Not Rude, but Honest

One thing to prepare yourself for is the slap of candor: Germans can be rather blunt when they offer stern advice or criticism. Frankness is seen as a virtue here, and locals rarely go out of their way to cushion criticism in rhetorical bubble-wrap.

Advice and instructions can sometimes be a bit blunt. Some newcomers assume that they’re being addressed in a stern or condescending way because they’re foreigners, but this is generally not the case. Bluntness is simply widespread here, but it is not meant malignantly.

The mere act of walking down a busy street or in the aisles of a crowded shop or exhibition hall can turn into an annoying experience for many newcomers. Germans have two ways of dealing with strangers who share a crowded public space with them: They either ignore them entirely by staring straight ahead (with the occasional unintended bumping that this invites) or they stare at the others as if there is something wrong with them. Again, these two forms of behavior are quite common here, so do not take it personally.

One last take on customs and etiquette here in Germany: You now should have an idea how to comport yourself with friends, people in your building and neighborhood shops as well as business associates. Most people you’ll encounter here don‘t fit into any of the above categories. Still, there are rules on how you should handle strangers that will also make your adjustment to life in Germany easier.

Firstly, most public transport maintains special seats for the elderly or infirm, which are designated as such. If you happen to have planted yourself in one of these seats (which is perfectly permissible when the vehicle is not crowded), do give up the seat without being asked to by the elderly or infirm (which should include obviously pregnant women).

And now something that may sound like strange advice: Do not be overly friendly to strangers. As this is not a common practice here, some people may take you for unbalanced or think you’re out to get something from them. With total strangers, it is best to stay on the safe, slightly cool side of courtesy.

Furthermore, don’t lean on strangers’ cars or loiter in front of the house of people you don’t know. In the former case, the owners may become enraged as the car is a near sacred object in Germany, and in the latter case, people may think you’re up to no good loitering in front of their homes. So don’t get upset if you are waiting for a friend or colleague who does live there and someone else from the building approaches you and asks what you’re doing there. This is a standard measure of precaution taken by many people here. If asked, just smile and tell them whom you‘re waiting for.

When the warm weather sets in you may notice as you stroll in parks, alongside rivers or small lakes that a number of people here like to sunbathe nude. This will undoubtedly be a shock for many coming from more reserved countries. Beware: It is considered very impolite to ogle at the nude sunbathers, so do not linger, let alone stare at these sun worshippers.

If you make an honest, good-natured effort, most people here will readily forgive your early faux pas. Before long, doing the proper German thing will become almost second nature. In fact, it’s not uncommon that when you go back home for a visit, old friends and relatives may remark how “German” you’ve become. In fact, it won’t be long before you’ll pick up some of the other, less important rules that we haven’t covered here. Always bear in mind that German society is not held together by a series of hard-to-decipher and harder-to-follow rules. Most customs are out in the open and not that difficult to either grasp or emulate. Germans pride themselves on being guided by reason, and you, too, will probably agree that most of the new dos and don’ts that you need to learn are all pretty reasonable.