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Oh fork: The German dining etiquette Americans might struggle with

From using only a fork to separating salad leaves with a knife, several German culinary practices cut into the heart of The Local's Rachel Stern's prior American norms.

Oh fork: The German dining etiquette Americans might struggle with
Eating smaller pizzas with forks is more common in Germany than the US. Photo: depositphotos/vikky_wild

Oh fork it

Shortly after moving to Germany, I sat down to dinner with a few German colleagues. The restaurant set a large pizza in front of us as I, hungrily eyeing it, picked up a sizzling slice with my hands. Yet I noticed how I stood out as the American in the group, as everyone else proceeded to daintily cut each slice with a fork and knife.

While nowadays I observe more people scarfing down our finger foods like pizza and burritos “American style”, a fork and knife are also used on dishes we scarcely apply them to in the States, such as salads.

Bringing out the knives

In the U.S. a butter knife is often only used for the task its name implies. Photo: depositphotos/jirkaejc

Even when Americans use a fork, that shiny butter knife seems to be an optional utensil, or just used to fulfill its namesake duty.

Americans will, for example, often just rely on a fork to eat their meal, unless it is a dish such as a steak that badly calls for the assistance of a sharper utensil to be broken apart. Yet Europeans will use both a fork and knife to cut apart nearly every non-dessert food.

American vs. continental style

When we do use our knives, I noticed it’s in a very different fashion than in Germany. While Americans cherish efficiency, this does not appear true in the way we cut our food.

Through the “continental style”, Europeans (and many other cultures) will keep their forks in the left hand and knife in their right hand, maintaining a composure that appears somehow sophisticated (from my humble foreigner’s view) even with pizza.

Americans, on the other hand (quite literally), will do what has been dubbed the Homeland Handoff, or the cut-and-switch, alternating the fork and knife back and forth.

Laying it on the table

Only when an American friend visited me in Berlin and put a hefty tip on the table after our restaurant meal did I think about just how different this practice is in Germany.

For one, it’s uncommon to tip more than 10 percent, and that’s usually just if the meal was extraordinary. Usually Germans just round up, a practice I quickly became accustomed to as well.

Furthermore they almost always tell the waiter how much they’d like to give, informing that they are paying €7 on a €6.50 meal.

As my friend walked out the door, I quickly picked up the table-top tip and handed it to the waiter, making sure that he and not anyone else got to it first.

Watering things down

Tap water flows freely at restaurants in the U.S. Not true in Germany. Photo: depositphotos

In Germany, I learned that ordering tap water at restaurants can be viewed as a sign of stinginess. “If I give you free water, I’ll have to give it to all my customers,” a waiter once told me when I requested Leitungswasser (tap water), as though it were a glass of Pinot Noir.

Especially at fancier establishments, I’ve learned that a request for water is usually followed by the question, “Still or sparkling?” and then the precious resource being brought out in a bottle that costs at least €2 or €3.

Free tap water is often only a perk if you’re a regular at an eatery; in Germany, they really know how to go all out for their guests. 

And does anyone else find it strange that some cafes have large vases used as water jugs with glasses about the size of an espresso cup?

Slowing it down

While having lunch in Palo Alto in the heart of Silicon Valley a few years ago, an advertisement on my table promoted an app that would cut business lunch times “by 12 percent”, allowing you to order without interacting with the waiter first.

While such inventions are not perhaps such a bad idea in a country with notoriously long wait times before you are served, I much prefer the slower pace of meals in Germany — both at home and when dining out.

In Germany, I have never once been ushered out of a restaurant for “taking too long”, even during peak hours in popular places. It’s been a relief to fully relax, and enjoy the company and food — with both a fork and knife at hand.

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know as an American moving to Germany

Member comments

  1. Remember in the film Idiocracy where people just eat buckets of soft food in front of hundreds of garish TV channels with their fingers? That´s kind of where we would all be at if we were left to US eating standards. Adult table etiquette please!!

  2. Just got back from a trip home to the USA and two things occured to me, highlighted in this article.
    1. Free water should be a given. Big glasses of free water are essential and this just further annoys me with the german practice.
    2. USA service is almost too fast. The food and bill came so fast it was hard to have a proper conversation with my friends. In this respect USA could learn a lot from Germanys slower pace.

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REVEALED: The most commonly asked questions about Germans and Germany

Ever wondered what the world is asking about Germany and the Germans? We looked at Google’s most searched results to find out – and help clear some of these queries up.

Hasan Salihamidzic, the sports director of FC Bayern, arrives with his wife at Oktoberfest in full traditional dress. Photo: picture alliance/dpa |

According to popular searches, Germany is the go-to place for good coffee and bread (although only if you like the hard kind) and the place to avoid if what you’re looking for is good food, good internet connection and low taxes. Of course, this is subjective; some people will travel long stretches to get a fresh, hot pretzel or a juicy Bratwurst, while others will take a hard pass.

When it comes to the question on the bad Internet – there is some truth to this. Germany is known for being behind other rich nations when it comes to connectivity. And from personal experience, the internet connection can seem a little medieval. The incoming German coalition government has, however, vowed to improve internet connectivity as part of their plans to modernise the country.

There are also frequent questions on learning the German language, and people pointing out that it is hard and complicated. This is probably due to the long compound words and its extensive grammar rules, however, as both English and German are Germanic languages with similar words in common, it’s not impossible to learn as an English-speaker.

Here’s a look at some of those questions…

Why is German called Deutsch? Whereas ‘German’ comes from the Latin, ‘Deutsch’ instead derives itself from the Indo-European root “þeudō”, meaning “people”. This slowly became “Deutsch” as we know it today. It can be a bit confusing to English-speakers, who are right to think it sounds a little more like “Dutch”, however the two languages do have the same roots which may explain it.

And why is Germany so boring? Again, probably a generalisation, especially given that Germany has a landmass of over 350,000 km² with areas ranging from high rise, industrial cities to traditional old town villages and even mountain ranges, so you’re sure to find a place that doesn’t bore you to tears.

Perhaps it is a question that comes from the stereotype that Germans are obsessed with being strict about rules, organised and analytical. Or that they have no sense of humour – all of these things being not the most exciting traits. 

Either way, from my experience I can confirm that, even though there is truth to German society enjoying order and rules, the vast majority of people are not boring, and I’m sure if you come to Germany you’ll meet many interesting, funny and exciting people. 

READ ALSO: 12 mistakes foreigners make when moving to Germany

When it comes to the German weather, most people assume a cold and cloudy climate, however this isn’t entirely true. While the autumn and winter, especially in the north, come with grey skies and sub-zero temperatures, Germany can have some beautiful summers, with temperatures frequently rising above 30C in some places.

Unsurprisingly, the power and wealth of the German nation is mentioned – Germany is the largest economy in Europe after all, with a GDP of 3.8 trillion dollars. This could be due to strong industry sectors in the country, including vehicle constructions (I was a little surprised to find no questions posed on German cars), chemical and electrical industry and engineering. There are also many strong economic cities in Germany, most notably Munich, Frankfurt am Main and Hamburg.

READ ALSO: Eight unique words and phrases that tell us something about Germany

Smart and tall?

Why are Germans so tall? They are indeed taller than many other nations, with the average German measuring a good 172.87cm (or 5 feet 8.06 inches), however this may be a question better posed to the Dutch, who make up the tallest people in the world.

Why are Germans so smart? While this is again a generalisation – as individuals have different levels of intelligence in all countries – this question may stem from Germany’s free higher education system or their seemingly efficient work ethic. Plus there does seem to be some scientific research behind this question, with a study done in 2006 finding that Germans had the highest IQ in Europe.

So, while many of the questions posed about Germany and Germans on Google stem from stereotypes, we can confirm that some aren’t entirely made up. If you’re looking to debunk some frequently asked questions about France and the French, check out this article by our sister site HERE.