German Etiquette: Customs, Norms & How to Be Super-Polite
When in Germany…
Do eat with a fork and knife, shake hands when greeting people and be on time, always.
Don’t dress like a slob, compare anyone to Nazis or stare at the naked people.
There you have it: The five-second summary of this article.
In this post, we’ll be looking at the things that you should and shouldn’t do while visiting Germany, Austria or Switzerland.
We’ll also go deeper by examining why some of these customs exist. Plus, we’ll get in some good vocabulary to help you deal with social situations you’ll encounter in German-speaking countries.
We’re talking about etiquette, which is closely linked to manners, so before we go any further, I’d like to share this quote from Emily Post:
“Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.”
That quote is a good reminder that even though we’ll get into some cultural ideas and vocabulary in this post, it’s still very important to simply observe what is going on around you.
As the old saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
That advice can trump much of what you’ll read below, especially if you add this other concept: When in doubt, ask.
If you’re not sure about the “proper” things to do in a given situation, just ask a native. They’ll usually be happy to help you out, and this can also strike up an interesting conversation about cultural differences.
Of course, this is a blog about the German language, so we’ll also get into some details about the vocabulary used in different situations throughout Germany, Austria and German-speaking Switzerland.
Nevertheless, to avoid that long phrase, I’ll often simply refer to “Germany” or “Germans,” purely for simplicity’s sake. But as with many things, regional differences can be a big deal, so I’ll mention a few regional etiquette differences when they’re relevant.
First, let’s go over some tips about how to behave in general everyday situations, followed by what to do in work or professional situations.
We’ll wrap it all up with a special look at eating etiquette, since that’s often the source of many cross-cultural misunderstandings or issues.
German Etiquette for Everyday Life
Use the Proper Greetings & Goodbyes - When you arrive at a new place or leave it, you’ll normally have to interact with the people in that place, whether it’s a house, an office, a store or any other public or private area. Generally speaking, greetings and farewells are more acknowledged in German-speaking countries than they are in English-speaking countries.
If you walk into a party in the US, for example, a casual “hey” and a wave to the room will often be enough. In Germany, however, you’ll generally greet or be introduced to most people in the room, and that involves lots of hand shaking.
Depending on the time of day and the place, you can usually feel free to say to most people you meet a hearty Guten Morgen (good morning), used until noon; Guten Tag (good day), used basically any time the sun is up, but more in the afternoon; or Guten Abend (good evening).
Other, less formal greetings, such as "Hello", aren’t as common, especially if you don’t know the person well. But as a near-cognate, Hello is really easy for English speakers to remember, and it can work in a pinch.
If you’re down south in Bavaria or Austria, you’ll often hear the phrase Grüß Gott, which basically means “God’s greetings.” If you say that as a tourist or visitor, it may feel a bit strange, but it can lead to a warmer reception if you go into a store, for example. Similar (in use, but not necessarily meaning) greeting words are Grüezi in Switzerland and Moin in parts of northern Germany. These tend to be used more commonly by natives, though, and it may seem strange to hear visitors using it. If in doubt, you can always revert back to a Guten [x].
For taking leave, the word Tschüss (bye) can work in many situations. It’s not really formal, but if someone says it to you, you can certainly say it back.
If you’re in a store, at work or in any more formal situation, you can say Auf Wiedersehen (until we see each other again) or just Wiedersehen. In parts of the South, people will probably say Wiederschauen instead (sehen is more like “see,” and schauen is more like “look”), but it means the same thing.
If you’re talking on the phone, you’re not actually seeing or looking at the other person, so then you should say Auf Wiederhören (until we hear each other again).
It’s a bit difficult to know what to do in every situation, but if you’re not sure, try to use Sie. It’s actually easier in some ways, since you don’t really have to change the verbs to conjugate them. For example, for the verb essen (to eat), you could ask, Essen Sie Fisch? (Do you eat fish?) if you’re using Sie, and you don’t need to change the verb. If you’re using du, though, you’d have to ask, Isst du Fisch? which takes a bit more thought and learning to produce.
When in doubt, use Herr [last name] for men, Frau [last name] for women and Sie for a pronoun.
Speaking of last names and titles, Germans tend to place a lot of importance on both, and you’ll often come across people with multiple titles (such as a Herr Professor Doktor Müller or Frau Doktor Doktor Schmidt). If a person is introduced to you with those titles, use them, unless the person tells you it’s not necessary.
Punctuality: Don’t be early, don’t be late.
Be on time. Don’t be more than a few minutes early, and definitely don’t be more than a few minutes late.
If you’re late for a train or bus in Germany, it will leave the station without you, probably even if the driver sees you running towards it. There’s a similar lack of understanding for lateness in the German business world, and even if you’re just going to meet with a friend for a social occasion.
“Fashionably late” is just “late,” and it’s not at all fashionable in a country where you often hear the phrase Ordnung muss sein (There has to be order).
If, for some unavoidable reason out of your control, you find that you’ll be late to a meeting or a get-together, call to let the host or organizer know what’s going on and when you’ll be there.
Always give yourself extra time to get to an appointment—and go for a nice stroll around the neighborhood if you get there early, since arriving early can also be awkward or frowned upon. That will also give you a few minutes to go buy a bouquet of flowers, a bottle of wine or some other small gift to give to the host, in case you forgot!
Dress the Part: For whatever activity you’re doing, there’s likely some “appropriate” piece of clothing, whether it’s a formal suit, some “business casual wear” (whatever that means) or even Tischtennisschuhe (table tennis shoes)—and yes, they exist, and there’s a whole protocol about when you should or shouldn’t wear them.
You don’t always have to wear the “appropriate” clothing, but there are times when certain clothing is highly recommended or even obligatory. And if you don’t wear said clothing, prepare to be noticed and maybe even corrected.
For example, I always wondered how Germans could tell who was American and Canadian, so one day I asked a German friend. He told me it was basically because of the socks and shoes: Americans—especially as tourists who walk around a lot—tend to wear white socks and white tennis shoes, and Germans basically never do.
You may have also heard anecdotes about a specific area where the rule is no clothing: the sauna. Generally, they’re referred to as textilfrei (textile/clothing-free), and you really do have to go in naked. But don’t forget the sauna towels (yes, of course there are towels specifically for saunas), since bare, sweaty skin on the sauna wood is definitely frowned upon, and dripping sweat onto the wood or, God forbid, another person in the sauna, is definitely a no-no.
By the way, schedules for saunas are normally available, but they’re generally co-ed (indicated by Gemischt or Gemischter Betrieb, meaning “mixed” or “mixed operation”). Most also have a few hours a week for a Damensauna (ladies’ sauna) or Frauensauna (women’s sauna), which are two names that mean the same thing: no sausage party, so to speak.
So as a general rule of thumb, unless you’re going into a sauna, you should probably dress slightly nicer in Germany than you would in the US. People tend to look sharp at work, at school and even at play. In other words, if you’re an exchange student in Germany, don’t wear pajama pants and flip-flops to your classes. That may fly in Los Angeles, but it won’t in Berlin.
Don’t stare at the naked people.
To continue our train of thought from the previous point, there tends to be more nudity and more acceptance of nudity and the human body in Germany than in many other countries. This isn’t necessarily an etiquette issue, but it’s something interesting that comes up frequently and is good to be aware of. Basically, for most Germans, nudity just isn’t a big deal.
You’ll notice that, in addition to saunas, many other realms have a less-prudish approach to nudity. If you go to a pool or a locker room, you’ll be exposed, literally, to this attitude. Most people will strip down for public showers or to change, and many beaches have lots of topless women and even nude areas (called “FKK” areas, which stands for Freikörperkultur, or “free body culture”).
You may also notice the attitude towards nudity is more relaxed in advertisements, albeit in a very different way. You’re more likely to see TV advertisements showing nudity, and to an outsider, some of that nudity may seem a bit gratuitous. There’s a difference between nudity and sex, of course, but a lot of German nudity on TV (unlike in the sauna) may come off as blatantly provocative and sexy.
In summary, while it’s interesting that nudity in these cases seems to be mostly provocative and not natural or incidental (like in the sauna or at the beach in everyday life), it’s important to understand that in German culture, nudity in general is far from unusual.
Maybe the Germans reading this are just chuckling at our non-German prudishness, with our labeling of the video links as “NSFW” and our hand-wringing over some nipples and buttocks. Perhaps they’d just shake their heads and say, “What’s the big deal?”
Don’t misinterpret the more reserved attitude.
You’d think that a culture that’s so down for getting naked and drinking booze would correspondingly have a freewheeling, party-loving reputation. But you’d be wrong. For whatever reason, Germans often get a reputation for being “cold,” although that’s not necessarily fair or accurate.
Get some “house shoes”: If you’re spending any amount of time in Germany, you’ll often see that many houses and families have Hausschuhe (house shoes). They’re basically what the name indicates: shoes to wear inside your house. While not necessarily as often as in many parts of Scandinavia, many German households will expect visitors to take off their shoes at the entrance, and if so, many families even have Hausschuhe for guests.
Some visitors may think it’s bizarre or even rude to ask guests to take off their shoes, but you have to admit that it does help keep the inside of the house clean—and in the cold winter months, it can contribute to a feeling of Gemütlichkeit (coziness).
Keep an open mind about closed doors: This is another topic related to home life, but it can also play a role at work. If someone closes their door, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t want to see you. They may just want to concentrate on work or even keep the heat inside the room if it’s winter.
As with many issues surrounding German life, this can get unnecessarily complicated. In fact, there’s even a German saying about this: Warum einfach, wenn es auch kompliziert geht? (Why make it easy, if you can also make it complicated?).
If you’re not sure what to do, just knock. More likely than not, you’ll hear a voice from inside say “Herein” (Come in).
“Don’t mention the War!”: In the 1970s British show “Fawlty Towers,” John Cleese’s character Basil Fawlty runs a hotel, and in one episode he’s serving some Germans. He knows that he shouldn’t mention World War II, but after a head injury, he’s unable to stop making continual references and jokes about the war and the Nazis. He’s exaggerating, of course, but there’s still a kernel of truth to his jokes.
This whole area is still a sensitive topic, even though many of the people directly involved in the war have already died and young Germans and Austrians (reasonably) don’t really feel as much connection to or responsibility for the actions of the previous generations. Because of that, it’s not generally a topic that Germans will bring up in normal conversation, but they also don’t necessarily try to avoid it.
There have been many attempts to reconcile the past atrocities of the Nazis with the reality of the modern, progressive German society of today. There’s even a German word that roughly means “coming to terms with the past”: Vergangenheitsbewältigung.
For example, modern German students have to visit concentration camps on school field trips so that they can understand what the country did in the past. In addition, unlike in the US, the Nazi party is banned in Germany, as are Nazi symbols like the swastika. That kind of frank acknowledgement of the past is seen as a good thing, so it’s probably unfair for visitors to complain that their taxi driver is a real “Nazi” or to compare anyone or anything to Hitler—and that’s probably sound life advice in general.
German Etiquette for Work
Here are a few points to keep in mind when in a professional setting.
Plan, plan and plan again. This is similar to private life, but more intense. Meeting agendas are going to be set well ahead of time and will generally be adhered to closely. This can be very important for all kinds of professional interactions, from a huge conference to a weekend team-building retreat. So pay attention to the emails and memos you get, since they may contain important scheduling information!
Shake hands. Repeat. Again, this is also common in non-work interactions, but it’s the norm for basically any professional interaction between any two people of any age or gender. If you have a close relationship with a friend, the French style of greeting by kissing twice on the cheeks may be used, but it’s definitely not common in business. So when you go into a room, you should generally go and shake hands with each person present, one at a time. But don’t overdo it. That’s enough with the touching!
Hand shaking may be normal, but that’s basically where the touchy-feely stuff ends. You shouldn’t touch someone’s arm to maintain their attention in a conversation, for example, and you may also find that people have a different perception of appropriate “personal space.”
Learn how to dress: As we mentioned in the section above, you may find that German business dress is different from that where you live. That doesn’t always mean a suit or tie, though. There are sites that can give you general tips about what to wear, but it’s also good to check out what other employees at the company are wearing.
Dining Etiquette: Eating in Germany
Use your utensils: They’re there for a reason. You’ll almost never eat with your hands while in Germany. Even slices of toast and open-faced sandwiches tend to be served on personal mini cutting boards and eaten with a knife and fork. There was even a legendary story that was whispered among my fellow German master’s program students about a German friend who had once eaten a hamburger with a fork and knife.
Also, if you’re able to eat in the “German” way—in which you keep the fork in your left hand and the knife in your right—that will probably help you avoid some strange looks or questions at dinner. The American technique of cutting with the knife in the right hand and then switching the fork to the right hand to eat the bite is considered strange, and is actually quite a bit less efficient, if you think about it. And Germans do like efficiency.
So get used to using das Messer (the knife), die Gabel (the fork) and der Löffel (the spoon), and don’t be afraid to ask for eine Serviette (a napkin) to keep things clean and orderly when you eat. Oh, but why is the fork feminine, the spoon masculine and the knife neutral? That’s just one of the sweet mysteries of the German language, my friend! (no worse than French)
Mahlzeit! Eat with good wishes: You should normally say a generalized wish of “good appetite” to everyone at the table before someone starts eating, even if you didn’t actually prepare or serve the food. It’s even common to say something to nearby groups or individuals if you’re sitting in a public area, such as a long table with benches in a Biergarten, for example.
The most common phrase is Guten Appetit (good appetite), but depending on where you are, you may also hear people say Mahlzeit, which actually means “meal” or “meal time,” but carries the same meaning.
Maintain eye contact when toasting: Germany is known for its beer, wine and spirits, so it should come as no surprise that it also has customs about toasting before drinking.
The most common phrases you’ll hear are Prost! (Cheers!) or Zum Wohl! (To health!). If you hear one of these, you should briefly look everyone in the group in the eye, take a drink and then make brief eye contact again. Only then should you put down your drink. This is more common and strict when drinking wine, but it’s also done when drinking beer or schnapps.
As for whether or not to clink glasses or bottles together, there seems to be some disagreement about when it’s appropriate, so just play it safe and do what everyone else is doing.
Drink if you want to: Most meals will have beer, wine or both, and you may also be offered cocktails, schnapps or “digestive” liqueurs before and after eating. That may sound like a lot of booze, and if you say “ja” to every offer, it may well be.
If you want to join in on the drinking, feel free to, but there’s almost universal understanding if you don’t drink or if you just don’t want to overdo it. There’s also very little pressure to drink, and people who do drink tend to do so responsibly (i.e., no drunk driving), even if they do end up getting drunk responsibly and throwing up responsibly.
Keep your hands on the table, but not your elbows: If you’re eating with both hands (see the section above about utensils), this may not even be an issue, since both hands will be kept busy. But if you’re just using one hand to eat a bowl of soup, for example, it’s considered polite to have the free hand resting on the table. That doesn’t include the forearm or elbow, though.
Together or separate? Pay attention when paying: If you’ve eaten out in the US, you may know how difficult it can be to get separate checks for one group at a restaurant. And let’s not even get into tipping.
If you’re eating out at a restaurant or café in Germany, however, it’s very common for servers to ask groups if they want the bill zusammen oder getrennt (together or separate). If they don’t ask, you can also tell them when paying at the end of the meal. It’s not considered strange for friends to pay for their own meals individually, and that often even happens on dates.
If you insist on paying for some reason, you can say Ich lade (dich) ein (I’ll get this one; literally “I invite (you)”), but just know that it may be a bit uncomfortable for the other person if there’s not a good reason for you to offer. And if you do say you’ll pay, especially if you insist on it more than once, be sure that you have money with you, since the other person may simply say “OK.”
Depending on your perspective, the service at German restaurants is either less attentive or less suffocating than in the US. After a meal, you’ll probably have to get a server’s attention by saying Zahlen, bitte! (Pay, please!) or Die Rechnung, bitte! (The check, please!)
Generally the server will come directly to the table and tally up each person’s or group’s items, and then say the total(s). This price will include taxes and service, but it’s common to round up a bit as a tip. For example, if the server says the price is 34 euros and 25 cents, you can give the server the money and simply say “35” (or “36,” if you want to seem like a high roller).
Most people won’t give more gratuity than that unless it’s a special occasion or place (like Oktoberfest), or if the service was excellent.
When in Berlin, Do as the Berliners Do: This guide to German etiquette doesn’t necessarily cover every single social situation you’ll encounter, but then again, that would be impossible. Still, it should help you successfully navigate the waters of social interactions in Germany, Austria or Switzerland.
As a final reminder, don’t forget the basic overlying tip from before: When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
If you’re not sure how to act, just go with the flow. And if you still feel like you’re sticking out like a sore thumb, just ask someone what to do.
It may be a bit uncomfortable, but it’s surely less uncomfortable than committing a major social faux pas—and your question may spark a conversation that leads you to finding a new German friend!