Social Etiquette | DW Travel | DW | 13.07.2011

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Social Etiquette

When in Rome, do as the Romans and when in Germany... you get the point. Here are some ways to avoid committing a faux pas while in Germany.

Old woman pointing her finger at someone

"Because that's the way it is..."

Shaking hands

Shaking hands is an important part of German culture. It is customary to shake someone's hand when you meet them for the first time, and at every subsequent meeting as well.

At business meetings and some social meetings, it's expected that each participant say their name and shake everyone else's hand upon arriving and again when leaving.

People shaking hands

Shake hands with everyone in the group when you arrive and leave


In more casual relationships, a friend may offer their cheek instead of their hand. It's common for friends in Germany to lightly kiss each other on both cheeks when they see each other - or at least kiss the air next to the other person's cheek. Though German cheek-kissing isn't quite as ingrained as it is in other European countries, it can still be intimidating for visitors who may be accustomed to cultures where personal space is more sacred.

'Sie' and 'du'

The German language has a formal and informal form of address. It can take a lot of experience to learn the fine points of using Sie and du, but here are a few tips.

The formal Sie is always used together with the last name, for example Herr Schmidt or Frau Fischer. Store clerks, business acquaintances and strangers are always addressed with the Sie form. Telephone calls also always require the "Sie" form if you do not know the person on the other end.

When introducing yourself, it is common to give your full name or only your last name. Introducing oneself with only the first name is an indication that you want to be addressed with the informal du, which may not be appropriate for the situation.

Du is used among younger people and friends, as well as for children. It is used together with the first name. You should not call someone by their first name unless they have offered to be addressed with the informal du, or if they use du and your first name when speaking with you.

It is generally the older person, or, in a business setting, the person of higher rank, who offers to switch from Sie to du. They may do this by re-introducing themselves with their first name.

If you are unsure which form to use, listen for which form of address your conversation partner is using with you and use the same form with him or her.


In addition to Herr (Mr.) and Frau (Ms.), academic and noble titles are quite important in Germany. Even if it may sound cumbersome, don't forget to include them when speaking with someone. They come after Herr or Frau, for example Herr Dr. Keller or Frau Prof. von Henkel. Even double titles, such as Frau Prof. Dr. Schumann, are not shortened or omitted.

A clock on the wall

Try to be on time

The word Fräulein is an old-fashioned word for "Miss" and is no longer in use. Instead, it has been replaced with the more neutral word Frau, which is equivalent to "Ms" and gives no indication of a woman's marital status. Do not use Fräulein, as you are likely to offend someone.


German punctuality is more than just a stereotype - it's also common practice. Being on time is an important part of social etiquette.

For business meetings and other important appointments, it is a good idea to arrive a few minutes early. Being late or rushing makes a bad impression - especially when everyone else is punctual.

As for private appointments with friends and acquaintances, being "fashionably late" is impolite in Germany. Arrive at the time you have arranged, as being tardy may put a damper on the evening. The more guests there are, however, the wider the window of time is within which it is still appropriate to show up.

Being invited

When you are invited to a private home in Germany for dinner or for afternoon coffee and cake, it's a good idea to bring a small gift for the host or hostess. Flowers are always welcome. Just be sure to bring an odd number of buds, as an even number is said to bring bad luck. Wine or candies are also appropriate to bring.

Recycling even takes place in the subway, as seen here with containers in the Berlin underground

Passengers in the Berlin subway are expected to separate their trash


Trash is often separated in Germany, in private homes and sometimes in public bins as well. You may find separate disposal areas for glass, paper and packaging. Private homes may also have a separate container for organic waste, such as coffee grinds and food leftovers.

Many Germans take recycling and trash separation seriously and ignorance of or indifference to the practice may be frowned upon.