Understanding German Customs
Published August 24, 2010
As a guest in another country, you are expected to be on your best behavior. Service members are unofficial "ambassadors in uniform." Understanding customs and courtesies is the first step towards getting along with your German neighbors and NATO partners. You are here to fulfill an important mission, but you can also enjoy yourself and the cultural experiences of Germany and Europe.
The German people are probably the world's greatest hand shakers. When you are introduced to a German person, you will be expected to shake hands. It is also customary and polite to first introduce and shake the lady's hand. Germans also generally shake hands when they part. A nod of the head and a friendly "Guten Tag" (good day), "Guten Abend" (good evening) or "Auf Wiedersehen" (good bye) usually accompanies the handshake.
Germans will appreciate your efforts to learn their language. There are several sources to learn the German language. And there are many "friendship clubs," universities, and German Volkshochschule (Adult Education Centers) willing to teach you. You can also go to your local library and check out the language tapes, or take a course at the Education Center. When you do try out your German, always use the polite form (Sie) and never the informal (du); children, though, will expect to be addressed with "du."
Germans may seem formal because they do not use first names as readily as Americans. The best practice is to use a German's last name until there is a mutual agreement to use the first name; however, this may never occur. If a German has a title, like a doctor or professor, he will probably use it and should be addressed as "Herr Doctor" (Mr. Doctor) or "Herr Professor" (Mr. Professor).
While older traditions permitted women to use the title of her husband, presently this is now only acceptable if the woman has the title herself, i.e. if the woman is a doctor she may be called "Frau Doctor" (Mrs. Doctor), but if not, she is to be addressed as "Frau" and last name. Women should be addressed as Frau (Mrs), whether she is married or not. In present-day Germany, the word "Fraeulein" is banned as it may be perceived diminutive and derogatory by a woman. You will almost never be asked by a woman to address her as "Fraeulein."
There are some areas of sensitivity not always understood or appreciated by Americans. German are very punctual and may be displeased if you do not arrive in time for an appointment or a social gathering. Arriving 15 minutes late is an American habit that Germans find rude.
Perhaps the most frequent cause of accidental friction is German sensitivity about personal property - cars, homes, gardens, and so on. Leaning against a car or letting children run their hands along the sides of cars may bring an irate German to your side with a firm protest. A good general rule is: if it isn't your property, don't touch it. Be prepared to pay for damages - no matter how minor they seem to you.
Damage to rental housing is another example of German concern for property. The concept of "normal wear and tear" exists in Germany, but is interpreted much more strictly. You are expected to return property in approximately the same condition as you rented it.