Living in a foreign country is fun, but every country has its own social rules and you can land in very embarrassing situation if you do not know them. If you are planning to come to Germany, here’s a few tips on German culture (remember that broad generalizations are just that; individual behavior and personal experiences will vary):
• Respect for authority and rules is strong in German culture. The German mindset favors one “right way” of doing things, although allowances are certainly made for those who may be unfamiliar with local custom. When in doubt, ask. Someone will surely tell you how to proceed. If you don’t, someone will likely correct you.
• When speaking German, use the formal Sie (you) unless and until you’re invited to use the informal du.
• Communication tends to be direct and to-the-point; Germans may see “beating around the bush” as dishonest/deceptive.
• Unsmiling expressions are not seen as rude in Germany (if you have no obvious reason to smile); uninhibited smiling may be seen as foolish. Keep in mind, Germans are unlikely to smile at you, chitchat, or offer you assistance. But if you ask you will be helped with no fuss. And they will go crazy (of joy) if you have a question about Germany, German history, German language or anything else they may have knowledge of or an opinion about. Politics is a fair game.
• German humor is often subtle and sardonic, and it can take a long time to build the level of intimacy required to share a joke.
• Personal space is larger in Germany than in places like Italy or France; keep a respectful distance, and shake hands in greeting. Hugging or slapping people on the back may be taken as presumptuous or intrusive.
• Seasonal changes are marked with festivals and seasonal/regional specialties and events. Join in the fun whenever you can!
The arrival of spring is heralded by Spargelzeit (asparagus time), during which vendors everywhere will offer fresh, local asparagus, strawberries, and sometimes rhubarb for sale; restaurants will have whole menus (Spargelkarte) with specialties featuring these seasonal favorites. Warmer days bring pedestrians and cyclists out in droves, and drivers must be especially attentive in Verkehrsberuhigte Bereiche (restricted traffic zones) and at pedestrian crossings.
Late summer brings Neuwein or Federweisser (incompletely fermented, very sweet, fizzy wine), Zwiebelkuchen (onion tarts), and festivals with live music, crafts, and artisan goods.
Autumn is celebrated on Erntedanksonntag (first Sunday in October) with Erntedankfest (harvest festival), where sheep-shearing, apple-pressing, and other harvest activities feature prominently, and Flammkuchen and Schwenkbraten are eaten with gusto.
Winter is time for St. Nikolaus to fill children’s boots with treats like walnuts and clementines on December 6th before the Christkind (Christ child) delivers gifts on Weihnachten (Christmas Eve). Shops may reopen briefly after a couple of days or remain shuttered until after Neujahr, which is somewhat inexplicably marked by watching the comedy short Dinner for One. Adults enjoy hot Glühwein (mulled wine) on cold winter nights while kids and those who eschew alcohol can drink the non-alcoholic Glühpunsch (spiced cider) instead.
Revelers welcome the lengthening of days and approach of spring on Fasching, known elsewhere as Carnival or Mardi Gras, between early February and mid-March, with costumes, parades, and other merrymaking. Berliner (jelly doughnuts) are a featured treat.
And just a few other things:
• Germans absolutely love to complain. If it’s not the weather it’s politics, or public transport, or the general state of the world (there’s a reason why “Weltschmerz” is a German word). It doesn’t mean they are unhappy, it may in fact mean quite the opposite.
• Do NOT try to be funny and make Nazi-jokes or Nazi-gestures. The latter will actually land you in front of a court.
• Do not criticise Israel (harshly), do not jump around the memorials (such as the steles in Berlin).
• Germans respect status and in particular education above all else. If you think people are looking at you in a funny way (may happen if you are middle eastern- or Maghrebi-looking), you can do the following: If you have clothing with a university logo, wear it. Else, dress well (not expensive, just good-fitting and high-quality).
• Respect the beer. Regional differences are important!