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German manners: Is post-pandemic pre-pandemic?

Published March 29, 2023last updated March 31, 2023

Germans were once world champs at shaking hands, but COVID-19 stopped all that. Now, after the pandemic, are we back to that typically German gesture?

Close-up of man and woman shaking hands, man wearing business suit and woman wearing a pink blouse.
Shaking hands almost feels like a national sport in Germany, says DW's Louisa SchaeferImage: Svyatoslav Lypynskyy/Zoonar/picture alliance

A few weeks ago, I was at a doctor's appointment in Cologne and was flabbergasted when the first thing the physician did when he walked into the room was to offer his hand for me to shake. After my initial shock, the gesture prompted me to quip: "Are we really allowed to do that again?!" He laughed and responded: "We HAVE to be able to do that again!"

Granted, as an orthopedist, he generally has a more hands-on approach, but since I was still muffled under an FFP-2 face mask, it did make me wonder.

Once I left the appointment, I realized that I was warmed by that gesture of his handshake, and by his answer to my joke. What flashed through my mind on the way home was: "Another thing back to halfway normal again!"

The question is: Do we really want things to go "completely" back to normal?

In early March 2020, then German Chancellor Angela Merkel (l) offered her hand to Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer, who politely refused.
At the start of the pandemic, then German Chancellor Angela Merkel (l) offered her hand to Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer, who politely refusedImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

You have to wonder

It was only then that it dawned on me what the lifting of the last of the COVID protective measures in the past few months in Germany meant (although, as of this publication, masks are still required among visitors to hospitals, nursing homes, doctors' offices and other healthcare facilities).

Back in 2019, I wrote a story for "Meet the Germans" about German manners and how Germans seemed to be global champions at handshaking, so much so, that it often felt like a national sport.

Even after decades of living in Germany (I was born in the US), I had still considered this handshaking ritual to be a rather formal gesture, even though Germans would do it all the time.

Not just in formal settings like business meetings or when being introduced to someone, but also when you said "Happy birthday" to someone, for instance. Even children would sometimes shake hands with other children (like my three-year-old German niece with my 10-year-old twins back then)!

Side-view of man wearing baseball cap, mask and gloves and holding a bag of groceries.
With the pandemic, new rules of behaviour were introduced, from wearing face masks to regularly desinfecting handsImage: Zoonar.com/Viktor Gladkov/picture alliance

Is 'after' the pandemic before the pandemic?

Through the three long hard years of pandemic, we all know that people modified how they behaved with each other: Everything from learning to stand 1.5 meters (5 feet) apart to doing a quick "footshake" rather than a handshake.

So, now, in 2023, what to do when a doctor offers you his hand in Germany? I asked Linda Kaiser, a spokeswoman for the Essen-based Deutsche-Knigge-Gesellschaft — a consulting association for all things concerning German etiquette — for advice. (Click here for the full interview.) "Frankly, I always thought it was rather unusual that such a thing occurred at all in a doctor's office [before the pandemic]: 'Do I really want to shake hands with someone who just treated another patient with some ailment?,'" she reflected.

"At least now, we can kindly refuse such a handshake, and it will not appear ungracious," she said.

What a relief!

Relearning some etiquette

We can also refuse other forms of greeting without appearing rude, she pointed out.

For instance, not too long ago, I met up with a group of acquaintances. All of us had been vaccinated and had already had COVID-19, so we felt relatively safe to hug each other. But when I attempted that with one of the women, she took a step back and said "no, I'd rather not." I was a bit startled, but then she explained that she was scheduled to have an operation the following week and didn't want to take the risk.

The bottom line is, says Kaiser, that we are all partially relearning our manners and what is considered polite and we how to show our respect to someone.

"Questions are asked, like: 'How may I greet you? ' 'May I hug you?' People sometimes prepare themselves more," Kaiser explained.

Teaching manners online vs. in person

During lockdown, Kaiser offered courses online about German etiquette, but they were more theoretical, "like how to set a table, how to hold your wine glass, how you address someone," she said. "But doing that online is very different than when you show someone live how they should eat spaghetti properly with silverware!"

Close-up of Linda Kaiser, manners expert, of the Deutsche-Knigge-Gesellschaft, with her hand placed on her chin.
Linda Kaiser is a manners expert at the Deutsche-Knigge-GesellschaftImage: Giulio Coscia

As much as possible, "interacting with each other should be done in the presence of each other," she said, explaining that many young people, for instance, entered the workforce or started a new job during the pandemic.

They hadn't, or still haven't, yet learned what it means to actually go to a workplace. "Many are now experts in leading video conferences, but when you meet them in person, they may be shy and reserved," she said.

"And many do not know how to dress in business attire," she added, pointing out the famed sweat pants people took to wearing during video calls during lockdown.

Reestablishing live contact

But while learning how to dress for success may be quickly acquired, learning and refining other types of etiquette require more time and finesse, especially for others of us who have largely worked from home these past three years.

During video conferences, for instance, people have had that "divide" of a computer monitor, Kaiser elaborated. "It suggests a kind of barrier, and when people are sitting at home working, they may feel more protected and feel everything is fine. They may have felt comfortable enough making comments or saying things they normally would not say sitting in a room full of people."

Going back to in-office work settings, when people "now interact with others in person, it's not quite so easy," Kaiser observed.

The subtleties and nuances of interpersonal communication then become all the more pronounced.  

For my part, though, I think I will still refrain from shaking hands with a physician in the doctor's office. A big, fat smile will just have to suffice, with my eyes crinkling up over the edges of my mask.

You'll find more Meet the Germans on YouTubeand www.dw.com/MeetTheGermans as well as fresh content on Instagram.

Edited by: Stuart Braun

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DW Editor and reporter Louisa Schaefer smiling into the camera.
Louisa Schaefer Culture editor and reporter based in Cologne/Bonn, originally from the US