What not to do in Germany- Tips for Enjoying German Culture

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 Just Wave a Hi or Hello

don't do this germany

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?”

what not to do germany

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 Leave Your Shopping Cart Abandoned in the Grocery Store Parking Lot

don't do this germany

photo by Thorsten Hartmann- flickr creative commons

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. (Because you don’t get free shopping bags with your groceries!)

Don’t Stand Idle While Your Groceries are being Rung Up

don't do this germany

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

don't do this germany

photo courtesy flickr creative commons- Weekly farmer market in Göttingen, Germany

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)


Don’t Expect to Use A Credit Card EVERYWHERE
what not to do in Germany

More and more stores and restaurants are set up for Credit Cards, but in Germany Cash is still KING. Fortunately, Euros are clearly marked with their amounts (even the coins). Also, there are ATM machines everywhere, even in small towns. I found it easier to take out what I need for walking around money every few days. (YAY! the days of long lines at the money changing kiosk are long gone.) Remember, even the coins have value! There is no 1 Euro bill… it’s a coin!
And while I do miss the old Marks… if you are traveling from country to country, it’s nice to not constantly have to get different money.

Don’t Bother Calculating Tax on Purchases

One of the best things about shopping in Germany? The price on the item is what you pull out of your wallet. You don’t have to worry about paying an additional tax on each item. Now, you MAY have to declare and pay taxes on some items… but for those rules, you should check here–>US Customs/Duty

Do Not Arrive Late

what not to do in germany

You are LATE

When you make plans in Germany to meet at 10am… DO NOT arrive at 10:10. Being late is not acceptable. EVER! (This is why online work from home in Germany is helpful). 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

what not to do germany

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….

Flower Combos

Don’t Expect Ice Water to Appear on Your Table at a Restaurant

don't do this germany

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 plain old water, ask for Still water. (You will most likely get a bottle of it on the table, and there is a good chance you will find it on the bill later). 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

dont do this germany

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! (I learned this year that you can ask the waiter for a smaller portion). 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

don't do this in germany

photo wikipedia commons

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

what not to do germany

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

don't do this germany

photo courtesy wikipedia creative commons

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 do this germany

Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons

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.


what not to do germany

53 thoughts on “What not to do in Germany- Tips for Enjoying German Culture

  1. The rule “Don’t ask for a doggy bag” is changing. Of course everyone knows it’s not for the dog, but restaurants in Berlin, for instance, have gotten used to customers asking for a container to take remaining food home. It does make sense to take it with you rather than stuffing yourself silly at a meal, in my opinion. And you’ve paid for the meal, after all.

    1. Well, as a German person myself I would bring my own Tupperware for my leftovers. It is not about the taking leftovers home issue but about the useless packaging waste. She is totally right! I live in the US for 18 years and the trash we produce here and how horrible we are at recycling still gets me.

  2. Don’t forget.You have to pay for your rolls,or bread in a restaurant.And..
    don’t ever pull a chair from another table for
    an extra person!

    1. Paying for bread in a German restaurant??? That’s odd….
      Germany does not have a sp-called cover charge like Italy or France.
      Simply taking a chair from another table WITHOUT ASKING is indeed considered impolite/rude and is likely to create friction. If you ask and it is refused, then there – most likely – is a legitimate reason for it.

      1. In France, true restaurants always give you free bread. Only in great cafeterias whith “self service” like Flunch, Casino, L’Arche, you have to pay for bread.

    2. You do not always have to pay for bread. Sometimes it is included. I think it depends on the Restaurant.
      And if you ask it is possible to pull a chair from another table!

  3. We have ALDI (grocery store chain) near us, and their rules are similar – so of course I had to look it up, and they started in Germany!

  4. A nice Amercianpoint of view. However, Germans are ( more and more) willing to help and explain. Just ask them, if you speak some German, they will reply in English. Do not assume everyone is delighted when someone starts speaking English.

    Foto: one of the Flickr pics show the highroad, called Autobahn. However this picture shows a Dutch highway…..

    1. Well… that was a stupid mistake on my part… fixed.

    2. This sign is, very clearly, of an Autobahn in Southern Germany. All the city names of the sign are German cities.

    3. No, it doesn’t! Last time I checked and worked in ULM, it was still Germany. The A7 highway leads all the way from Flensburg (close to the Danish Border!) south to Stuttgart.

    4. Wrong , that is the Autobahn in southern Germany.

  5. Remember wherever you go, always do as “when in Rome” and not “when at home”. I’ve lived in Germany and Belgium a few years and never got in any situation because one has to follow the rules of the country one is visiting. I always tried to immerse myself or at least get acquainted with the culture of the country. It saved a lot of embarrassments.

    1. Exactly… I wish I had a dime for every time I heard someone complain “that’s not how we do it at home”.
      Better to stay home then.

  6. Don’t order ice tea. Germans do not understand the American need for ice, and I got the idea they thought it was unhealthy. I’m American and I don’t like a lot of ice. Went on a date with an American woman and she ordered ice tea. The waiter was dumbfounded but she insisted. I told her it was not going to work out. He brought her a cup of hot tea with ice.

    1. ha! something similar happened to my mom in germany- she ordered iced tea. she got a glass of tea and asked the server for some ice. he touched her glass and replied “it is cold.” and that was that! lol

    2. Ed, yes Germans drink beverages mostly at room temperature. I don’t believe anybody there says cold beverages are unhealthy but the typical German fridge is about half the size of what I have at my home. Interestingly I talked to someone who knows about Ayurvedic medicine a few month ago and he told me that a cold drink “shuts down your digestive fire”. So, less bile to digest your food? Is that why we need all these digestive aids? here because we drink ice water with our meal and stomach acid gets released at the wrong time? I would say Germans don’t give you ice because they charge you for your coke and each refill. Putting lots of ice in it means watering it down so it is “cheating” the customer.

  7. A good German phrase to learn is “Ist Hier Frei?” (Ist heer fry)
    In America it would mean, can I sit here, or can I take this chair?
    In German they will probably answer either, “Bitte” which means “please” or “Leider Nein” (the ei is pronounced with a long I sound). “Leader Nein” is literally “painfully, no”
    but for us it means sorry no. Germans are generally very courteous, and if they say no, then they’re saving it for someone else. So you should move to another table.
    Many times though they will answer you in English. Most Germans speak at least a little English. We’ve been there a long time.

      1. Do not talk.loud in restsurants. Germans keep their voices down. Be sure to give small tips called trinkgeld.

  8. If there is no traffic I ignore the Ampelmann. Not to is unamerican.

    1. Here in Munich, you can spot easily spot Americans, they’re the ones that ignore the Ampelmann.

  9. You forgot one important “not to do”: in a restaurant do not wait to be seated. Ok, sometimes they will ask “how many persons? ” and show you a table where you should sit. But normally you just walk into the restaurant and choose the table where you want to sit.

  10. The picture shows red roses. I thought is was a no no unless it is your love interest.

  11. Taking a bike when drunk doesn’t really work, you can still use your license and pay fines if caught riding a bike drunk. I think you’re allowed a higher alcohol level though compared to driving a car.

  12. Hopefully, we can finally go to Germany this year and use these tips. I got sad when I read that part about the doggy bag. But all in all, you’ve got a great list! I didn’t even know half of the things listed here.

  13. I came here in 1956 and quickly learned American-English and enjoyed my first American meal, a taco.

  14. Don’t sit at a Stammtisch unless directed to do so or no other option

  15. Liebe Karen,
    Your article is great too many times Americans make the wrong impression … but my mother in law would always tell me that wife’s tale if you drink it cold like that – your indigestion will suffer! I used to say then Kuhscheisse! But about Restaurant I would always say when we had children with us sorry- Nein, Dieses Platz ist besetzt!

    1. Fair… you can say that. And if there is other room in the Restaurant, people can sit somewhere else.
      (my Oma always said that eating warm cake makes you sick… but I think she wanted to keep my fingers out of the cake)

  16. Don’t sit at the Stammtisch if you are not a “real” local. You will undoubtably be asked to sit elsewhere.

  17. Who wrote this? Not a real german… Riding a bicycle “in traffic” drunk in germany carries exactly the same punishments as driving any vehicle drunk in traffic. Tractor, snowmobile, spaceship, bicycle, doesn’t matter. The rules apply to everything on the road. There are only two loopholes. 1. if you don’t have a driving license, and don’t care about never getting one, and don’t have any money, and don’t care to have any for the near future, then the consequences are basically zero. 2. walking drunk doesn’t have a penalty, it is only operating vehicles while drunk that is forbidden. But, you can still lose your driving license while walking, or as a passenger, if you break traffic law.

    1. so… three words out of a thousand are enough to convince you that this wasn’t written by a real German? Seems a bit much. In my family’s village everyone rides bicycles to the Fests when they plan to drink. Yes, there is trouble if you are caught drunk on a bike, but less than if you drive drunk.

  18. Back in the sixties when women used to roll their hair in curlers , my mother would always yell at me if I tried to leave the house in curlers. She would then tell me about the American woman who lived in Wiesbaden at the base who went into the grocery store with curlers in her hair and was asked to leave. In Germany you would never go out in public with curlers in your hair
    . Of course I had to say this is not Germany mom. lol

  19. As of 2022, dome of these German norms have evolved. Now you can use credit cards in many places, especially chain Supermarkts, gas stations and restaurants.
    A note about tipping at restaurants…for years, travel books have been saying that tips are not expected. False! You are expected to tip 15% or expect glares from the waiters!

    1. Good to know. It’s time for me to go back so I can make an update.

  20. Loved reading this. Being Swiss and live in America since 1867, find the same applies in Switzerland. Much has changed, however, courtesy, cleanliness, quality, and deliciousness still stand. Swiss restaurants include the tip on all bills, but most people add a little on top of that.
    Thank you for sharing. Great advice

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