Despite what stereotypes might have you believe, Germans aren’t that different from the rest of us when it comes to social interactions. But these tips should help guide you through your next dinner invitation.
Thanks to such a rich shared history and cultural exchange, the Germans aren’t so different from Brits or Americans when it comes to manners and etiquette.
Still, there may be some things about your friend’s next dinner party that will surprise you, so here’s a brief heads up about what to expect.
1. Gifts are definitely Willkommen
If you’re invited over to a German friend’s house, it’s probably best not to go empty-handed. Especially if it’s an official dinner party or social gathering, the custom is to bring something along. It’s best to ask before bringing a dish of your own, but otherwise good choices are wine or often flowers – but no roses as those are too romantic.
Americans might find this gift odd as flowers seem to only be reserved for times of high emotion in the States: graduations, anniversaries or funerals. But many Germans love keeping fresh flowers around the house, so it may even be wise for you to have a vase handy when inviting Germans over to your own home.
2. Greet the German way
Brits may be prone to make as little physical contact as possible when greeting people (even close friends) and Americans are often over-eager to embrace perfect strangers, but Germans lie somewhere in the middle.
Greeting customs vary across the country and really depend on the individual. Handshakes upon meeting a person for the first time are perhaps the best thing to stick to if you’re not sure, even among “young people”.
“A quick, firm handshake with a straight look into the eyes,” is the traditional German way, according to Goethe University Frankfurt’s cultural guide.
Still, a quick cheek-to-cheek on the side while making kissing noises seems to be getting more popular, and it’s usually not so drawn-out as in certain parts of France where people kiss three or four times.
Of course, a very strong exception to this cheek-kissing stuff is among work colleagues – that’s a no-no! The German Etiquette Society made a call a few years ago to halt all workplace kissing as the group had received so many complaints about unwanted side-smooching. The group even called it a “form of terror” for some.
One occurrence that might surprise us poor Amis is that some Germans insist upon introducing themselves to every single person in a room when they arrive – Goethe University states that one should greet “everyone individually, including children”.
But have no fear, hug-loving Americans: it’s still possible to find Germans who will dish out a hug or two upon hello, once they get to know you better.
3. ‘Keep your hands where we can see ‘em’
In Germany it can be considered quite rude to keep one or both hands in your lap while you’re eating at the table, so always keep them up and above where people can see them. But that doesn’t mean elbows are allowed.
The best technique is to simply rest your wrists on the table when you’re not otherwise using your utensils to scarf down some Wurst and potatoes.
It might take a bit of time to get used to, but this is an important rule for some Germans: otherwise, who knows what you might be doing with those hands…
4. Don’t forget to make eye contact
When toasting, you’ll find in various parts of Europe that it’s considered almost mandatory to make eye contact as you clink glasses (yes, with every single person, and people will wait for you to clink with them) and it’s also important to do this before ever taking a sip of that frothy-topped Hefeweizen.
If you don’t make eye contact, they say it’s seven years of bad luck – usually meaning in the bedroom.
Common toasts you’ll hear are Prost, or Zum Wohl (to your health).
5. Knowing when it’s time to dig in
As in the UK or the US, it’s usually customary to wait until everyone has been seated for you to begin chowing down.
But the biggest cue that it’s time to dive in is when the host has declared Guten Appetit (enjoy your meal) or Mahlzeit (literally “meal time”).