We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.
In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:
A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Austria
Austria is a federation. Each of its nine federal states has a unique and distinct culture. Austrians aren’t easy to categorize. In fact, the main reason Austrians stand out from their European neighbours is that they don’t stand out from the rest for anything in particular. Austrians are moderate in their outlook and behaviour. Being at Europe’s crossroads, their culture is influenced from several sides. The stereotype of the yodelling, thigh slapping, beer-swilling xenophobe may apply to a few individuals but it certainly doesn’t apply to the majority of Austrians.
The average Austrian on the street is likely to be friendly yet somewhat reserved and formal, softly spoken and well mannered, law abiding, socially conservative, rooted, family oriented, conformist and somewhat nepotistic, a Catholic at heart, not particularly religious but a follower of tradition, well educated if not as cosmopolitan as his/her European cousins, cynical, and equipped with a dry, sarcastic sense of humor. Austrians, in general, like to define themselves merely by what they are not.
Tourists often make the mistake of classifying Austrians as Germans, which despite a common language, they are not. Arguably, Southern Germany, especially Bavaria, is a close cultural relative of Austria in many ways. Indeed the regions of Austria are all similar to their neighbours, so you will not notice you have crossed a border, whether it be into South Tyrol in Italy, north to Bavaria or east to Hungary. For most of its history, Austrians have a hard time defining their own nation; they face perhaps currently the most media influence from Germany but have a very different culture, especially from northern Germany.
The historic minorities and individual cultures are valued, yet they have to struggle to survive. Austria has a long history of being multicultural country: a glance at the Vienna phone book is all you need to discover this. Ironically, it is Germany to the north that is paving the way regarding the integration of foreigners into society in Central Europe. Austria remains a largely conservative and rural country with the exception of Vienna. Indeed, the cultural conflicts and national identity are as complicated and hard to understand for many Austrians as they are for visitors! The level of personal awareness and views on this vary greatly from person to person but are generally subject to a particularly Austrian avoidance of the subject, which is to the polls.
It is best to try to see the diversity and enjoy the variety than to jump to conclusions. Hence many Austrians derive their identity from their region or Bundesland (state). For instance, typical inhabitants of Carinthia would say that they are Carinthian first and Austrian second and maybe European third. Asking what state that someone is from is normally the first question Austrians ask when meeting for the first time. The fact that Austrians dislike demonstrations of national identity can, however, also be explained partly by the historical experiences Austria had during the Third Reich and especially due to the violent use of national symbols in the growing Austro-fascist movement as well as by the far-right Freedom Party. It is also due to the fact that the current state of Austria is a relatively young and loose federal republic of just 8 million people.
However, the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center rates Austria as the 5th most patriotic country in the world. So Austrians do very much love their country but are unlikely to be flag-wavers. Perhaps Austria’s ascendancy to the EU in 1995 and its more recent adoption of the euro and the border-less Europe have given it a stronger sense of importance and self-worth in the greater context of Europe. Most Austrians like to enjoy the good life. They spend a lot of time eating, drinking and having a good time with friends in a cosy environment, and are therefore very hospitable.
Members of the older generation can be conservative in the sense that they frown upon extremes of any shape and form and, in general, are adverse to change. They enjoy one of the highest living standards in the world and want to keep it that way. Austria has no well-defined class system. The rural and urban differences tend to be greater than in neighbouring countries. Generally, the further to the west and the more rural you go, the more socially conservative people are.
Austrians (especially those over 40) take formalities and etiquette seriously. Even if you are the most uncharismatic person in the world, old-fashioned good manners (Gutes Benehmen) can take you a long way in a social situation. On the flip side, there are endless possibilities to put your foot in it and attract frowns for breaking an obscure rule. In general, in most of continental Europe, personnel in shops and other services do not show the same level of politeness people from other continents might be used to. You may find for example that a shop assistant tells you off after asking to buy something.
In Vienna a cafe isn’t considered a real cafe without bad-tempered and arrogant waiters. Austrians as a people generally “don’t like” Germany or Germans at least in the competitive sense and are quite sensitive about it. 80 million to the north in Germany and 8 million in Austria has made this an even more lively rivalry. Don’t compare Austria negatively to Germany; you will quickly anger the locals as Germans are seen as over rich bad arrogant driving tourists on a bad day. Never refer to Austrians as Germans; they are separate nationalities, and referring to Austrians as such trivializes their national identity. Perhaps surprisingly for a rather conservative nation, Austria’s attitude towards nudity is one of the most relaxed in Europe.
The display of full nudity in the mainstream media and advertising can be a shock for many visitors, especially those from outside Europe. It is not uncommon for women to bathe topless in beaches and recreational areas in summer. Though swimming costumes must normally be worn in public pools and beaches, when bathing “wild” in rivers and lakes is normally OK to take one’s clothes off. Nudity is compulsory in Austria’s many nude beaches (FKK Strand), health spas and hotel saunas. Like in Germany, do not wear bathing suits into saunas or you garner strange looks or might even get thrown out.
Some basic etiquette (Of course most of this doesn’t really matter when you are in a younger crowd) When entering and leaving public places Austrians always say hello (Guten Tag or Grüß Gott) and goodbye (Auf Wiedersehen). When entering a small shop, one should say “Grüß Gott” to the shop keeper when entering and “Wiedersehen” when leaving (the “Auf” is normally left off). Phone calls are usually answered by telling your name, and finished with Auf Wiederhören. Don’t raise your voice or shout in public, especially on public transportation. It might be interpreted as aggression. If you are speaking a language other than German, it becomes all the more important to speak quietly in order to not be a “loud foreigner”.
When being introduced to someone, always shake them by the hand, keep the other hand out of your pocket, say your name and make eye contact. Failure to make eye contact, even if out of shyness, is considered condescending. It is a custom to kiss ones cheeks twice when friends meet, except for Vorarlberg, where people kiss each other three times like in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Fake air kisses work too. When you’re not sure whether this is appropriate, wait until your counterpart starts the greeting. You should aim to your right (your friend’s left cheek) for the first kiss. When drinking alcohol you don’t drink until you have toasted (“anstoßen”). Say “prost” or “cheers” and most importantly make eye contact when toasting. In restaurants, it is considered rude to start smoking while someone on the table is still eating. Wait until everybody has finished, or ask if it is okay with everyone.
If you have drunk all your wine and want more it’s okay to pour some more into your glass, but only after you’ve kindly asked everyone around you at the table if they need any more. If you really want to show your manners while eating, let your unused hand rest on the table next to your plate and use it occasionally to hold your plate while eating, if necessary. Austrians use generally European table manners, that is, they hold the knife in the right hand and the fork in the left hand, eating with both utensils. It is polite to let your wrists or hands rest on the table, but not your elbows. In most Austrian households it is customary to take off one’s shoes. This is a habit prevailing in most of Central Europe, maybe because of general cleanliness, but also because grit and slush from the pavements can cause havoc to a flat in winter. Austrians (like other Central European nations) really love to use honorific titles.
Many books have been written on the subject of Austria and its Titelwahn (title craze). There are over nine hundred titles from many categories such as job descriptions, academic degrees, honorary titles, official titles, etc.. People who think of themselves as being respectable always expect to be addressed by their proper title, be it Prof., Dr., Mag. (Master’s), Dipl.Ing. (Master’s in Engineering), Ing. (Graduate Engineer) or even B.A. This is especially true for older people. Younger people are generally much more relaxed in this regard. The Titelwahn is something to be aware of but it is also often subject of satire and self-deprecating humour so it should not be taken too seriously. Foreigners are not expected to understand or care about (all of) it. In German you should always use the Sie form when speaking with strangers or older people the Du is mainly reserved for friends and family.
Younger people generally address each other withDu. Misusing those forms is considered as rude and impolite. However switching between the forms can be very irritating especially to English speaker but when picking the wrong form people will excuse that with your few language skills. In Tyrol the Du form is used more frequently than elsewhere.
With this, you had the primer on key facts about Austria, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Austria food and drinks:
Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Austria? Please comment below.