Eager handshakes and chaotic queues: On German 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.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. But in Germany? After decades of living in the country, DW's Louisa Schaefer, from the US, is still baffled at times when it comes to national etiquette norms.

Despite residing in Germany for nearly 30 years, there are still some things I cannot wrap my mind around. I may have married a German, pay German taxes, and have German(-American) children, but I guess my US mentality still shines through.

Like when it comes to personal space. I'll be standing in the supermarket, in front of a shelf full of products, deliberating over the selection, and inevitably a hand will slip itself in front of my face and grab an item from the row. Many Germans seem to not have any qualms about this at all, but it still takes me aback sometimes.

Thinking to myself: "That's just so rude!" I'll turn to the person, wanting to swat their hand, stare them down and ask: "Didn't your parents teach you any manners?!" But then I bite my tongue because to say that would be, well, just plain rude.

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

Not so great line-makers

Or that Germans are, I hate to say, sometimes challenged by the notion of forming a line. It's like their minds — as a nation otherwise so good at engineering — are sometimes not equipped for this delicate configuration, this concept of placing your body behind that of the person who was there before you, with each having to wait their own turn. Mind you, they will form a line if there are ropes up, clearly demarcating the boundaries.

DW's Louisa Schaefer

But, get them in a chaotic crowd where this is not laid out, say, at a Bratwurst stand at a boisterous outdoor street event where everyone is really hungry, and it's every man or woman for themselves.

I have stood at such a place often enough, patiently expecting for it to be my turn, and I have had countless Germans come next to me and place their order, pretending that I wasn't there before them if the server was busy with someone else and didn't notice.

I've learned to speak up, nay, shout at times: "But it's my turn!" — yet this prompts a feeling of being like a whiny child demanding justice. Having to sometimes elbow one's way ahead seems like a sport at times, being both irksome and simultaneously comic.

Some Germans like to ignore the concept of a queue, but others are also quite good at letting them know, so it's give-and-take

Welcome honesty?

Also, Germans can be some of the most direct people I know. They'll often tell you exactly what they're thinking, without many of the — equally irksome — niceties many native English speakers will use to pad a statement.

In addition, do not expect to be asked a second and certainly not a third time if you would like another piece of cake at a birthday party. I was taught to initially turn the offer down, and only when prompted with the host saying "You're sure?" that you accept. No, a German will usually take you by your word, which can often be a huge relief.

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Read more: Why don't Germans smile more?

When in doubt, shake hands

Of course, I'm making massive generalizations. I have many good friends and acquaintances who can prove the above otherwise. 

But, since generalizations are inevitable in our "Meet the Germans" series, here's another one to go: Germans are champions at handshaking. They'll do it at nearly every occasion you can think of: when meeting someone for the first time, of course, but also, when wishing someone "happy birthday." And, apparently, when they are unsure what else to do.

I was amused to observe my little three-year-old German niece the other day. After playing with my 10-year-old twins, it was time to say goodbye. She had played with my daughter amicably for several hours, so she naturally went up to my daughter and gave her a warm hug. But, uncertain what to do with my son (hug him or no?, I could see written on her face), she stuck out her tiny hand and gave him a formal handshake. It made me laugh, because it was cute, but it also made me think: "That's so German!"

Click through the gallery to get some tips and tricks on navigating social etiquette in Germany and discover our guide to small talk in the video below.

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Meet the Germans | 21.11.2018

A guide to making small talk in Germany

And for more on the sometimes wacky ways of Germans, visit our feature site: Meet the Germans.