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German Etiquette Guide

German Etiquette Guide

Berlin Reichstag

By Dean Foster Monster Contributing Writer

Europe’s economic powerhouse, the wonder of post-World War II reconstruction, a major contributor to both world culture and several world catastrophes over the last two centuries, Germany is an enigma that wants to be understood. Germans have been trying to explain themselves for most of their history, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. What it means to be German, who is German and what defines Germany’s borders have all been issues at the heart of the culture itself.

So how do you navigate such a complex landscape as an expatriate? Check out this guide to German etiquette in work and play.

Which Germany Are We In?

While East and West Germany are no longer, there most definitely are an eastern and a western Germany. Western Germany is most similar to modern 21st-century life, while eastern Germany still struggles with the legacies of its communist past. Southern and northern Germany have distinct cultures as well. Northern Germany is heavily industrialized and generally more liberal and Protestant, while southern Germany is more rural, conservative and Catholic. Styles of life and attitudes toward work differ along these geographic and cultural lines.

But They All Speak English, Right?

In western Germany’s business settings, most people have good English competency, but finding an English speaker on the street is not always simple. In eastern Germany, most people, including businesspeople, typically have limited English competency. Because English is taught in schools, younger Germans often have better English skills than older ones.

Until you know otherwise or have developed a personal relationship, it is very important to refer to your German colleague by title (respectively, Herr and Frau for Mr. and Mrs.) plus last name (no first names until you have established a friendship). If someone is introduced to you with an additional title (e.g., Dr.), use it. The culture is formal until people get to know each other.

Shake hands with everyone individually in a group when greeting and again before departing. The American group wave is not appreciated. The use of business cards is common, and if possible, you should have your business card translated into German on the reverse. Be sure to put any advanced educational degrees and your full title or position on your business card. Germans show their appreciation for a presentation at the end of a business meeting by rapping their knuckles against the tabletop.

Maintain direct eye contact when eye contact is made with you. This is especially true when toasting. Say “Prost!” when toasting with beer and “Zum wohl!” when toasting with wine.

Watch the Clock

Time is managed carefully, and calendars, schedules and agendas must be respected. If you are going to be even a few minutes late, call ahead and explain your situation. Trains arrive and leave to the minute, projects are carefully scheduled, and organization charts are meticulously detailed. This orientation toward planning and following the rules extends to office doors traditionally being closed, cars always being kept clean and no crossing against the red light, even if there is no oncoming traffic. Of course, the society may not be as rigid as it once was, but once methods are established, they are difficult to challenge in Germany.

Guten Appetit

Remember, every time you drink a glass, whether beer or wine, it will generally be refilled. The more you drink, the more you will be offered to drink, so know when to stop. German white Rhine wines and beers are world-renowned.

While dining, as is the custom throughout the continent, the knife remains in the right hand, and the fork remains in the left. An interesting older tradition in Germany is to never cut anything on your plate with a knife that can first be cut with a fork (i.e., potatoes), and never cut your salad or lettuce (always fold it against the inside of the fork into a small bundle). When entering a restaurant or going through any door, the man enters first and then steps back, allowing the woman to follow.

This article originally appeared on

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