If you're on your way to Germany soon, you'll want to do more than just pack your suitcase, you'll want to take along a little extra knowledge, too. Learn the German customs, language and culture before you go—at least the basics. Here are a few to get you started:
- Germans are formal. Address people you meet as Herr (Mr.) and Frau (Mrs.) followed by their last name until the person invites you to use their first name.
- Just because English is the international language of business, don't assume everyone in Europe speaks it. Native German speakers may see you as arrogant if you launch into English and feign ignorance instead of answering you. Politely ask if your listener knows English before speaking it: Verzeihen Sie mir, Sie sprechen Englisch?
- If you use a phrase book to communicate, jot down your complete idea in German before you beg anyone's pardon, so the listener doesn't have to wait as you flip pages to compose your question. Perfect or not, the native speakers will respect your efforts to learn and use their language.
- Better yet, spend some time with learn German software—you'll not only master basic German vocabulary in a short time, you'll also gain the confidence necessary to communicate effectively with native German speakers.
- Germans have a reputation for being punctual. "Fashionably late" doesn't go over well in German culture. On the other hand, being more than a few minutes early may also put your host in an uncomfortable position—8 o'clock means 8 o'clock.
- Traditionally, a German gentleman will take the lead and walk through a doorway first, hold the door, and the woman he is accompanying follows.
- Shake hands with a group of Germans when both meeting and when departing, and maintain eye contact while doing so. Keep your handshakes brief, firm and take turns—it isn't polite to cross over someone else's handshake.
- When eating out, follow the customs of the Germans. If you've practiced reading German, show off your pronunciation by ordering from the menu out loud—don't point to your entree.
- Bid other diners Guten Appetit before you eat, and wish others Prost before drinking beer and Zum wohl before drinking wine. Know that in Germany, an empty glass begs to be filled. Put on the brakes by leaving your beer or wine glass full.
- As with most languages, German has different dialects. "Standard German" is the norm; this dialect is based on the "High German" spoken in southern Germany, Austria and Bavaria. "Middle German" is spoken in central Germany, and "Low German" is common in northern regions. There are a few vowel and vocabulary differences between the dialects. Beginners don't need to worry about these details, but if you're a pro and want a new challenge, try learning a local dialect.
- If you have the opportunity to travel Germany extensively, you'll see culture differences, too. The north is more industrial, the south more rural. The west is more modern, while the reunited eastern portion of Germany is still struggling to catch up. This means that travel and services in eastern Germany may not be as convenient.
Often, travelers take more time planning their travel wardrobes than planning for successful communication. Cultural misunderstandings can lead to negative perceptions and experiences, but educating yourself on Germany's unique customs will lead to a richer, more fulfilling visit.