Mastering German etiquette is essential for internationals living in Germany, from a proper greeting to do’s and don’ts at the dinner table.
German people may be most renowned for their efficiency, but there is so much more to the country than that. Made up of 16 distinct federal states (Länder), Germany is a diverse nation with a vast mix of people, cultures, and lifestyles.
Read on for an overview of German etiquette and cultural traits to help navigate a range of social situations, from business meetings to first dates.
- German culture and society
- Gender roles in Germany
- German etiquette when meeting and greeting
- German etiquette in conversation and communication
- Clothing and dress etiquette in Germany
- German etiquette and dining
- Socializing in Germany
- Relationships in Germany
- Celebrations in Germany
- German etiquette in work and business
- Shopping and services in Germany
- Regional variations of German etiquette
- Useful resources
German culture and society
Traditional norms such as family values, a strong work ethic, and high-quality education are very important in Germany today.
There is a strong sense of national identity in Germany, built closely around the German language. Around 95% of the population speaks German, and 76% believe that this is very important for belonging. Other common-spoken languages include Turkish, Danish, Arabic, and Serbian.
Germany ranks 11th out of 112 countries on the English Proficiency Index (2021), which is considered very high. It is above South Africa, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Spain, and Italy but below the Netherlands, Belgium, and Portugal.
Religion plays a smaller role in modern German society, with the number of religiously unaffiliated rising from about 4% in 1950 to 24% in 2019. Around 43% of the population identifies as Catholic, 28% as Protestant, and 6% as another religion. Islam is the largest non-Christian demographic, with nearly five million Muslims living in Germany as of 2016.
Class distinctions in the country relate mainly to job categories rather than social or cultural status. Interestingly, 73% of Germans self-identify as middle class.
Although discrimination is against the law, abuse and marginalization of certain groups still occur. One national study by De Zim Nationaler Diskriminierungs-& Rassimusmonitor (Discrimination and Racism Monitor) found that 90% of people living in Germany believe that racism exists in their society, but 35% stated that they have never come in contact with it.
Gender roles in Germany
Germany doesn’t score particularly high in terms of gender equality for a country of its size and economic standing. In fact, it ranks 11th in the EU on the Gender Equality Index (2022), which is lower than in countries such as Sweden, Finland, Denmark, France, and Spain.
Still, the country scores high for overall workplace participation and academic achievement by women – 45% of doctoral graduates in 2016 were female. However, it performs poorly in terms of female representation in high-level professional positions. Although women make up nearly 50% of the cabinet in Germany’s government, they represent only about 20% of top academics and 30% of corporate board members. Additionally, there is a sizable pay gap in Germany, with women earning 18.3% less than men on average.
Family roles have changed over the past few decades as more women entered the workforce. Women are no longer viewed primarily as child-rearers or caregivers, and there has been gender equality in marital law since 1977.
Women living in Germany can generally expect fair treatment and the freedom to go about their daily life as they choose. However, as with most countries, problems such as sexism, abuse, and harassment do still exist.
German etiquette when meeting and greeting
Germans are big on greetings, so there are a few important elements of etiquette to familiarize yourself with to avoid a faux pas. Firstly, handshakes are common for all greetings. These occur both when you meet and when you part. Occasionally, Germans will opt for the triple kiss instead (like in the Netherlands).
In formal situations, or where you don’t know the person well, you can use the following greetings.
|guten morgen||good morning|
|guten abend||good evening|
|guten tag||good day|
If you are more familiar with the other person and want to use more informal language, for example, with friends or family, you can say hallo (hello) and tschüss (goodbye).
When referring to someone in conversation, use sie (you) in formal situations and du (you) in informal situations.
Germans pay attention to titles, so use Herr (Mr) or Frau (Mrs) before the last name when addressing people formally. Multiple titles are also common in Germany when addressing someone of standing, for example, Herr Doktor or Frau Professor.
Punctuality is very important in German etiquette in both personal and professional encounters. You should be neither late nor early. If you end up unexpectedly delayed, call ahead if you will be more than 5–10 minutes late.
German etiquette in conversation and communication
The German communication style is reserved and also direct to the point of bluntness. Germans generally don’t have much time for small talk, which is why you should never ask wie gehts? (how’s it going?) as a casual question in Germany.
In contrast with many other countries, people may welcome weighty topics such as politics, religion, and philosophy in German conversations. Topics to avoid include anything to do with wealth or money and personal matters. Many Germans are quite private and don’t tend to open up to anyone other than close friends and family.
Although Germans have a reputation for being humorless, this is an unfair and oversimplified assumption. German humor simply doesn’t always translate across languages. Irony and self-depreciation are two popular styles of humor.
Germans aren’t the most expressive users of body language and gestures, but there are certain things for internationals to pick up on. Firstly, respect that Germans appreciate a bit of personal space, at least an arm’s length. Outside of handshakes and greetings, you should avoid physical touching with those other than close friends or family.
When speaking with someone, it’s proper to maintain eye contact and avoid putting your hands in your pockets, as this may seem rude or signal disinterest. Germans have certain gestures for things that are different from countries such as the United Kingdom (UK) or the United States (US). These include:
- Pressing the thumb into the palm of the opposite hand and closing the fingers around it as a sign of good luck (the German equivalent of crossing one’s fingers)
- Pointing an index finger at your forehead to indicate that someone is being foolish (best avoided unless among good friends)
- Placing an index finger below an eyelid and pulling it down slightly to indicate sarcasm
Another thing worth mentioning is the liberal attitude towards nudity in Germany. Although you’re unlikely to see people walking down the street naked, nudity is more common than in many other places. Don’t feel too alarmed if you see people wandering around without clothing at swimming pools, lakes, the beach, or even public parks.
Clothing and dress etiquette in Germany
Fashion in Germany is as varied as you’d expect for a country of its size and diversity. You can expect to see all kinds of styles and colors on the streets. Formal wear for business is typically dark suits and smart shoes for men, and either skirt suits, pantsuits, or smart dresses for women.
For leisure purposes, Germans tend to opt for comfort and practicality, such as loose-fitting trousers, sweaters, or t-shirts, and sneakers. It’s seen as perfectly acceptable German etiquette to turn up for social events in casual wear unless, of course, there’s a dress code.
German etiquette and dining
Germans dine socially in their own homes and in restaurants. They typically only invite close friends over for a meal or dinner party. If you are lucky enough to receive an invite, here are a few tips on German etiquette when it comes to dining:
- Germans use cutlery in the standard European way, eating with the fork in the left hand and using the knife in the right to cut food. You can place both knife and fork on the right side of the plate to indicate that you have finished, or cross the cutlery and leave it in the middle of the plate if you want to take a break but haven’t finished.
- Good table manners are cutting food with the fork where possible to indicate the food is tender and well-cooked. Only use the knife when you cannot cut with the fork.
- Wait to be seated along with other guests and allow everyone to be served before commencing your meal
- Say guten appetit or mahlzeit to wish diners a good meal
- The most common toast in Germany is prost, during which you should maintain eye contact
- German meals often involve alcoholic beverages, but your host won’t consider you rude if you refuse
- Keep hands visible and elbows off the table
If dining in a restaurant, it is standard German etiquette for the bill to be split unless someone has agreed beforehand to pick up the tab. You can now use mobile payment apps to make this easier.
Diners often share tables in busy restaurants, however, you won’t be expected to make small talk if seated with people you don’t know. Raise your hand to call the waiter when you want to order or are ready for the bill.
Socializing in Germany
Germans are pretty social overall and typically welcoming of internationals, especially those who try to speak German.
There is no shortage of opportunities to socialize and make friends in Germany. Locals gather together in bars, restaurants, concert venues, museums, cinemas, sporting events, theaters, and more.
If you’re up for socializing into the early hours, Germany has many vibrant university cities where international students enjoy the nightlife. Beer is taken quite seriously in Germany, and one of the famous annual events is Oktoberfest in Munich (München), but alcohol flows to the sound of prost and clinking glass all over the country.
Unsurprisingly, Germany has the sixth-highest alcohol consumption rate in the world at 12.9 liters per year per person.
Relationships in Germany
Apparently, Germans tend to be quite slow movers when it comes to dating. They generally prefer to date someone from within their own social circle and will then take a bit of time building up trust and rapport before things become serious. Having said that, online dating is becoming increasingly popular.
If you date someone in Germany, popular first-date venues are bars, cafes, cinemas, parks, and restaurants. Germans are not known for flirting or (as mentioned earlier) small talk, generally preferring to take time to get to know the other person on a deeper level. Similar to some other Northern European countries, public displays of affection are usually limited to holding hands, hugging, and occasional light kissing.
Family is important in Germany, so you can expect to be introduced to parents and siblings after you start dating someone. Even though weddings remain popular in Germany, the country has seen a decrease in marriage rates in 2021, according to the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis). Gay marriages were legalized in 2017.
German households are typically quite small, consisting of only the parents and children. The extended family lives separately, and elderly relatives usually get paid care through social insurance.
Celebrations in Germany
You can find all sorts of celebrations in the annual German calendar. Apart from Oktoberfest, there are also many cultural, music, and film festivals. The main religious holidays are Christmas and Easter, although those important in other faiths, such as Judaism and Islam, are also widely celebrated.
Christmas is the biggest Christian celebration in Germany, and you can find traditional Christmas markets all across the country throughout December. Family celebrations begin on 24 December with the exchange of presents. Christmas Day is known as the First Celebration (Erster Feiertag), and Boxing Day is the Second Celebration (Zweiter Feiertag). German people generally spend time with families during this period.
Germans really enjoy celebrating New Year’s Eve (Silvéster) by throwing parties or gathering in the streets and at local bars. Firework displays are common. A popular Silvester meal is raclette, a dish imported from Switzerland consisting of melted cheese cooked with potatoes, vegetables, and sometimes meat.
Birthdays in Germany can be burdensome for the person celebrating. The German custom is that they bring cake to work and, if they want a party, they have to organize and pay for it. That said, you can expect friends and family to buy you gifts and drinks and generally pamper you on your birthday.
German birthday parties are not much different from what you find in other western countries. People celebrate either in their own homes or at a hired venue, or sometimes by going to a restaurant with close friends or family.
Birthdays are typically celebrated on the actual date, even if it falls in the middle of the week. Celebrations are never early as this is considered bad luck.
Common birthday gifts include chocolates, books, jewelry, or alcohol. Popular German birthday cakes are Black Forest Gateau (Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte) and Marmorkuchen, which is an almond cake.
Children often have birthday parties organized by their parents, typically in the home or at a community or leisure center or another family-friendly venue. There are often games, snacks, and refreshments, and the child celebrating the birthday is sometimes given a toy crown. The 16th and 18th birthdays are seen as milestone celebrations in Germany.
You can wish someone a happy birthday in German by saying, Alles Gute zum Geburtstag!
Other than occasions like Christmas and birthdays, it’s good German etiquette to bring a gift when you are invited into someone’s home in Germany. This only needs to be something small as a token of appreciation, for example, chocolates, flowers, or a nice bottle of Italian or French wine. You can also send a thank you note after the occasion as a token of appreciation.
Germans usually open gifts as soon as they receive them, so bear this in mind when choosing something, as you will probably get to see the host’s reaction.
Gift-giving isn’t common in German business culture. However, some businesses may indulge in this if hosting overseas guests. If you do want to buy business-related gifts, keep things small, simple, and culturally appropriate to avoid causing any offense.
German etiquette in work and business
Germans have a reputation for being well-organized, hard-working, and highly punctual when it comes to business etiquette. However, you might be surprised to see the variation in styles across companies of different sizes and cultures.
In general, a corporatist culture dominates where management frequently negotiates with workers organized into unions. Expect plenty of meetings and a lot of paperwork. Communication between different levels tends to be fairly clear and direct, but senior staff like their privacy, and German office doors are usually kept closed.
Shopping and services in Germany
Germans like to spend time shopping. You can find everything from large supermarkets to small independent boutiques on high streets and in shopping malls.
German customer service is a reflection of national characteristics; you can expect politeness and efficiency. However, there’s an air of professionalism and generally not much time for chit-chat.
This reputation is slightly tainted when it comes to dealing with complaints. Both Germans and internationals have reported a lack of acceptance and even a disregard for customer satisfaction when making a complaint or flagging a problem.
Expect to see queues for busy retailers or services in Germany. However, queueing is one area where German’s famed levels of organization are less evident. Queues often end up several people wide, with a lot of jostling for position, sub-queues, and people cutting in line.
There are no hard and fast rules around tipping in Germany. However, German etiquette is to leave a tip in restaurants, bars, and other places where you have received direct service. The standard tipping amount is about 10%, so anywhere between 5–15% is usually pretty good. Most people tend to round up bills or leave a cash tip. You can also choose to add a discretionary amount if paying by card.
Regional variations of German etiquette
Germany is a country made up of 16 distinct states (Länder). Each has a regional character and culture, which is often stronger than the national identity. In addition, most of the major German cities – such as Berlin, Munich, and Frankfurt – have their own unique style.
Historically, Germany was divided into East Germany and West Germany from 1949 for almost half a century until the late-1980s. East Germany was also called the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), and West Germany was known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR). This divide is still responsible for many differences remaining between the two parts.
For example, the East is less economically prosperous, more ethnically homogenous, and less religious than the West. There are also distinctions between the North – more urban and Protestant – and the South, which is more Catholic and rural.
- German Federal Government
- Federal Ministry of the Interior and Community – section on integration in Germany