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 Germany
Being a federal republic, Germany is very much a decentralised country, which embraces the cultural differences between the regions. Most travellers will perhaps only think of beer, Lederhosen and Oktoberfest when Germany comes to mind, but Germany’s famous alpine and beer culture is mostly centered around Bavaria and Munich.
Here the beer is traditionally served in 1 litre mugs (normally not in pubs and restaurants, though). The annual Oktoberfest is Europe’s most visited festival and the world’s largest fair. Germany’s south-western regions, however, are well known for their wine growing areas (e.g. Rheinhessen and Palatinate) and Bad Dürkheim on the ‘German Wine Route’ (Deutsche Weinstraße) organises the biggest wine festival worldwide with over 600,000 visitors annually. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent German Reunification are the main events of recent German history. Today most Germans as well as their neighbours support the idea of a peaceful reunified Germany and while the eastern regions still suffer from higher unemployment and of brain drain, the reunification process is overall seen as a success. October 3rd is celebrated as “German Unification Day”.
Cars are a symbol of national pride and social status. Certainly manufacturers such as Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche and Volkswagen (VW) are world famous for their quality, safety and style. This quality is matched by Germany’s excellent network of roadways including the renowned Autobahn network, which has many sections without speed limits that attract speed hungry drivers. There are actually speed tourists who come to Germany just to rent an exotic sports car and fly down the autobahn. Amazingly for its size Germany is home to the third largest freeway/motorway network in the world. Germany also features an extensive network of high speed trains – the InterCityExpress (ICE). Most cities have a vibrant gay and lesbian scene, especially Berlin and Cologne.
The Berlin tourism agency and other tourism organisations have started campaigns to attract gay and lesbian travellers to their cities. In fact, some politicians (e.g. the mayor of Berlin and the former German federal foreign minister) and stars in Germany are homo- or bisexuals. Germans are generally friendly, although the stereotype that they can be stern and cold is sometimes true. Just be polite and proper and you’ll be fine. Germany was the host of the FIFA World Cup 2006.
Especially in the English-speaking countries, Germany and the Germans have earned themselves a reputation for being stiff and strict with rules but also hard working and efficient. If you are caught breaking the rules, this will be pointed out to you by a fellow citizen. The two exceptions to rules in Germany seem to be queues and speed limits. The sound of the German language varies depending on the particular region you are in. More important, the German sense of “politeness” differs significantly from the Anglo-American concept of courteous remarks, small talk and political correctness. Germans highly value honesty, straight talking, being able to cope with criticism and generally not wasting other people’s time. Consequently, business meetings tend to lack the introductory chit-chat. The Germans tend to be very formal people (especially in business) and titles rule the roost. Any titles (such as Dr., Prof. etc.) are used recursively, e.g. Herr Prof. Dr. Müller. Some colleagues that have worked together for many years still call each by their title and surname. When a German introduces himself to you, he/she will often simply state their surname, prompting you to call them “”Herr/Frau…” (“Mr/Mrs…”)”. Using first names immediately may be seen as derogatory. There is also a strong desire to achieve mutual agreement and compromise. As for the infamous efficiency:
Germans are the world’s leading recreationists (at an average of 30 days of paid leave per year, not counting public holidays), while maintaining one of the highest productivity rates on earth. A late-running train is considered a sign of the degradation of society. Despite popular belief, the Germans do have a sense of humour. It is not true that Germans have no sense of irony and sarcasm. Although, it might be good to know when and how to be ironic or sarcastic. If you are around people you know well, sarcasm and irony are very common kinds of humour. Nevertheless, being ironic or sarcastic with your boss or professor is considered very inappropriate, even if he or she is. As a tourist not experienced with Gothic or hard punk culture,you might be shocked by seeing some strange people dressed up or have a very strange and intensive Gothic fashion make over mostly in Railway Stations. Punctuality General rule of thumb: be on time! In official contexts (when conducting business) punctuality is seen not as a courtesy but as precondition for future relations.
Most Germans arrive 5-10 min early and take this for granted from everyone. Arriving more than 2 min late to a meeting is seen as rude and will be tolerated only with unknowing strangers, unless you can give good reason in your defense (i.e. being stuck in heavy traffic). It is seen as a courtesy to call the other participants if you seem to be running late. Regular delays are seen as disrespect for the other participants. For personal relations, importance attached to punctuality may differ from individual to individual. It is still always safer to be punctual than late, but the subject may be a negotiable matter: if unsure just ask ‘is punctuality important to you?’. Punctuality also depends on the milieu, in a collegiate environment, for example, it is taken much less seriously. For private invitations to a home, it may even be considered more polite to be 5-15 min late as to not embarrass the host in case not everything has been prepared. Behaving in public Germany, especially urban Germany, is a rather tolerant society, and your common sense should be sufficient to keep yourself out of trouble. Drinking in public is not forbidden and is even a common sight in the far west (Cologne and the Rhine-Ruhr Area).
In some larger cities (such as Cologne) there are local laws that in theory make drinking alcohol in public a misdemeanor punishable with a fine of tens of euros; these laws are rarely enforced against tourists, except in cases when drinking leads to rowdy behavior (such laws have also been successfully challenged in court in several places). Behaving aggressively or disturbing the peace will earn you a conversation with German police officers and possibly a fine. Behave respectfully in places of worship and places that carry the dignity of the state (like the numerous war and holocaust memorials, parliaments and other historical sites). Insults against other people are prohibited by German law and, if prosecuted for it, can result in jail time and a heavy fine. It is unknown how often charges are brought, but exercise common sense in all cases.
On German beaches, it’s in general not okay for women to bathe topless. Full nudity isn’t tolerated everywhere and not a frequent sight outside of the numerous nudist areas (labeled “FKK” — “Freikörperkultur”, literally free body culture). These are especially common at the east German Baltic coastline, due to the high popularity of nudism in the former GDR. It’s also possible to spot nudists in Berlin’s public parks and in Munich’s “English Garden”. In most saunas nudity is compulsory and mixed sessions are common practice. One day of the week is usually only for women. Know the locals The general rule of thumb is that wealth rises towards the south: Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria are the two richest states, competing with Switzerland and Austria for quality of life. A more liberal atmosphere is dominant as the traveler goes northward: Hamburg and Berlin have had homosexual mayors, bars and clubs are open all night and the density of young artists in Berlin Friedrichshain easily surpasses that of London, Paris or Manhattan. Northern Germany is in the same cultural sphere as the Netherlands and Scandinavia with even the food and architecture more pragmatic, simple and unrefined than in the traditionally Catholic south. Contrary to the general trend, Hamburg is the richest city in Germany (and one of the ten richest regions in Europe) even outpacing trendy Munich.
The Nazi era Between 1933 and 1945 Germany was ruled by the nazi party NSDAP. In 1939 the German attack of Poland started World War II. In the following years over 60 million people were killed, including 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. Since then, the Third Reich has been a big part of Germany’s history and national identity. German pupils are educated about the nazi era in school and most classes visit a concentration camp (most of these sites have been transformed into memorials). There are many educational programmes on television and radio dealing with this period of time. Growing up in Germany, whether in the GDR or West Germany, meant and still means growing up with this heritage, and every German has developed her or his own way of dealing with the public guilt. For the traveler, this can mean confusion. You might come across people (especially young ones) eager to talk to you about Germany’s troubled history, feeling the urge to convince you Germany has come a long way since then. Choose adequate places to talk about the issue and be polite about it. Humour, even made innocently, is absolutely the wrong way of approaching the matter and is insulting. Even worse, what might sound funny abroad may earn you jail time (up to 3 years) and a hefty fine in Germany. All Nazi-era slogans, symbols, and gestures are forbidden (except for artistic or educational purposes, and even these are strongly regulated), and displaying them in public is illegal. Foreigners are not exempt from these laws. Do not even think about jokingly giving a stiff arm Nazi salute! For example: a German court had to decide if it is legal to wear a crossed out swastika (to show one’s opposing the ideas of national-socialism), since it still contains a forbidden symbol! Buddhist, Jain and Hindu visitors should note that even though the swastika is not banned as a religious symbol, you might get some strange looks from the people living there if you wear the symbol, as many Germans are not aware that the swastika is also a religious symbol.
You could also end up having to explain your religious situation to the German police. Probably the best way to deal with the issue is to stay relaxed about it. If your company likes to talk about German history, use the opportunity for a sincere, maybe even very personal conversation. If you want to steer clear of awkward moments, don’t bring up the matter. However, this is not the case when you ask them about the division of Germany into East and West. Communist symbols, GDR songs and other East-German related regalia are circulated freely and many are nostalgic about the country, hence the artistic and commercial movement “Ostalgie” (nostalgia for the East). Just avoid bringing up the topic of the Berlin Wall impulsively, as it is still a very divisive issue.
With this, you had the primer on key facts about Germany, 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 Germany food and drinks:
Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Germany? Please comment below.