How to handle German directness: An expert's guide to mastering manners

The Ps and Qs of German manners

The handshake

Germans shake hands so often, it often feels like a national sport. It's done in formal settings like business meetings, to seal a deal, when meeting a person for the first time or to congratulate someone. But Germans also shake hands to wish someone "happy birthday" or just to say "hello" upon arrival. Even children sometimes shake hands with each other.

The Ps and Qs of German manners

A kiss or a hug?

In more informal or personal settings, the handshake may be accompanied by a kiss on both cheeks or on just one, but only among people who know each other relatively well, although this can vary. Still, the combination of the kiss on both cheeks (like the French), while shaking hands appears more formal than just cheek-kissing. A hug is reserved for family members or close friends.

The Ps and Qs of German manners

You = Du or Sie?

German has a formal version for you, "Sie." Always address someone you meet for the first time in a formal setting with "Sie" to show your respect. The informal "Du" may be used in private settings upon meeting, but only among people of the same age or to a younger person. "Sie" is always used for someone older, outside of the family, until the elder invites you to use "Du" instead.

The Ps and Qs of German manners

Telephone etiquette

You also always use "Sie" when calling public places or requesting something formally on the telephone. Before doing anything else, introduce yourself: "Guten Tag, mein Name ist..." Also don't be startled when you call someone's home number or direct extension, and rather than saying "Hello?" they merely say their last name. It's the German version of telling you you've dialed the right number.

The Ps and Qs of German manners

Entschuldigen Sie bitte: Sorry

When bumping into someone you don't know or approaching an unfamiliar person to ask them something, you always say "Entschuldigen Sie!" or the shorter "Entschuldigung." To apologize for a minor disturbance, Germans are also known to use the English "sorry" — but it sounds more casual and it's not used as excessively as in many English-speaking countries.

The Ps and Qs of German manners

Knock, knock

Knocking on a door to announce one's arrival is clearly not unique to Germany, but sometimes the manner in which Germans do it is. At someone's house door, you wait for them to open it up to you. But at a doctor's office, for instance, you may be sitting in an examination room and the doctor will knock or tap once and then immediately open the door, perhaps so you are not caught unawares.

The Ps and Qs of German manners

Say it with flowers

Germans are often very thoughtful when it comes to giving gifts, especially to hosts. When invited to dinner at someone's house, you can take a bottle of wine, chocolate or bestow them with flowers. Passing on a bouquet is also standard for showing gratitude or gifting someone on their birthday, even someone you don't know well.

The Ps and Qs of German manners

And be punctual about it

Punctuality is obviously an absolute must for any formal meeting or appointment. In private settings, friends may forgive arriving a little late to a dinner date, but anything over 10 or 15 minutes could be considered rude. It's best to call or text and relay the delay.

The Ps and Qs of German manners

Leave it outside

Never in a formal setting, but in private contexts, Germans often take their shoes off immediately when entering their own or someone else's home. They'll either leave them on the front step, or when it's cold, park them in the hallway. Without all the trudging through the house with street shoes or boots, it's certainly more hygienic and saves on cleanup.

The Ps and Qs of German manners

The comforts of home

Germans slip out of their shoes at their house door and into their Hausschuhe (literally: house shoes). The practice not only keeps things clean but, as one internet user wrote, it symbolizes "leaving the world behind you" and that "you're home." Germans, especially those with kids, may take along slippers or extra socks when invited to a friend's house. It shows you're respectful of their space.

The Ps and Qs of German manners

Table manners

It's considered polite to keep both hands (but no elbows!) on the table while resting during a meal, and not holding one hand on your lap. Eating with the fork in your left hand and the knife in your right is also mannerly, not switching back and forth. You toast by holding the stem of a wine glass, not its globe. That also makes for a better ring!

The Ps and Qs of German manners

Silverware placement

While resting during a meal, you should prop your fork upside-down on the left side of the plate and your knife on the right, slanting downward, in an 8:20 clock position. Once you're done, you lay your knife and fork parallel across the right side of the plate, at the 4:20 clock position (photo) to signify to the waiter or your table guest that you have finished.

The Ps and Qs of German manners

Say it with style

German speakers, like the French, have a graceful expression for signifying the start of a meal. Rather than the long, slightly awkward "Enjoy your meal" that native English speakers use, or the rough patois of "dig in," "Guten Appetit!" is succinct and celebratory. It's also fun to say.

Minding one's manners is always important, but how does one adapt when manners change from culture to culture? DW spoke to an expert to learn about mastering German etiquette, from shaking hands to holding wine glasses.

Linda Kaiser is a spokeswoman for the Essen-based Deutsche-Knigge-Gesellschaft, a consulting association for all things concerning etiquette. Among other services, the association offers seminars to help international business people avoid faux pas. It's also the go-to company for people who feel uncertain in everyday social situations. 

DW: Ms. Kaiser, in our series Meet the Germans, my colleagues and I try to explain some German characteristics to an international audience. This time, we're talking about manners...

Linda Kaiser: Yes, although manners are perhaps more of a British subject.

Why do you say that?

Because the way the British present themselves to Germans, in my opinion, is by being especially calm, polite, reserved, friendly and very disciplined. And then, of course, there's the connection to the royal family. Etiquette is especially important there.

But you're implying that Germans aren't so interested in manners! Would you really say that?

Etiquette consultant Linda Kaiser

It's just a different kind of interest [laughs]. In the last 100 years, we've had no royalty, no monarchy, no official nobility in Germany. That's why manners have become a social affair and society moves or develops faster than tradition. That's why manners are indeed a German subject, but they are not connected to an ideal like the queen.

Are there certain manners that are specific to Germans?

Certainly things like punctuality or being able to express criticism directly are linked to Germans. These are human traits, which can be applied to Germans, although not necessarily across the board. 

What does that say about Germans?

First of all, manners are rules for how to enter into a society, so that it is easier to function living in society together. Every society, every group of people, comes to a consensus on certain topics, and the unique manners of a social group develop from this.

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Earlier, you mentioned the British as being particularly polite. Do you think Germans are polite?

Yes. Every person is polite in his or her own way. You can't make that so dependent on the country you belong to, because in general, politeness helps us to get along better in groups. That's why we try to present ourselves in the best possible way, and if you have really internalized it, you make the other person look good as well.

Say it with flowers: Both punctuality and giving someone flowers are considered polite in Germany

Your association offers, among other things, seminars in manners. What would you suggest to people when they come to Germany? How can they be on their best behavior?

It's what I recommend to everyone in every country: to be open, attentive, listen well and bring your own understanding of good manners into society. And then, no matter where you are, being together with others works well.

Do you have some examples?

Let's take the classic example of table manners. We sit down together at a table to eat and spend a nice time together. This is the main goal when people sit down together for a meal. The other aspect, which is secondary, is that you eat food to survive. Now, we have this good intention, that we are sitting down together to interact, to get to know each other and exchange ideas, which has to be implemented somehow.

To achieve this, there are particular manners that have been agreed upon, such as eating with a knife and fork and not licking the plate; that we hold a wine glass by its stem; that we don't place too much on the plate and only what we will actually to eat so there is the same amount for everyone. Manners exist so we do not get distracted from why we are sitting down together. 

Read more: 10 things you should know before going to a German restaurant

So to put it simply, there are rules. You stick to these rules and they become routine, and then you don't have to worry about them anymore?

Exactly. You can then concentrate on what is essential. Of course these rules are not carved into stone; they can change and be bent or broken, depending on the context in which you are currently.

What do you suggest to people who come together in Germany but hail from other countries? My experience is that Germans really like to shake hands. People do in the US, of course, but not at every opportunity. You wouldn't do that in Japan either. What do you do in a group of mixed cultures that come together within a country? What rules do you follow?

In such a situation you always orientate yourself toward the host. If we have a German host, the German rules apply, or the German rules would have precedence. That would mean shaking hands. But if you have a foresighted, open, polite host, then the host will approach each person individually and consider what is best for each. In other words, they would not shake hands with the Japanese person. They would greet the French guests with kisses on the left and right cheeks and would shake hands with those from the US. 

Read more: How Germans (don't) talk about money

You said something about directness earlier, that Germans feel they can express their opinions. Personally, I sometimes experience Germans as being very direct, whereas the British or North Americans might not say things as directly in an everyday context. Why is expressing one's opinion directly accepted as polite here?

Because in Germany it stands for sincerity and honesty. We don't beat around the bush, but simply get to the heart of the matter, and that's fine and polite and generally accepted. But that has a cultural history. We were just brought up that way and that's why we don't reflect on it at all. But if we then have to interact with British people, then that is something completely different. If we want to establish ourselves in Great Britain, we must also learn to learn and practice the manners there.

Would you say that on social media Germans also behave in a certain way, for example, very directly?

Because the internet is very international, many Germans feel tempted to adopt a kind of carelessness or integrate things from other cultures. For example, they may ignore German spelling with upper and lower case on the Internet. But for proper German spelling, that is of course not right and could be considered rude because we have a language with certain rules, which should also be respected on social media or the internet if you communicate in this language. Also, people use the "Du" form [the informal way to say "you"  — Ed.] faster on the the Internet. Germany isn't really a "Du" culture, but we always envy English native speakers who have this general "you."

You mentioned table manners earlier, and specifically, that one holds a wine glass by its stem and not by the bowl. That's not necessarily the case in the US. Why is such a thing considered considered polite?

At least for the German-speaking European region, almost all rules can be traced back to some factual meaning or explanation. One holds the glass, for example, by the stem, in order not to heat up the drink through the warmth of one's hand. One also doesn't want to leave fingerprints on the globe. So there are both aesthetic and practical reasons for this. If people in the US don't do this, it's not going to kill anyone.

For more about German culture, language and lifestyle, visit: Meet the Germans

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