What NOT to do in Germany

It’s not enough to speak a foreign language – if you want to fit in while abroad, you also need to know the cultural norms, the expected behaviour, so that you don’t inadvertently offend people. There is often some leeway for foreigners, but some things are considered “universal” by the locals, so even foreigners aren’t allowed to get away with them (no matter if these are actually universal constants or not).

Someone on Quora asked me about the things that a foreigner visiting Germany should absolutely not do. My answer:

As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one “absolutely not” rule for Germany: don’t do the Nazi salute. Not even in jest. It’s a crime and every year there are tourists arrested for it. Also don’t carry any Nazi symbols on you.

If you not just want to avoid getting arrested but also keep the respect of the Germans you meet, the following rules are important – a lot of these are the same as in other Western countries:

  • Don’t stare. You’d appear either uneducated or mentally ill.
  • Dress somewhat better than the average American. T-shirts are only acceptable if it’s above 20°C outside. Avoid tennis shoes unless you are actually in the middle of exercising.
  • Remember all the things your mother and grandmother told you about manners and about doing things the right way? That really matters in Germany, otherwise you come across like the scum of society. There are a lot of rules for this on very diverse issues, from being on time to not speaking with your mouth full to using an appropriate level of formality/festivity when the occasion calls for it.
  • Don’t talk about money – not about your salary, not about someone else’s salary, not about how much you paid for something and particularly not about trickle-down economics. If you’re wealthy, don’t flaunt it.
  • Don’t talk about religion.
  • Don’t talk about politics unless you can agree with the basic consensus I outlined here. This is tricky. Many Germans like to discuss the news or argue about what should be done in an armchair expert way, so you may be drawn into a political discussion anyway. Disagreeing with each other on political issues is not a big deal in Germany – except if you disagree with the basic consensus of our country, people will lose respect for you until you present a really thoughtful argument. These issues are supposed to be obvious to everyone. Kind of like trying to argue for limits on freedom of speech in America. Which Germans might try to do.

Then, if you want to make friends with Germans, keep in mind:

  • Don’t strike up conversations with strangers at a supermarket or the like; that’s creepy.
  • Start out addressing people as “Sie” unless you are 100% sure that you are in a Du-subculture.
  • Avoid coming across like an over-eager puppy in your early interactions. Germans like to gradually warm up to people and taking the time to really get to know them before acting like BFFs.
  • Ask if you should take off your shoes when visiting someone’s home.
  • Don’t wish someone a happy birthday before the day. Same for anything. The origin is a superstition that something bad will happen to them (they might die) before their birthday if you do, however this rule is not limited to superstitious people. Even bright, rational Germans will feel uncomfortable because it’s just not done. I guess it feels similar to congratulating someone on passing an exam before they have taken it…