In many ways, Germany is very much like everywhere else, people generally put their pants on one leg at at time. BUT, some things are different, some things that the average American does every day are just not as acceptable in Germany. How do you know what to do? Here’s an almost complete lists of WHAT NOT TO DO IN GERMANY, just basic little rules, and most are fairly easy to remember. Consider them Simple Survival Tips for Enjoying German Culture.
Now, most people will understand if you slip up, it happens.. and Germans are very forgiving to outsiders. (Well… except for the old-school Omas. Those, you have to watch out for….) Do your best, be polite, and enjoy your time in Germany!
Don’t Leave Your Shopping Cart Abandoned in the Grocery Store Parking Lot
I get it… you’ve done your shopping, loaded the car, strapped the kids into their seats, and now you have this shopping cart to deal with. You don’t want to walk ALL THE WAY back to the front of the store! Maybe you could just push it off to the side a bit ,making sure one of the wheels is in a planter so it won’t roll into someone else’s car. WRONG! Don’t be lazy! Bring the cart back! Added bonus… when you want to take a cart from the shopping cart corral, you have to put a Euro coin in a slot to unchain it… bring it back, and you get your money back. Leave it out in the lot, and it will cost you the Euro you just saved because you remembered to bring your shopping bags.
Don’t Stand Idle While Your Groceries are being Rung Up
As long as we are at the grocery store, I should remind you that Germany is not like the rest of the world. No one will ask (or even care) if you found everything you are looking for, no one will ask you how your day has been so far, and NO ONE will bag your groceries. You must hop to it yourself. In fact! The checkers in German Grocery stores move FAST! Your best bet? Position yourself like a big league catcher, and toss everything back in the cart. You can then take your cart to a ledge area at the front of the store, and bag your goodies yourself. You brought your own shopping bags…. right?
Don’t Fondle the Produce at the Market
As someone who has … on more than one occasion… been stuck behind the elderly woman who was picking out raisins/green beans/cherries ONE BY ONE to get only the best ones, I can see the logic in this. Tell the person running the stand what you want… 4 pounds of apples, 1 pound of green beans etc, and they will be sure to give you exactly what you ask for. Besides, as my cousin once pointed out to me, no one wants the fruit that has been squeezed by everyone who is walking by! Worried you will get an apple with a bruise? It won’t hurt you! Besides, everyone else will probably get an apple with a bump too. And again, the farmer isn’t making money off of fruit no one wants… take what you get and move on. (The expectations we have of perfect produce is just a result of American Supermarket training. It’s shameful how much gets thrown away for not being PERFECT)
Do Not Arrive Late
When you make plans in Germany to meet at 10am… DO NOT arrive at 10:10. Being late is not acceptable. EVER! Now, what if you’ve been stuck in traffic and can’t get there on time? (Honestly, you didn’t plan for the possibility of unforeseen traffic?) Call ahead ..that’s what Handies (Cell phones) are for. There are few good excuses for lateness; for example- extreme blood loss or an International incident that affects you personally. Just learn to get there early and wait outside for the right time to ring the doorbell. (Maybe set your watch back an hour early). Don’t believe me? My aunt invited me to lunch on one of my visits to Germany. Now, I only get there every few years since it’s a 5600+ miles journey. I got distracted in the last 100 yards, and arrived 10 minutes late. They had already eaten, and my plate sat alone on the table. Lesson learned.
Don’t Arrive Empty Handed
When you are invited to someone’s home it is polite to bring a little something. Flowers are nice… or a small box of chocolates. Basically, if you are invited, bring something! My father always cut a bouquet of his beautiful roses and mom would wrap them in tissue before we went to friends for Kaffee... and when people came to us, they would bring flowers too. Don’t go nuts, but do bring something (especially if you are staying overnight!). And it might get you out of trouble for showing up late….
Don’t Just Wave a Hi or Hello
While we are on the subject of greetings… In Germany people shake hands when they arrive and when they leave (the exception is when you leave a busy table in a restaurant… rather than go around the table, if you are will friends, you can rap the table with your knuckles and say your goodbyes.) Shake firmly, but you aren’t trying to win a strong man contest, look the person in the eye and say hello, or introduce yourself. Just sitting in the chair without rising and doing a brief wave is guaranteed to bring grief down on your head…especially if my mother catches you!
Don’t Greet People by asking “How are You?”
Unless you really want Chapter and Verse about how someone is feeling, don’t ask How Are You? Here in the US we throw the question around as a greeting, but Germans don’t do idle questions… especially with strangers. Such a question presumes a deeper friendship or closer relationship than you ordinarily get from the guy selling you a Slurpee at the 7-11. This is not to say that Germans are cold, or don’t talk, quite the opposite. Once you’ve made a connection with a German, and have become a trusted friend, THEN you can dive deep into conversation, and you know you will have a friend forever. Good way to greet someone? Say “Guten Tag” or “Hallo” ich heisse… (my name is….).
Don’t Expect Ice Water to Appear on Your Table at a Restaurant
In Germany, the busboy doesn’t show up at your table, moments after you sit down, with giant tumblers of ice water. If you want water… you have to order it. Chances are you will get a smaller glass, and maybe a bottle if you need refills. Most importantly! Be aware that there are a few types of water! Generally, if you order water, you get Mineral Water (what my kids call bubble water). If you want tap water, ask for Still water. On the subject of drinks… most drinks are served in much smaller quantities in Germany than in the US, and forget about free refills! I once watched a parents encourage their American son to have “as many Cokes as he wanted”… the bill made his dad go pale. Would have been cheaper to give him beer….
Don’t Ask for a Doggy Bag
I’m sure that with changing times, there are changing habits, but that doesn’t mean you get to carry the remnants of your meal home in a piece of aluminum foil wrapped to resemble a swan. And since well-behaved dogs are allowed into restaurants, no one believes you are taking food home for Waldie. The portions may still be big, but they aren’t gigantic! And generally, it’s polite to just finish your plate. Your Oma would be pleased. (Or do what I do… share your meal…. ) For Bonus Points… eat like a German! Fork in the left hand and knife in the right… and keep them there. Don’t switch them back and forth, and for goodness sake DO NOT hold your fork with your fist while cutting your meat… I promise, your food will not try to escape!
Don’t Expect a Table all for Yourself at a Biergarten
A Biergarten is an extension of a German living space… and if someone is in your space, you share. (If you want to drink alone, stay home). Biergarten tables and benches are long enough to make space for several people … and even more if you like to be close! Now, sitting at a table with other people doesn’t mean you have to be best friends forever, or even buy them a Bier… it just means that more people have a chance to sit and enjoy the day. And who knows? you might make friends. You can go ahead and mark the space you need with a tablecloth and some clips..
Don’t Drink and Drive
Now, I know this is a universal truth, but in Germany, drunk driving is strictly VERBOTEN. The blood alcohol level is 0.05% compared the the United States 0.08%… but the penalties are much MUCH stricter. Not only do you pay a hefty fine (THOUSANDS of Euros), you lose your license for minimum of 6 months… probably longer… but you also get to visit with a psychologist who determines your fitness to drive again. (Read one man’s experience HERE) I know it seems odd that a culture SO invested in drinking beer could be so hard on drinking and driving… but it keeps people safe. Walk, ride a bike, take a taxi, take a streetcar, I understand UBER is even moving in to Germany. This way everyone gets home safely, and you can go out again next week!
Don’t Drive Slowly in the Left Lane
I know, the Autobahn can be intimidating… it’s a bit like NASCAR, but without numbers and you don’t have a spotter. The rules are simple- faster cars drive on the left, slower cars drive on the right, and under NO CIRCUMSTANCES may you pass on the right. How do you know if you are driving too slow on the left? Some big Mercedes will come up behind you and flash his lights (don’t freak out, just move over). One myth that needs correcting, contrary to what you may think, there ARE speed limits on the Autobahn in many areas. Pay attention to road signs. (For everything you EVER wanted to know about driving on the Autobahn look HERE)
And Finally, the Most Common Piece of Advice You Will Find in Any Article About Fitting in in Germany….
DON’T CROSS AGAINST THE AMPELMANN!!
I know, I know… the Ampelmann is just a red or green silhouette, and while he has a tremendous pop culture following, he has no actual power over you. BUT! The Oma next to you at the crosswalk carries an umbrella, and is fearless about waving it about while she shouts at your for posting a bad example for children. Even if there are NO CARS. Even if there are NO CHILDREN. Even if you’ve been standing there for 5 minutes, and you run the risk of being late for lunch with your Aunt. (You should have left 30 minutes earlier… just in case). Stand there and wait for the green Ampelmann… do this, make it a habit, and you will begin to understand the flow of living in Germany.
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