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First Stay in a Foreign Country: German Etiquette


By Sabine Olschner

How do people greet one another in Germany? How do work colleagues interact? What really makes Germans "tick"? Anyone arriving in a foreign country for the first time is often unsure of how they should behave. So it makes great sense to find out about a country's idiosyncrasies before you arrive. You will find it far easier to integrate into both professional and private life.

First stay in a foreign country© Lise Gagne - iStockphoto.com
First impressions matter. So even when meeting people you should try to choose the right mode of address. In Germany there is a distinction between the friendly "Du" and the formal "Sie." When addressing strangers older than 15, one usually uses "Sie." It is not uncommon for colleagues who have worked together for several years to still use the "Sie" form. It is usually the older person who offers the "Du" to the younger person. At work, one should wait until one's line manager takes this step. Younger people, under the age of 30, often use "Du" from the start. If are unsure which is the correct form, the best idea is to wait and see how you are addressed.

If you are addressed as "Sie", you use "Herr" or "Frau" plus the surname. When using "Du", both parties use the first name. In Germany it is the custom, both when meeting and leaving, that one shakes hands and looks the other person in the eyes. One sees people - particularly young people and those who know each other well - giving a kiss on the cheeks or a quick hug.

Don't dress too casually

When it comes to choosing how to dress, you do not need to worry too much - as long as your clothing is clean and tidy you will make a good impression on people. In the business world, men often wear a shirt and tie, and perhaps a jacket too. But at universities and science institutions the code is often more casual. The best idea is to take your cue from how your colleagues dress - and try not to be smarter than your boss. At official events such as business meals, or visits to a concert or the theatre, you should not dress too informally.

On the subject of meals, the person who issues the invitation usually also pays the bill. If you informally agree to go out to eat together, each person will pay for themselves. When people know each other well, the bill is sometimes divided equally between those present. And German women do not expect the men to pay for their meal. Germans tend to be reserved about issuing private invitations to eat at home in the evenings. If you are invited to a private meal, you should bring a small gift such as a bunch of flowers, a bottle of wine or some chocolates. Unannounced visits are not the norm in Germany and are only acceptable among friends.

At the meal itself, each person waits until everyone has sat down at the table and has their plate in front of them. If the invitation is formal, the host will raise their glass and welcome the guests. Everyone says "Zum Wohl" ("your health") and clinks glasses. Before starting to eat, people say "Guten Appetit." At informal gatherings, the guests usually help themselves from the buffet. Sometimes they even contribute something to the buffet, but you should discuss this in advance with the host.

Don't arrive too late

Germans are known for their punctuality. In particular, if you are invited to a meal where the host is doing the cooking, it is important to arrive on time. But value is also placed on punctuality at other types of gathering. Ten minutes is the latest you should arrive, or you should let people know in good time if something has held you up. Missing appointments is regarded as very rude, as is not sticking to agreements and breaking promises.

Another image that Germans have outside Germany is that they are supposed to lack a sense of humour. But the opposite is actually true - Germans laugh a lot and often. People tell jokes (including about politicians and figures of authority), tease each other and have fun with one another. In fact, people do not take things so very seriously in Germany. The same applies to small talk - essentially you can talk about anything. The weather, one's family, travel, music and cinema are all subjects that you can discuss in a relaxed manner. However, it is better to skip over more delicate issues such as politics and illness.

In general, it can be said that anyone coming to Germany need not worry too much about how they will get along here - Germans are usually very tolerant and do not get upset about minor faux pas. If you are open with your colleagues and the other people you meet, you will be swiftly accepted, without a doubt. Stand back a little to begin with and watch how others do things - then you will quickly spot the subtleties of interaction.

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