Germany is a great place to visit for many reasons, the biggest one being that most of us as Americans have at least one German ancestor somewhere in our history. As the economic hub of Europe Germany has much to offer to the tech-nerd as well as the historian come to check out unearthed stone-age villages, ruined castles, and churches bloodied in the 30 years’ war.
Before you travel you should always try to find out as much about your destination as you can. This will help you to interact with locals and go a long ways toward keeping you safe on the road. Planning ahead can keep your ticket costs down as well, and ensure that you don’t forget important things like your camera or your underwear.
So you’ve got your plane ticket, hotel reservations, itinerary, and bags all ready to go. Everything is covered. This trip will go great. One week into your trip you’re sitting in your hotel scratching your head. This vacation sucks! People are rude, they stare at you funny and seem to whisper behind your back. What’s going on? Here are all the ways you being your charming American self will amuse, confuse, fluster, or anger the people of Germany.
Germany Travel Tips
1. Using familiar language – Always address people by their last name and title. Never ever use their first name unless you are invited to do so. If you decide to try out your German be sure to use formal pronouns and verb forms. Breaking into informal language and first names is rare and usually reserved for close friends and family. Breaking the formality barrier can take months or years, and you shouldn’t push it. If you’re invited to someone’s house you should bring a small gift, like a bottle of French or Italian wine. Bringing local wine is rude because it implies that they don’t have any.
2. Greeting people – Shake hands with everyone you meet. That means if join a group of people you should shake hands and greet each person individually, including women and children, who are often ignored or given a general sort of wave in the states, regardless of whether or not you are there to talk to them. You should do this every time you see them, not just when meeting them for the first time. Very old school elderly people will even greet their spouses and children with a formal handshake when saying “good morning” every morning at the breakfast table. Casual head nods, high fives, back slaps, or fist pounding is reserved for children and teenagers and is considered rude among adults.
3. Eating – Finger food is rare and almost never eaten at a table. If it’s on a plate you should be eating it with a knife in your right hand and a fork in your left. Sticking your fork into a piece of meat with your left hand, cutting with your right, then trading the fork to your right hand to guide it to your mouth (which I see here in the states all the time) would be cause for confusion and hilarity in equal measure. Also, making noise with your mouth while eating, or speaking with food in your mouth, is considered extremely rude. When you are done eating you should lay your knife and fork across the plate with the handles to your right. When you finish eating it’s polite to leave a tiny bite of food on the plate, but leaving too much indicates that you didn’t enjoy the food. Never leave a significant portion of the meal on your plate.
4. Smiling – While smiling is perfectly acceptable in most circumstances, doing so to be polite would be considered very strange. Don’t smile when meeting someone new, or when you don’t have any actual reason to be happy or amused. In German culture smiling excessively for no reason is considered a sign of a weak mind.
5. Using evasive language in regard to politics – In America we are very concerned about offending people and downright terrified of communicating in a way that might facilitate actual understanding in the receiving party. This is not the case in Germany. Politics is the go to topic for discussions with strangers and failure to come out with a clear stand will cause people to think that you are not keeping up on current events and political happenings. If you actually aren’t doing so you should before arriving. Germans are generally very aware of what is going on in other countries and will happily discuss American politics with you to make sure you can contribute to the conversation. Feel free to bluntly disagree and argue with any German as they consider a good debate to be invigorating and are not personally offended or shaken by the existence of opposing viewpoints.
6. Invading personal space – While it’s ok to discuss political impacts of religious groups in the region or around the world it would be considered incredibly rude to ask about someone’s religious beliefs unless you are very close friends. Germans are also very averse to excessive touching. Though Germans, like most Europeans, have a fairly small bubble and might sidle up unsettlingly close to your face when talking to you it is rude to touch, grab, pat, or hug someone you aren’t close to.
7. National Pride – Nazi is short for Nationalsozialismus. That means nationalist-socialist. As a result all nationalism, regardless of which nation, is considered dangerous and foolish because of its power to stimulate a mob mentality. So wearing your American flag shorts is not only an unsettling reminder of what can happen when people get carried away by their idealism, but also implies that you have failed to grasp a fundamental lesson about the dangers this attitude. They won’t see an American Flag, they will see a flag. Flags are nationalism, nationalism is bad. Don’t do it. On the same note…
8. Don’t Talk about World War II unless they bring it up – Every single person you talk to has personal loss over this whether their fathers or uncles fell as soldiers, their mothers were bombed to shreds or starved to death, or their more extended family was killed by marauders after the war. Germany was forced to pay reparations for World War I until 2010. Younger Germans are extremely bitter about being forced to spend their entire lives paying for their dead grandparents’ actions. This ties in to current sentiments about bailing out other countries who’s economies are now failing.
9. Don’t say bad things about Germany – Germans are not nationalistic and will often go into great and passionate detail about all the things that are terrible about their country. Ironically, they are also extremely proud of their country and the progress it has made in a mere 70 years from being nothing but rubble and corpses to being the economic center of Europe. When a German waxes poetic about the problems in his country, simply listen or offer pertinent questions, but never join in because they will immediately turn around to aggressively defend it.
10. Be careful about Compliments – In most other places a well-placed compliment can get you very far. In Germany flattery will do nothing for you. Germans typically do not compliment each other and they don’t know what to do when they get one. As a result they will become flustered and very uncomfortable. If you are speaking to someone of the opposite gender they might think that you are trying to come on to them. If you would like to compliment someone you should praise what they do rather than what they are. Complimenting your host on a delicious home-cooked dinner is great, but telling someone that they look great or that they are brilliantly intelligent will cause them to be flustered.
11. Driving – Germans drive aggressively, and this is considered good driving. It is very common to be sharply cut off and tail-gated, especially on the Autobahn in speed-limit free zones. Other drivers will expect you to know the rules of the road, obey them, and react to their movements very quickly. A moment of inattentiveness can very easily kill you. Avoid driving and take public transport, which is cheaper most of the time anyway. If you must drive make sure to read up on all traffic laws, and quiz yourself on European traffic signs before you go.
12. Social Interaction – If you are on a business trip or staying with someone don’t expect your hosts to build an itinerary for you to show you around every night. They might take you out on the town once or twice, but will generally expect you to be independent. Germany is not an extravert-aligned society and it is expected that you will want time to yourself to relax. Also, in the case of work acquaintances they will not expect or be receptive to being bothered any time after work and will view it as an invasion of privacy.
Though this list may appear daunting, do keep in mind that Germans are well aware that other cultures don’t operate the same way as theirs. You should do your best to adapt to the place that you are in, but the occasional slip-up is much more likely to result in amusement than anger or offense. Germany is an excellent tourist destination and well worth the trouble to visit.