Living in Germany
Germans and Americans have a lot of common cultural ground so that small differences can be easily overlooked. This can lead to disastrous results.
The following examples focus on business situations. If you have experienced additional differences in business you want to share please email us to firstname.lastname@example.org subject "Business Cultures".
- Timing – Be on time. If you are held up (traffic accident, etc.) phone ahead and let them know. If it’s a business appointment, one can arrive a few minutes early. If it is a private invitation to someone’s home, as above, but do not arrive ahead of time: it puts your host(s) under stress.
- “Mitbringsel” – For private invitations, it is normal to bring an expression of appreciation, which is usually cut flowers or a bottle of wine but can also be something special you brought from America. The price should be € 8 – 15. If flowers, they should be cut flowers. Avoid red roses, unless you are really in love with your host/hostess. If wrapped in paper, pull the paper down around the stems before giving the flowers to your host/hostess. If covered in clear foil with paper around the stems, leave the foil over the flowers.
If you take wine, it should be table wine but not from a discounter. American wines are popular with Germans.
- Names – Americans remember first names and Germans remember family names. Unless requested to do so, it is impolite to greet a new acquaintance by his/her first name. Conversely, once on a first-name basis with someone, it’s impolite not to call them by their last name. Children are normally called by their first names.
- Shaking Hands – When meeting people, Germans will normally shake hands. Look at them when shaking hands. If there are women peers in the group (e.g., your host’s wife or the wives of other guests) shake hands with them first, then with the men.
- Hands – While at the table, it’s impolite to have your hand in your lap. If not in use, rest your hand up to your wrist (not elbow) on the table.
- Knife & Fork – Switching your knife and fork from hand to hand in the American way is a bit unnerving for Europeans. Try to do it their way. Pizza, fried/roast chicken and French fries are usually eaten with knife and fork. In an informal situation, it’s quite all right to use your fingers.
- Starting – At a sit-down meal, one waits until everyone has been served before starting. If it takes exceptionally long for one or two people to get served, agree with the others at the table to start before everything gets cold. At a buffet, the host will open the buffet for everyone to start serving themselves.
- Bottled Wine – Normally the host or person who ordered the wine will be given a taste in his/her glass to check beforehand. At a restaurant, if the wine is spoiled, it is acceptable to show doubt. Ask the waiter to try the wine. If it’s bad and the waiter refuses to take it back, don’t go back to the restaurant again. After the wine has been approved, wait to drink until all glasses have been filled and the host has officially started drinking. For the first sip, look at the host and/or women in the round.
- Open Wine – The waiter will fill your glass when he brings it. Wait to drink until all at the table have their drinks.
- Drinks in a Bar – If you are with business friends and someone orders a round of drinks, wait to drink until the one who ordered the round starts to drink. If you are the one who ordered the round, wait until all have been served, then signify that you are starting to drink. If you order “water” you will get bottled water. If you want tap water, then specify “Leitungswasser.” Although it’s unusual, you may be charged for it.
- Tipping – In Germany a 15% service charge is included in the price of the meal. Even if you get lousy service, you still pay the basic charge. If you get really good service, you may want to give 5% on top. For good but not spectacular service it’s common to round the payment to the next full Euro amount but at least € 0.50. Although the person collecting may not be the one who served you, the establishment will have a way to apportion tips to the service personnel.