It does not take long to notice typical characteristics of daily life and customs in Germany. As elsewhere, many of these characteristics are gradually disappearing as a result of social mobility and increasing travel opportunities.
When addressing strangers (officially over 15 years of age), you should use Sie and the person’s surname (Können Sie mir bitte helfen? / Could you help me please?). Germans often use this form of address throughout their lives, even in daily contact with each other. Particularly the older and middle-aged generations find it difficult to switch to du and need a suitable occasion on which the senior or older person offers du to his or her junior.
The younger generation (up to about 30 years of age) is more relaxed. Young people often say du to each other and use first names from the first meeting. It is best to wait and see how people approach you, then take the cue.
Certain rules also govern the use of academic titles. If you have an academic title, do not use it when addressing people. At academic institutes and similar establishments where many people have academic titles, they are usually dropped.
You will immediately notice another common characteristic – Germans invariably shake hands when saying “hello” or “goodbye.” But this has become rare among younger people in a relaxed environment. A kiss on the cheek is relatively rare and usually restricted to the younger generation.
In Germany, you can normally choose your seat in a restaurant yourself, unless you see a host or hostess seating people.
Germans hold the knife in the right hand and the fork in the left hand and do not switch around. They tend to keep their hands on the table at all times and not let one of their hands rest in their laps.
Crossing the knife and fork on your plate indicates that you are not yet finished with your meal. Placing knife and fork on the right side of the plate in parallel is a signal to the waiter that you have finished and that the plate can be cleared away.
Beer and wine are part of a normal dinner and alcoholic drinks are usually offered to guests. Do not force alcoholic drinks on someone if that person has refused your offer, and do not order drinks for him/her. A German who refuses a drink is not being shy or impolite but really does not want to have a drink. The legal drinking age in Germany is 16 for beer and wine, and 18 for spirits.
Coffee and cake sessions are typical for Germany, especially on Sundays. They generally take place between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m.
Separate bills for each person even in smaller groups dining together are common practice in Germany. The waiter will come to your table and calculate your individual bill, and you pay him right at your table.
The service is usually included in the price of a meal or beverage. In restaurants, however, it is customary to give a tip of 5-10% of the total amount. In bars, you can easily round up to the next whole amount.
You may see dogs accompanying their owners into German restaurants, pubs, and cafés. Many restaurants allow dogs inside and at their outside seating and will often provide a bowl of water for the pet.
In Berlin, there was a smoking ban for all restaurants, bars, discos, and public areas. This ban has been partially suspended by the Federal Court of Justice, so that for the moment smoking is allowed provided that the location indicates this at the entrance. In some locations you will find an extra smoking room.
Do not turn up late for an appointment. Germans are extremely punctual, and even a few minutes’ delay can offend (even though amongst young people, these rules might be less strict). Be five to ten minutes early for important appointments and be sure to call the person you are meeting if you really cannot make it in time. At big parties with lots of guests on the other hand, punctuality is not an issue.
When entering an office, it is common to knock first, wait for the Herein (engl.: come in) and then enter the room. Office doors in Germany are usually kept shut, but even when they are open, it is polite to knock before you enter the room.
It is an act of courtesy to bring a little gift, e.g. a bottle of wine, chocolate, or some flowers, if you are invited to a German home on some social occasion. If the flowers are wrapped in paper, remember to take off the wrapping just before you enter the home. It is considered thoughtful to thank your host for the invitation one day later, either in person or by phone.
When you meet Germans for the first time, you might get the impression that they are a bit reserved and cold. So do not be offended when it takes a while until you receive the first private invitation from your new acquaintances. You could try to shorten the slow way of getting to know each other and take the initiative by inviting them to your place or suggesting to do something together. Once the initial difficulties are overcome, genuine and long lasting friendship can develop.
At Christmas, you should not expect to get an invitation to a German home. Christmas in Germany is regarded as a family celebration or a get together with family members only.
Clothing is a matter of fashion, and in most areas of life, there are no clothing rules. Although an official suit and tie is regarded as the “correct” clothing in business life, at universities and other research establishments, clothing is less formal. It depends on faculties and regions but more importantly on the position within an institution. Anyhow, people are often judged by their dress. Especially at evening events (e.g. concerts, theater, speeches), you should therefore not dress too casually.