15 points to understanding German Culture as a foreigner

Germany today is the second largest destination for migrants just after the United States of America. One reason is that it is the largest economy in Europe. Although Germany is a melting pot of cultures and languages, it is essential to have an understanding of German culture and its people before you set foot in Germany. If you are looking to visit Germany for job opportunities, study or, if you’re planning on moving there soon, this article is your guide to everything German in Germany.

  1. Punctuality: Germans are known worldwide for their knack of sticking to time. While in Germany, always remember – It is always better to be a few minutes early than a single minute late. You are respected for keeping time and frowned upon if you take anyone’s time for granted. So if you’re invited for dinner or have made plans to catch up for coffee with your German acquaintance, leave earlier so that you’re on time.

  2. Cheers: Germany is known as a beer country. If you enjoy drinking Beer, you will be thoroughly spoilt for choice at the wide range of beers that are available. Do try and head out to your local Biergarten (Beer Garden) or brewery in summer and enjoy the warm weather and some delicious cold beer. Before taking a sip from your Beer mug, be sure to say ‘Prost’, which is German for Cheers.

  3. Guest rules: If you are invited to your German colleague’s house for dinner or lunch, then it is courtesy for you to present them a bottle of wine, a bouquet or a small houseplant. That’s a form of saying ‘Thank You’ for the invite.Once your meal is served, try and wait till your hosts are also around the table before you tuck into your meal. Most importantly, begin your meal by saying ‘Guten Appetit’ which means enjoy your meal. It is also impolite to leave the table if your hosts are still eating their meal.

  4. Names and Titles: In a formal work setting, avoid calling your senior colleagues, professors by their first names. Instead, you should address them by their last names, unless your colleague requests you to use their first name. For e.g. If you have a manager called Julia Weber, then you would have to address her as Frau Weber (Ms/Mrs.Weber). For men, you attach Herr (Mr.) before their surname. Germans also attach great importance to titles such as (Doctor and Professor). So if you notice your manager is Dr. Joseph Schulz, then you would have to address him as Herr Dr. Schulz.

  5. Phone etiquette: When answering a phone call always state your surname and follow that up with a greeting Guten Tag (Good day)/Hallo (hello). This is regardless of how much younger the person you are speaking to is.

  6. Tipping in Germany: Unlike other countries, there is no tipping culture in Germany as waiters and waitresses are paid well by restaurant owners. If you would like to tip the waiter for his service you can either round up your bill or pay them the standard 5-10% over the total bill amount.

  7. Splitting the Bill: If you are at a restaurant with your German colleagues or friends, and the final bill comes around, you pay for what you ordered. If it’s too confusing to do the math, then ask the waiter for your sum total.

  8. Cash culture: If you are used to extensively using your card in your home country, prepare to change that habit as ‘cash is king’ in Germany. It is said that German’s prefer cash (Bargeld) over plastic because it allows them to keep a closer check of their transactions. Germans also dislike being in debt and that is an additional reason why they carry cash everywhere. So if you’re out and about exploring Germany, carry cash with you at all times.Click here to read our article on how to open a bank account in Germany.

  9. Birthday Wishes: Did you notice that your German friend’s birthday is tomorrow and you’re thinking of wishing them today? Don’t. Much like their love for precision and being on time, it is fitting to wish your Germans on their Birthday and not before. There is a superstition surrounding this fear, as Germans think that it will bring them bad luck.

  10. Road etiquette: If you are from a country where jaywalking is the norm, then be willing to change your ways on German roads. You must obey the traffic rules and wait till the sign turns green for you to cross the road. Germans believe that following traffic rules sets a good example for the future generation.Germany has their bicycle lanes painted bright red so that pedestrians stick to walking on the pedestrian path. You might incur the wrath of German cyclists if you’re found wandering in the bicycle lane.

  11. Travelling in trains: If you have bought a train ticket, always remember to stamp the ticket before you board your train. If you have a conductor doing a round of checking, then this will confirm the date and time when you stamped your ticket. You will be issued a fine if your ticket is not stamped.Travelling without a valid ticket (Schwarzfahren) is an offence in Germany that will be fined. So don’t dodge your train fares while in Germany. The fine for not travelling without a valid ticket and not stamping is 60€.

  12. Recycling: Germans take pride in being one of the top recyclers in Europe. So be prepared to segregate your trash. Plastics are separated in a yellow trash bag known as Gelb sack. Glass bottles (except beer bottles) are not refundable and would have to be disposed of in Glass waste bins. These bins help further segregate glass into brown, white or green glass. You can get cash back on returning used beer bottles and water bottles to the supermarket. Paper is trashed away in Blue bins. Kitchen trash such as vegetable scraps and leftover food goes in a separate bin that is later composted.

  13. Sundays are holidays: On Sundays and public holidays, all businesses – shops, supermarkets, hairdressers and malls are all closed for business. Restaurants and cafes are the only exceptions to this rule.

  14. World War 2 and Nazi past: All Germans do carry a bit of collective guilt about their war-torn past. So be particularly cautious while bringing up the topic of WW2, the Nazis or Hitler. Do not mimic the Hitler salute on any occasion or display the Swastika symbol (Nazi party symbol). A few South Asian cultures attach religious symbolism to the Swastika, so beware of displaying symbol in Germany.

  15. Drinking culture: Beer is an integral part of German culture and the world-famous Beer festival Oktoberfest celebrated every year in South Germany is an extension of that love for Beer. Public drinking is both common and legal in Germany, where it’s rather routine to see people drink a can or bottle of beer while riding the train or loitering the city streets. Drinking is encouraged and sometimes can help to build camaraderie with the native Germans. But be aware of getting a little over your alcohol limit as getting drunk is frowned upon in Germany.

Stick to the rules, be punctual always, recycle and you will be guaranteed to have a great time in Germany.

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