Do’s and Dont’s in Germany

A Survival Kit for Americans Travelling to Europe

The famous restaurant boat on the Neckar Credit: Cornelia Lohs

Heidelburg in the summer, Credit: Cornelia Lohs

Etiquette and Customs in Europe differ from those common in the United States. The expression “How are you?”, for example, has a completely different meaning.

In Germany, as in most parts of Europe, there are customs and behaviors that differ from those common in the United States and that might put some people in a cultural shock the first time they encounter them. The custom of greeting people is one of these.

Unlike in the United States, Germans do not greet everybody with the expression “How are you?”– unless they are friends, colleagues or someone they know. For a German, it would be unthinkable to greet a taxi driver, a shop assistant or a waiter using these three words unless they are regular customers who have known those people for quite some time. Germans say “Guten Tag” (good day) and that is it. If we greeted them with “How are you?” they would give us an astonished look.

Europeans always feel a bit uncomfortable when, while traveling in the United States, they are asked a hundred times a day “How are you?” by people they have never met in their life.

“How Are You” and “Let’s Have Lunch Someday” Have Different Meanings in Germany

The Old Bridge in Heidelberg Credit: Cornelia Lohs

The Old Bridge in Heidelberg Credit: Cornelia Lohs

While “How are you?” is more or less a salutation in the United States, the German translation of these words, “Wie geht es Ihnen?” have a deeper meaning. This is a question that is posed to find out how the other person is feeling. Germans hardly ever answer “Great, and how are you?” For them, “Wie geht es Ihnen?” is an invitation to tell the other person how miserable their life is at the moment – and they really indulge in that.

This is not an exaggeration; the author knows what she is talking about. After all, she is German and has lived in Germany all of her life. If Germans do not want to answer that question in a positive way, they just respond “man lebt” (one is alive) or “na ja, so la-la” which means “not good”, but also “not too bad.” Therefore, if we Germans are in a hurry and bump into a friend, we never ask how they are. Being in a hurry, this would be the worst of all ideas because a ballad of misery might follow.

Similar to “How are you” is the sentence “let’s have lunch someday” to a German or European ear. It is a polite expression, but hardly ever meant literally in the United States. If Germans use this expression, they do mean it literally. So, dare Americans if they don’t show up for lunch after being invited in Germany!

Do Not Wait to be Seated at a Restaurant

Heidelberg in Winter Credit: Cornelia Lohs

Heidelberg in Winter Credit: Cornelia Lohs

Unlike in the United States, there are no signs in Germany and the rest of Europe telling guests

Wait to be seated” when entering a restaurant. They need not wait at the entrance for someone to seat them; they can sit wherever they like unless there is a sign on the table saying “reserved”. In Europe, there will be no host guiding guests to a table.

Also, there is no hurry to finish a meal. No waiter will intrude every few minutes to ask, “Are you all set?” Once guests are seated at a table in Europe, they can stay there as long as they like. We Europeans love to eat and talk – when we start dinner at 8.00 p.m. in a restaurant, one can find us at the table still talking at midnight. There is no need to order drink after drink just to keep the table. Restaurant owners want their guests to be happy. After all, a happy guest might turn into a regular customer.

No Tap Water And Tips Included

Heidelberg in Summer dining boat-Credit: Cornelia Lohs

Heidelberg in Summer dining boat-Credit: Cornelia Lohs

An absolute “no go” in a German restaurant is to ask for tap water. We do not drink tap water; we only drink bottled water. Asking for tap water is equivalent to “I can’t afford to buy bottled water” and will be equated with stinginess. The author is familiar with disbelieving looks when she tells waiters in the United States that she only drinks bottled water. Not only will guests receive the same looks in Europe if they ask for tap water, but also they will be exposed to angry looks.

Finally, don’t forget: The tip is included in the price of your meal already. There is no need to calculate the tip as a percentage of the cost of a meal. We do, however, round up the cost of the meal to an appropriate amount in even Euros. For example, if the cost of the meal is 27.66 Euros, guests can round it up to 30 Euros even. However, this is not required.

Furthermore, we do not leave the tip on the table. In Germany, if guests want to give a tip, they give it to the waiter or waitress directly. That is the German way. If they leave it on the table, someone else might take it.

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