people and dates and times matter. If you MUST be late, there is an unwritten rule, the “höflich fünfzehn” (polite fifteen) which allows for up to 15 minutes of tardiness. Even so, DON’T be late and NEVER flake out at the last minute!
  • DO: Bring your own bags when shopping for groceries, and know you’ll have to pack the bags yourself. Expect most retailers outside of big box stores to be small businesses and/or specialists.
  • DON’T: Don’t joke about German culture, no matter how funny you think lederhosen are. They’re proud of their culture and have every right to be.
  • DO: Bring cash everywhere, Germans prefer it and some businesses are cash only.
  • DON’T: Don’t lose control of your drinking. Germans love drinking but hate drunkenness.
  • DO: Dress appropriately for every occasion, and always maintain good personal hygiene.
  • DON’T: Germany has lots of nude beaches for adherents of “Free Body Culture”. Don’t stare. They’re naked for them, not for you. There’s plenty of random nudity on normal German TV.
  • DO: Make sure you are recycling waste correctly.
  • DON’T: This seems weird but, don’t queue.  For a nation of rule followers, Germans don’t really queue, instead, it’s more of a free-for-all at the checkout or the bar.
  • DO: Expect Germans to bluntly disagree with you or point out your mistakes. It’s not rude, they’re just being honest about their perspective or might be trying to help you, and they expect you to do the same for them! Don’t be shy!
  • DON’T: Smiling at strangers without speaking to them will make people think you’re…strange.
  • DO: Be sincere. Don’t lighten serious conversations with jokes.
  • DON’T: Never wish someone a Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, or Happy Birthday before the day! It’s bad luck!
  • DO: Take time learning how to read and speak useful German words and phrases, and get German medical insurance before you visit.
  • DON’T: Is it rude to speak English in Germany? No, so don’t be afraid to. Most Germans speak good English, just try talking to someone in German first.
  • DO: Ask permission to film or photograph someone.
  • DONT: It’s rude to question a German once they’ve made their decision.
  • DO: If you MUST talk about WW1, WW2, or the Cold War and East Germany, approach the subjects with extreme caution and sensitivity. These are remarkably delicate topics.
  • DON’T: Don’t talk about Hitler. Don’t talk about the Nazis. Don’t draw any comparison to Germany now and Germany under the Third Reich. Don’t call Germany Nazi Germany. Don’t make any Nazi salutes or Hitler mustaches. Don’t say Führer. Don’t talk about the Holocaust. Don’t talk about the SS. Don’t own/bring/display/draw any Nazi imagery ESPECIALLY not the Swastika. Don’t say Heil Hitler. Not only is it never funny, nor clever, but the Germans are rightly touchy on a social and legal level with regards to Nazism. You’ll end up with a fine, and/or jail time, and will certainly lose the respect of any decent German (read human).

See related: Checkpoint Charlie: A Full History of this Berlin Landmark

Updated: July 19, 2021 — 9:41 am

The Author

James Oliver

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