German Etiquette And Social Customs

With regards to formalities, the English language is quite straightforward in that the use of “you” can apply to both formal and casual situations, and to all people. However, it is important to note that this is not the case with the German language.

germanetiquette_mediumIn terms of social customs and etiquette, whilst the basic rules remain largely the same as with any other European country, you should make yourself aware of some slight but important cultural variations of German etiquette.

Meeting And Greeting - Sie or Du?

With regards to formalities, the English language is quite straightforward in that the use of “you” can apply to both formal and casual situations, and to all people. However, it is important to note that this is not the case with the German language. If you've had any German at all you would know that there is three ways to say "you". One of these words, sie, is plural meaning all of you, so it's not very confusing to use. The other two (du and Sie) have the exact same meaning in English, but cannot really be used interchangeably in German. You should be aware that if you happen to use the inappropriate form of address, you run the risk of appearing somewhat rude, or conversely, too formal.

Familiarizing yourself with the basic appropriate use of ‘Sie’ and ‘du’ is advisable. Sie is the formal form of you. Basically, the use of “Sie” is reserved for professional and unfamiliar acquaintances (people you don’t know very well), senior figures (people who are older than you) and those in a superior social or business standing. Generally, if a person refers to themselves as Mr. (Herr) or Mrs. (Frau) followed by their family name, you will then know that it is appropriate to use the more formal “Sie” form of address.

Du is only used with family, close friends and children. You should always start with the Sie form until the other person has given you permission to call them with the du form. Once you become more friendly and well-acquainted with a German person, your friendship may develop into a first-name basis. This is often an indication that the use of “du” is now appropriate - however it might be best to see if your German friend initiates this gesture. Generally do not use 'du' unless specifically requested to do so by the other person.

Commonly, young children, friends and peers will address each other using the more familiar “du” form of address. If your German counterpart introduces himself using their first name, this is usually an indication that you can use “du”. If you are still not sure, the best course of action is to listen and note how your counterpart addresses you, so that you can then follow suit.

Names And Titles

  • Titles are also very important. Never use titles incorrectly and never fail to use them. If unsure, err in favor of a higher title.
  • Anyone that you would use the Sie form with is someone that you should use Mr. or Ms. (Herr or Frau) with.
  • Fräulein should only be used on small girls under the age of 14.
  • To address a doctor, you have to use two addresses, Frau Doktor or Herr Dokter.
  • A Doktor can be either a medical doctor or a holder of a Ph.D.
  • Two titles should not be used at the same time, except when addressing a letter to someone. If a person does hold several titles, the higher one is used in speaking to him/her.
  • Use last names and appropriate titles until specifically invited by your German host or colleagues to use their first names.


Once you are clear which forms of address are appropriate, you will then be equipped to make introductions properly.

In Germany, when under more formal circumstances, a firm handshake should be used when meeting and greeting. Germans like to shake hands when they meet. This applies not only to the first time, but almost every time they meet. So, when you're visiting people make sure to keep your hands out of your pockets and make eye contact with the person you are shaking hands with.

This type of greeting is acceptable between both men and women, but make sure that during introductions, you allow for a degree of personal space.

Man greeting Man - Men shake hands when greeting one another while maintaining direct eye contact. A firm but fairly brief handshake is the norm. With friends, a simple hello will suffice.

Woman greeting Woman - At a first meeting, women generally shake hands while maintaining direct eye contact. Between good friends and family kissing on one or both cheeks is common.

Man greeting Woman - At a first meeting a regular handshake will do. Good friends and family may engage in a light hug or a kiss on one or both cheeks.

Note: When dealing with groups of people, it is best to take the time to shake hands with everyone individually when arriving and departing.

Quick Tips:

  • Greetings are often formal, and done with a fast, firm handshake.
  • At a business or social meeting, shake hands with everyone present when arriving and leaving.
  • When you come into a room, you should shake everyone’s hands, even kids’.
  • Never shake hands with one hand in your pocket.
  • When introducing yourself, never use your title. Introduce yourself by your last name only.
  • You should say “Herr” or “Frau” (Mister and Misses, respectively) and the person’s last name until invited to use their first name.
  • Addressing a woman as Fräulein is inappropriate in most instances; address all women as Frau (followed by a surname).
  • It is polite to look others in the eye during conversation, however one should not stare.
  • Direct eye contact is considered a sign of respect and interest during conversation.
  • In informal situations, female friends and family will often meet and greet by offering a cheek and kissing the air. Men can pat or slap each other on the arm or back, but it is best to only do this if your German equivalent does so first.

Body Language

  • Never put your hands in your pockets when talking with someone.
  • "Thumbs up" gesture means "one" or is a sign of appreciation or agreement.
  • Making hands into two fists, thumbs tucked inside the other fingers and making pounding motion lightly on a surface expresses "good luck."
  • Never use the "okay" sign (index finger and thumb joined together to make a circle). This is considered a rude gesture.
  • Making a circular motion using the index finger while pointing to the side of one’s head is a rude gesture indicating that someone is crazy or deranged.
  • Whistling at a performance is usually an expression of contempt or displeasure.
  • Putting your thumb between your middle and index finger while making a fist is usually considered an obscene gesture.
  • When gesturing or beckoning for someone to come, you should face your palm downwards and make a scratching motion with the fingers.
  • Waving the hand back and forth with the palm up usually signifies “no”.
  • At the end of a presentation or performance, Germans often signal their approval or thanks by gently rapping their knuckles on the tabletop instead of applauding.

Although Germans may seem reserved or even unfriendly, they are not as standoffish as they may first appear. Germans are very frank and will not hesitate to show disapproval. To the uninitiated this may come across as confrontational, but it stems mostly from honesty. Germans tend to be quite direct but polite. There is often very little context surrounding communication. They tend to tell it like it is. Honesty is appreciated and expected. Many Germans consider effusive chumminess insincere, and Americans are often perceived as disingenuous for being overly friendly.

Germans may appear reserved and unfriendly until you get to know them better. Germans aren't always going to come up and introduce themselves to strangers especially if they know that you don't speak their language. Not all Germans know English and even if they do they might not be comfortable using it. Even if you don't know very much German most of them will appreciate you learning their language. Most Germans will be more receptive to a traveler who knows at least a little German; learn some before you go. In any case, remember at least two phrases: bitte (both please and you’re welcome; BIT-tuh) and danke (thank you; DAHNK-uh).

Personal Space And Privacy

A foreigner going to Germany might think that all Germans like to be by themselves or that they are very private people. While it is not an overall fact that they like to be by themselves all of the time, they do greatly value their privacy. They show this in many ways.

Personal Space And Touching

  • Germans in general prefer to guard their personal space. An arm’s length of space or more is normal when conversing.
  • Unless having an intimate conversation, any closer than an arm's distance apart is usually considered an infringement on personal space.
  • Germans generally do not touch when speaking. When speaking with those outside of the family or close circle of friends, touching can be seen as an invasion of privacy.
  • Between friends and family, hand holding, walking arm in arm and hugging are commonplace.

The German Home

  • Germans are very proud of their homes, which are often very clean and organized, with everything in its appointed place.
  • At first glance inside a German home you might notice that all of the doors are closed, even in the in the toilet room when no one is using it. A door being closed in Germany is a statement of order, and doesn't necessarily mean that you can't go in.
  • In a culture where most communication is rather formal, the home is the place where one can relax and allow your individualism to shine.
  • Only close friends and relatives are invited into the sanctity of the house, so it is the one place where more informal communication may occur.
  • There are many unwritten rules surrounding the outward maintenance of one's home.
  • It is imperative that common areas such as sidewalks, pavements, corridors (in apartments), and steps be kept clean at all times.
  • Almost all private homes in Germany have a fence or a hedge around it to keep out the noise and outside world. They also keep the drapes drawn at night.

An invitation to a German home is a major courtesy—bring a gift for the hostess. If you are invited to a German home, you should bring chocolates or flowers, such as yellow roses or tea roses. Red roses are usually meant for romance, and carnations are for mourning, so avoid those. If you want to give wine, it should be French or Italian, or another fine imported wine (not German). Arrive exactly on time as planned. You must call in advance to explain why you are up to fifteen minutes late.

At dinners, wait to be invited to sit. Wait until the hostess says “Guten appetit” to begin eating. If you are at a large dinner, wait until the hostess places a napkin in her lap before you do it. If you are eating salad, don’t cut the lettuce, but fold it with your knife. Finish everything on your plate. The host gives the first toast, which is “Zum Wohl!” for wine, and “Prost!” for beer. Both mean “Good health.”

Social Standards

Many Germans adhere to standards of bürgerlichkeit, or civic morality, which lend a certain neatness and formality to behavior in everyday life. When entering a store, for example, one is not likely to be noticed, unless one announces oneself forcefully by saying, " guten Tag " (literally, "good day") or "hello." In former East Germany, it is still common for friends and acquaintances to shake hands when they see each other for the first time each day. West Germans consider it more modern and perhaps more American not to do so.

Social Stratification

Social class in Germany is not only a matter of training, employment, and income but also a style of life, self-understanding, and self-display. The so-called bildungsbürgertum, or educated bourgeoisie of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to cite one example, was characterized first and foremost by a particular constellation of artistic and literary taste, habits, and cultural and ethical values.

Modern sociologists have tended to focus on the full range of social milieus that make up German society and on the various kinds of consumer behavior that characterize each milieu. Thus, variations in interior design in private residences, eating habits, taste in music and in other entertainment forms, reading materials, personal hygiene and clothing, sexual behavior, and leisure activities can all be viewed as indexes of association with one of a finite set of social milieus.

Gender Roles And Statuses

For centuries, a woman's role in German society was summed up and circumscribed by the three "K" words: Kinder(children), Kirche (church), and Küche (kitchen). Sometimes the fourth "K" is mentioned: Kleider (clothes).

Throughout the 20th century, however, women have gradually won victories in their quest for equal rights. In 1919 they received the right to vote. Profound changes also were made by World War II. During the war, women assumed positions traditionally held by men. After the war, the so-called Trümmerfrauen (women of the rubble) tended the wounded, buried the dead, salvaged belongings, and began the hard task of rebuilding war-torn Germany by simply clearing away the rubble.

German men are still considered to be head of the household, even though both the wife and husband work outside the home. German families tend to be small with only one or two children.

Division of Labor by Gender

With the transition from agricultural to industrial society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, women, who had been largely restricted to the domestic sphere, began to gain access to a wider range of economic roles. More than a century after this process began, women are represented all walks of life. Nevertheless, they are still more likely to be responsible for childcare and household management; and they are disproportionately represented among teachers, nurses, office workers, retail clerks, hair dressers, and building and window cleaners.

The Relative Status of Women and Men

Traditionally, there has been little acceptance of women in high positions of responsibility and power in business. Although substantial barriers to equality of the sexes in Germany remain as a result of a persistently patriarchal family structure and work environment, women have managed to gain isolated high-profile victories.

The Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany states that men and women have equal rights under the law. Nevertheless, women did not enjoy juridical equality in marriage and the family until new family legislation was passed in 1977. Previously, family law, which had been influenced by the religious orientation of the Christian Democratic and Christian Social parties, had stated that women could seek outside employment only if this were consistent with their household duties.

East German law had granted women equal rights in marriage, in the family, and in the workplace at a much earlier date. Needless to say, in both the Federal Republic and in the former GDR, the ideal of equality of opportunity for men and women was imperfectly realized. Even under conditions of full employment in East Germany, for example, women were under represented in leading positions in government, industry, and agricultural production.

* Follow the link Women In German Society to read more on the subject.

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