Culture and Etiquette in Germany

Germany is a modern, cosmopolitan country, its society shaped by a plurality of lifestyles and ethnic and cultural diversity. If you had images of a conservative, homespun people in Lederhosen and feathered hats, dispense with them now.

In the cities Germans are traditionally quite a gruff lot who don’t suffer fools gladly, though much of this attitude is laced with a sardonic wit. Another defining attribute is their sense of orderliness and respect for rules and authority. However, attitudes vary across the country – southerners tend to be more conservative than the liberals of the north.

Meanwhile, the country’s metropolises, such as Berlin and Hamburg, are famous for their live-and-let-live attitude. This tolerance comes in part from the cities’ appeal for unconventional Germans who relocate from elsewhere in the country, and partly from their large immigrant populations with their more laissez faire attitudes. This open-mindedness also extends to tolerating people smoking more or less everywhere – except in restaurants.

Even here, however, foreigners should be aware of a few points of protocol. First is the use of du and Sie (you) to strangers, which, though not the cultural minefield of French, still requires careful negotiation. Du is used for friends – or between young people – only, and the formal Sie is expected from everyone else you speak to, whether waiters or shop assistants and especially the police and officialdom.

Whatever the stereotype would have you believe, Germans don’t take themselves all that seriously – and, yes, they enjoy a joke – nor are they prudish: indeed, the popularity of Frei Korper Kultur (FKK; nudism) is more likely to shock visitors. The country that introduced naturist flights to the world – from Erfurt to Usedom in January 2008 – also has dedicated nude areas on most beaches, and even in some public parks. Be aware, too, that mixed-sex nudity in spas is the norm.

Service is, as a rule, included in the bill. For tipping, rounding up a café, restaurant or taxi bill to the next euro or so is acceptable in most cases, though when you run up a particularly large tab you will probably want to add some more. If service was appalling, however, there’s no need to tip.

Germany has banned smoking in public places – sort of. In most states, smoking is forbidden in most indoor public spaces, including hospitals, airports and train stations. But when it comes to lighting up in restaurants, bars, cinemas and theatres, various states rule differently. Bavaria has the toughest laws, which ban smoking practically everywhere (except at the Oktoberfest), but even here some bars have become designated “smoking clubs”. Other states are laxer in both regulations and enforcement – particularly Berlin – but in general most bars are smoke free or have a separate smoking room. This fluid situation makes it important to always ask before you light up, unless plenty of people around you are smoking.

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