13 things foreigners do that make Germans really uncomfortable
From saying sorry all the time or asking for tap water to saying I love you too often, here are 13 ways to make your German friends (or strangers) feel awkward.
Published: 1 August 2019 12:35 CEST
Updated: 28 September 2021 08:06 CEST
Updated: 28 September 2021 08:06 CEST
You'll get a strange look if you ask for tap water in some German restaurants and cafes. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Patrick Pleul
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I’m surprised that the author of this article hasn’t included ‘rule breaking’, by which I mean the infringement of local rules or laws. For example in Britain it’d be quite normal, as a pedestrian, to walk across a street with the pedestrian light showing red if there’s no traffic in sight. But if you do this in Germany you’ll get at the least a tut-tutting, and if there’s a mother standing with her children you may even get abuse for setting a bad example. Germans are incredibly obedient, law-observing people and they don’t like to see rules being flouted. Of course, this respect for any form of authority is what got them into trouble in the 1930’s but the habit can seem very pedestrian to a pragmatic foreigner these days.
Before newbies to Germany take all 13 points too seriously, there are 3 that I would say are 100% correct (sorry to author of article – but one doesn’t want to freak people out by making them think that if they go out and eat a hot dinner at night, or make it at home, that Germans will get upset with them!):
1) Don’t be late (and it should be mentioned that if you must be late to a dinner party, that you should call to inform the hosts at least by or before the invite time) 2) Don’t eat over your desk (but isn’t that proper in most countries??)
3) No need to say in German “sorry”, as it is meant for serious situations, like when someone dies – as in most languages (although a quick “sorry” in English for certain, minor situations is ok – like if you accidentally poke someone in the hand when handing them a pen, e.g.). “Excuse me” is polite if you bump into someone or need to squeeze by, but does not mean most Germans follow that politeness rule. Twenty+ years ago I never heard it used in Germany, but now I hear it more and more.
Most other points are set in sand on a wavy beach. Example: Don’t assume Germans will take their shoes off when they come into your house; they often make it an awkward situation. Some do not wear shoes at THEIR homes, but don’t expect to take them off at other people’s homes. We invite people to our house with the warning, “We don’t wear shoes in the house, so please come prepared”. Even workers, for whom WE provide shoe-covers, often don’t want to wear them (which I find amazing, especially when they will be in a bedroom or some other “clean” room).
Saying “I love you” … well, yes, that is odd to say randomly. And those extreme compliments (over the top) which some people throw around come off sounding false, whatever nationality you are.
To clarify the “splitting the restaurant cheque” point: One should not assume an “even split”; if you assume that (especially if you were the one to have consumed more), then it can come off as cheating, in a sense. When people offer to split the cheque 50/50 (especially if you were the one to have had more), it is considered a favor or a nicety . You can do the same (offer to pay 50%, e.g.), to be nice, just don´t forget that some people are bad at knowing what they ordered and what it cost. It becomes especially difficult in brewery type restaurants where the wait-staff stand there, holding the cheque like it cannot leave their hands, so you cannot look at it. I guess that is when it is easiest to pay individually!
One thing that is very important, and that was not mentioned, is a particular dining etiquette rule: NEVER start eating before everyone has gotten their meals and you have all said to each other some version of “Enjoy your meals”. This applies to getting your first cocktail/beer/wine, too, and making a toast. I have been at dinners and actually seen the Germans (and Austrians) shut themselves off to the people at their table who just start eating the moment their food is set down and ignore the “Bon appetites”, as it is highly offensive/rude. That etiquette of waiting for everyone before starting to eat is pretty commn around the world, but strangely, some people don’t do it.
The loudness issue I would like to make a distinction, as Germans can be exceptionally loud as well . You can go to any country in the world and the locals will always complain about whatever foreigner being loud (Germans included). It seems that Germans can be very loud in more casual restaurants. However… recently left a nice restaurant due to loud and excessively drunk tourists, because we could not even talk over the shouting (in a normally refined restaurant). Have never had that happen with Germans around; If they can afford the higher priced food, they normally know not to yell obnoxiously.
The tap water issue is not always “a thing”; it is all about knowing where and how you ask for it. Strangely enough, it usually is easier to ask for tap water in nicer restaurants, but in the “Every Man” places, there they tend to act like you have asked for poison. When you are in mountain areas, that is the easiest place to ask for tap, as they know their water is better than bottled.
My opinion from over many years is that the biggest “mine-field” when talking with Germans is watch making any comment that could be somehow seen as a criticism of Germany unless the Germans ask your opinion – and even there, go carefully. And I obviously don’t mean anything rude or offensives, just a harmless comment like: “I cannot figure out why that bush I bought in the Netherlands always has twice as many flowers as the identical plant from Germany”, got the Germans I said it to offended. That is just one, simple example out of countless. I used to blame it on specific people, then I expanded it to, “Well, certain companies attract certain people.”, to later, “Must be a regional thing”. Now I realize it is safer not to say anything about Germany. I used to love discussing social and economic issues with people from other countries, but I have given that up with Germans. I say that being married to a German, as we are always scratching our heads why a harmless comment seems to always cause offense when it comes from a non-German.
Final comment: I have lived in many places around the world, and the last thing I would describe Germans as are obedient, law-abiding cititzens, especially in certain states (NRW and Berlin!!). Yes, one hears complaining about other people not following the rules (but usually never directly to the offenders face), but the same complainer will turn around and do something illegal and justify it by saying the rule does not apply to them or that situation. Yes, they tend to follow the rules for such things like you should not” jaywalk” when there are children around, as it DOES sets a bad example (it is a good way to get hit by a car that one didn’t notice or that is speeding!). But unfortunately, many other things they ignore, which is why Germany has such a high rate of neighbor-conflict. Perhaps it is all relative, based on which country you come from.