Before you begin working your way to foreign language fluency, it helps to understand the culture behind the language you’re learning. After all, language exists to help a group of people express their ideas and beliefs. Germany is an old country with a rich history and culture. As you begin your German language program, gaining a strong grasp on this history, the values, and the etiquette will help you rapidly achieve success. In particular, to get the most out of any interaction with Germans and avoid any awkward moments, make sure you understand basic German etiquette for when you have conversations.
In general, Germans tend to act according to what is viewed as appropriate or right behavior, so they can come across as very conservative or rigid. This is true largely just in public, as most Germans are more relaxed and informal in a private setting.
As is the case with most cultures, acknowledging and respecting local customs and peoples’ feelings are paramount to acceptance and inclusion. German mannerisms are usually formal and detailed for public affairs, such as a dinner date or a night out at the theatre. Titles are often used and both men and women wear elegant clothing.
It’s the norm to thank your host or hostess with a note and flowers or some form of sweets after special occasions. When you’re shopping at small stores such as a bakery, it’s considered polite to say “guten Morgen” or “guten Tag”, then “auf Wiedersehen.” When you are moving, you should have bottled water or sodas for your help, and you are expected to introduce yourself to the neighbors.
German workdays, like most Americans, are 9 to 5, but their lunch breaks are short, usually 30 minutes. Germans are very punctual at all times. Tardiness is viewed very disapprovingly and is also considered rude and inefficient businesswise. Leisure time is very important to Germans and Sunday is the main day to enjoy peace and quiet. So much so, it is illegal to make loud noises of any kind. Most Germans take an afternoon walk on Sundays, called “Sonntagsspaziergang,” and it is an important part of the weekly routine.
In litigious societies, parties often point to the letter of the law as final authority. Whatever they might have implied or even voiced isn’t binding if it isn’t in writing.
German culture operates from a different perspective. Here, verbal agreements are morally binding, whether or not a written contract exists. Those who avoid making firm commitments in the rush to keep options open find themselves at odds with widely accepted German standards of conduct.
The bottom line: those who make a statement or a promise had better be prepared to back it up with action.
Vague promises such as “we should get together for lunch sometime” are viewed as genuine invitations. A German will wait for the next contact. If it doesn’t come, a promise is viewed as broken. While an American might view this as a small matter, Germans reassess the trustworthiness of someone they now see as unreliable.
Another example is embellishment – even slightly – of one’s accomplishments for the purpose of gaining business or employment. Such self-promotion is frowned upon in German society.
In fact, Germans invented a term for this phenomenon. It’s known as “Sachlichkeit.” Loosely translated, the word means clear, precise communication based on facts and excluding emotions. Much like a journalist strives for objectivity, Germans consider it quite important to present an honest, realistic message.
Some social conventions still exist in Central Europe and parts of Germany and Austria that are no longer seen in English-speaking countries. For example, a man will stand up as a sign of respect when an important person, older person, or woman enters a room. In an old-fashioned and somewhat rare display of courtesy, a man will lead a woman to a restaurant or bar, hold the door for her, and help her with her coat. When escorting a woman, the man should walk on the side nearest the curb.
Losing one’s temper in public is considered both rude and a sign of weakness.
When you’re at a party, you’ll either greet or be introduced to the other people. Either way, you’ll be expected to shake hands. German greetings depend on the time of day. “Guten Morgen” (“Good morning”) is used until noon; “Guten Tag” (“good day”) can be used until sunset and is more likely to be used in the afternoon. “Guten Abend” means “Good evening”. “Tschüss” means “Bye” and should only be used in casual settings. “Auf Wiedersehen” is a more formal farewell that means “until we see each other again.” As a rule of thumb, if somebody uses a specific greeting or farewell, you can use the same one in response.
Social awareness is deeply instilled in the German home and is reflected in every aspect of life, from trash services to noise pollution. Germany enacts mandatory quiet hours between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m. and again between 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m., Monday through Saturday, and all day on Sunday.
During these hours, and especially on Sunday, it is expected that residents will not mow their lawns or do anything else that might disturb the peace (this extends all the way down to washing the car, which is legally forbidden if the car happens to be parked in the street).
Even during the weekday quiet hours, residents are strictly forbidden by law from making any excessive noise that might disturb their neighbors (other examples may include playing loud music or using loud machinery) after 10:00 p.m. Those who would choose to ignore these rules should be warned that German residents will not often waste time attempting to solve the issue in person, but will rather contact the local police as a first resort.
If you still wish to have company over or participate in any activity that promises to generate excessive noise past 10:00 p.m., you are strongly encouraged to first reach out to your neighbors before the event and ensure that they will not be the source of any communal alarm.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, the German projection of rigidity, uprightness, or stiffness is just that—a projection. Visitors to Germany are invariably surprised when the rigid separation made by most Germans between business and personal life translates to a generous, welcoming, relaxed home life. Germans are excellent hosts, and to those they have welcomed into their homes, they can be among the friendliest people encountered across the globe.
The sharp divide between business and pleasure means that an invitation into a German home is not to be taken lightly, and acceptance of such an invitation is extremely important, as is prompt and proper attendance.
As a general rule, never be the first to arrive or the last to leave. Unlike in other countries, where being “fashionably late” is acceptable, in Germany, arriving more than fifteen minutes late is incredibly rude. It is recommended that those who have been fortunate enough to be welcomed by a German family take great pains to ensure that they do not arrive late. Arriving too early is also considered to be rude, as it robs the host of the last few minutes to ensure that everything is perfectly in order for the soon-arriving company. Overall, then, it remains in the guest’s best interest to arrive as close to the agreed-upon time as is possible.
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