Through the years of my being here in Germany, I have finally learned how to act like a civilized citizen even though I am anything but… Being an outsider coming in, I never really thought assimilating to German culture would be at all difficult. The German and American cultures, at first glance, are quite similar. Upon closer inspection, however, a young foreigner like I might find himself lost in a jungle of cultural mishaps and awkward situations unless extra care is taken in learning a few key points about the Germans. Within that first year, I always seemed to be doing something wrong. Fortunately for you, I’ve made a list of the most important things to remember when traveling through the “Father Land”. Here’s my take on Germany’s dos and don’ts and I’ve thrown in some probably shouldn’ts since hell, at the right place or time, anyone can get away with anything.
Do Use Cash
I have come across maybe 10 restaurants in the last year that accept credit cards. I think that speaks for itself.
Probably Shouldn’t Jaywalk
Really, the Germans hate it. Hell after a few years of being here I have even started glaring in disgust at the people who do it. But it’s much more than following the rules or avoiding menacing looks of disapproval. If there are children around you could face a pretty hefty fine for the short 10-meter stretch. Yes, even if there aren’t any cars coming.
Probably Shouldn’t Ask Someone How Their Day is Going…
Unless you are prepared to hear their sob stories about how their great aunt Brigitte just had hip surgery, and now they are stuck caring for her cats and can’t find time to study for the exam that is going to be super hard and since they are under so much stress they will be having a spa day on the weekend and starting therapy the following week.
See, unlike in America where we hand out “How are yous” like candy on Halloween and respond with a polite smile and “Fine, thanks”, in Germany you would only ask when you want to know how someone is doing and practically never to strangers. Asking how someone is doing is an invitation for them to really express themselves. I have hardly ever received a short reply when asking this question and always answer with my true feelings. If I’m having a bad day I say it and follow up with why.
Do Talk Politics and Anything Taboo
Germany is the land of the thinkers and poets, and the Germans love to get into all hairy topics that we (at least in America) would reserve only for drunk family functions. Religion, cultural differences, political views are shared freely, discussed openly and debated even with strangers over a round of beer.
Do Look the Other Person in the Eyes When Saying Cheers (Prost!)
I have rather shoddy cultural knowledge when it comes to the rest of the world, so I am really not sure if this is considered bad luck anywhere else, but in Germany, if eye contact is never made and held while saying cheers, it’s not only impolite, but may bring a streak of bad luck your way. Best to not test it, right?
Do Tip But Not Too Much
Tip is around 5-10% depending on how nice the restaurant is. Since I am still accustomed to the American way of tipping, more often than not I make my husband do the tipping. If I give the tip it might be two or even three times too much and can come across as flaunting wealth.
Don’t Wish Someone a Happy Birthday Before Their Actual Birthday
I find this rule absolutely ridiculous and quite frankly sometimes still wish people a happy birthday before the date actually arrives. My German friends (husband included) find it quite “Fake” and “Strange” that I would ever wish someone a happy birthday when the birthday has yet to come. What I don’t understand is why it’s okay in Germany to wish someone a happy birthday AFTER their birthday has already passed, yet before is blasphemy and is punishable by the chance of yet another streak of bad luck.
Probably Shouldn’t Smile at Strangers
At least not in the South. Maybe I have bad luck with people, or maybe there’s something about me that is just off-putting. Whenever I smile at a stranger, especially while living in the south (I’m looking at you Munich), I always receive in return sharp eyes and lightened lips. Do Germans not like other people? Sure they do, just maybe not happy people they don’t know.
Spitting is gross. I happened to spit while walking with my husband and a friend of his that I was meeting for the first time. I was thereafter instantly informed in a rigid tone that spitting is “Considered quite rude here in Germany.”
In my defense, I’m really not one of those people who walk around hacking phlegm wherever I go. It just happened to be an isolated incidence that led to me being completely embarrassed for the rest of the day.
Do Be Punctual
If the German’s love anything in the world it is being on time and expecting others to be on time as well. Being on time is the absolute most important thing ever. NO MATTER WHAT! Before I moved here, I was always late. Now I’m the guy at the train station along with 30 other Germans getting pissy that the train is delayed by two minutes. Being punctual is so deeply woven into the German culture that even the exams for integration and naturalization have specific questions regarding punctuality.
Do Learn Some Basic German Before You Go
This really seems like it shouldn’t have to be stated. The Germans love practicing their English with whomever they can but this shouldn’t deter you from at least learning the basics of the language before you go. German is quite a difficult language and the Germans know that and are very proud of this fact. Spitting out a few random phrases not only makes life a bit easier especially while visiting smaller towns where maybe not many speak English, but will also have the locals bursting with joy that someone at least tried.