When you are traveling or moving to another country, it is important to know about the cultural differences you might encounter there. Sometimes I wish we would just receive a list of things we should not do in every country when we are crossing the border. I even think these ‘dont’s‘ are sometimes more important than knowing the local language. When I moved to Germany 2 years ago, I thought that I was fully prepared. My German was good, I had no problem communicating with people and I thought I knew quite enough about German culture. But still, I run into a few situations where I felt a little stupid because I didn’t know that I was doing something wrong. Germany is not that different from the rest of the world. If you follow the simple rule “treat others as you want to be treated”, you are going to be ok. But if you want to bring your cultural awareness level to the next level, read this list of things that you shouldn’t do in Germany:
1. No Hitler jokes.
Let’s start with a simple but very important one. Raising a hand in Nazi salute or yelling “Heil Hitler” in public in Germany is against the law. People get arrested or have to pay a fine for doing this. Praising Hitler and the Nazi regime or making jokes about the holocaust will also not bring you anything good. Just don’t mention Hitler and Nazis and you will be fine.
2. Avoid talking about the war.
I feel that many German people would prefer to talk about anything else in the world but not about the war. They learn a lot about the Second World War in school and are very well aware of the role Germany played in history. If you are not very knowledgeable on this subject, don’t start a conversation about the war just for the sake of talking. I once met a group of German people on the train in Ukraine (!) who came there to volunteer to rescue the old Jewish cemetery. They told a lot about the things Germans did in Ukraine during the occupation. So if you are really interested in this subject, it is fine to talk about it but better “test the water” first. Some people seem to be slightly irritated that Germany is still associated with the war so much when there are so many other wonderful things about this country.
3. Don’t talk about money.
Money is a sensitive topic in Germany. It is considered impolite to ask someone about their income. Also don’t ask someone you don’t know well how much they paid for their house, car, or vacation. The same applies to your own salary and spendings. If you are rich, don’t show it. This is what I learned in the German course. However, I also noticed that after I got to know someone better, talking about prices would happen naturally in conversation. My advice, don’t start money topic. But if someone talks about money with you, maybe it means they already feel comfortable with you and consider you to be a friend.
4. Don’t wish someone a happy birthday in advance.
I’ve been struggling to try to get rid of the superstitions from my home country. People in Germany seem to be not so suppositious as in Ukraine, so I was happy when I finally found one! When you know that someone is having a birthday soon, don’t wish them a happy birthday before the day. Better do it on an actual day or later. This rule also applies to other important events like weddings or graduation.
5. Be careful with the refugee topic.
In the last years, there was a lot of talking about refugees in Germany. You might meet people who are volunteering to help refugees or don’t support refugees at all. There are also many who are not against refugees in general but don’t support the way the current politics. No matter what your opinion is regarding this topic, don’t start the conversation by saying what you think Germany is doing right or wrong. You might run into the person who has a totally opposite opinion and ruins the whole conversation. Better stick to some neutral topic unless you know the person well.
6. Don’t be late.
I guess everyone knows this one already but just let me say it once again. German people are well organized and take time seriously. When you are late for a meeting, you are not just wasting your own time. You are wasting the time of another person which is disrespectful. And it doesn’t matter if this is private or a business meeting, just be on time. But don’t expect trains to always be on time. German people also complain a lot about Deutsch Bahn being late.
7. Respect Sundays.
Sunday is a rest day in Germany. You are not supposed to do anything loud at home that disturbs your neighbors (heavy cleaning, drilling, listening to loud music). All the shops are also closed on Sundays. I come from a country where everything is open on Sundays and 24/7 supermarkets are common. This was one of the things that I missed most from home. But if you complain about shop opening times to a German person, you will most likely hear that shop workers should also have the right to rest on Sunday. After I worked in a hostel for a year, I understand more than ever what a blessing it is to have free weekends.
8. Don’t walk in bicycle lanes.
In Germany, many people use bikes on a daily basis. There are special lanes dedicated to cyclists almost everywhere. Sometimes those lanes are right next to the pedestrian lane and not easy to recognize at the first sight. In my first months in Germany, I was not very well aware of those rules and often walked in the bicycle lane. And only when I started cycling regularly, I understood how irritating it is for a cyclist to see someone on their way. On the other hand, if you are riding a bicycle, you should be careful not to use a pedestrian lane. If there is no clear bicycle sign, it usually means that you have to use the road instead of pavement.
9. Don’t jaywalk (especially when someone is around).
Let me be honest with you, I think that the popular opinion that German people don’t jaywalk is not so true. The most common situation when I saw people crossing the street on the red light was when they were trying to catch the tram or bus on the other side of the road. But yes, jaywalking is illegal and I by no means want to encourage you to do it. Never cross on the red light when there are children around even if it is a quiet street with no cars in sight. And crossing a busy street in a big city is simply dangerous (even if you need to catch a tram ;).
10. Don’t drink beer without a toast.
Last but not least, don’t forget to knock together the glasses and say toast when you are drinking with Germans. It is also important to keep eye contact when saying the toast. I don’t even know how many times I broke this “rule” until my German friends pointed it out to me.
Do you know any other things that are not acceptable in Germany?
What are the big “don’ts” in your country?