expats For Members

Expat in Germany? You're probably guilty of one of these social blunders

Yasmin Samrai
Yasmin Samrai - [email protected]
Expat in Germany? You're probably guilty of one of these social blunders

There are unwritten rules in German society of which unsuspecting expats can often fall foul. Have you broken some of these top 5?


Flouting certain social conventions, from addressing a shopkeeper as ‘du’ or standing up while peeing constitute grave transgressions in the German Code of Conduct. To avoid icy stares from strangers and embarrassing new friends, expats should avoid committing these social blunders.   

1. Addressing someone as ‘Du’ instead of ‘Sie’

Unless you're in the trendy parts of Berlin, stick to 'Sie' when talking to strangers. Photo: DPA

The German language distinguishes between a formal and informal ‘you.’ For English-speaking expats, this makes their attempts to speak German even more difficult and potentially offensive. While Germans reserve ‘du’ for children, close friends, and family members, ‘Sie’ is a much safer bet in public and the workplace, with new acquaintances and older persons.

The desire for hierarchy and professionality in the office can seem absurd to expats, as they watch long-time colleagues chatting in the office kitchen, while still using ‘Frau’ (Ms.) and ‘Herr’ (Mr.) and sticking closely to the bureaucratic formality of polite speech. As a result, expats addressing strangers and colleagues by their first names, in an attempt to seem friendly and casual, can make a bad impression.

Nevertheless, those struggling with German pronouns can find shelter in the capital’s startup scene and hipster hotspots, where ‘duzen’ dominates and any attempts to use ‘Sie’ are positively cringeworthy.

2. Turning up late

It's better to be a few minutes early than a single minute late. Photo: DPA

Since punctuality is arguably the most important rule of German etiquette, expats arriving ten minutes late to a meeting or dinner party are considered impolite for taking advantage of other people’s time.

Timeliness also features prominently in event planning, which many execute with impressive Teutonic precision. So, expats who invite their new friends for dinner at 6-ish will be met by puzzled expressions, since Germans delight in the exactitude of the 24-hour clock and the suffix ‘ish’ doesn’t exist in their language.

Expats who avoid this pitfall and invite their friends for dinner at 18:00 shouldn’t, then, be taken aback if they hear the doorbell ring on the hour while in the middle of boiling the pasta.

3. Throwing waste into the wrong bins

Germans - World Champions in Recycling. Photo: DPA

Recycling is an art form in Germany and Germans are masters of the craft. In fact, they have a title to prove it. According to the World Economic Forum, Germany has the highest recycling rate in the world.

Many households here have multiple recycling bins – black for general waste, blue for paper, yellow for plastic, white for clear glass, green for coloured glass, and brown for composting – which can be dizzyingly complex for expats trying to learn the craft.

Anyone caught throwing a greasy pizza box into anything other than the black bin should expect a lecture on recycling legislation from their grouchy neighbour. As recycling incorrectly can contaminate good batches and add more waste to landfills, environmentally-conscious Germans won’t take pity on half-hearted attempts to save the planet.  

4. Wearing improper attire

When in Bavaria, do as the Bavarians do. Photo: DPA

An essential aspect of integrating into German culture involves wearing the right clothing, so expats should avoid committing a number of fashion faux pas.

Strolling down Kreuzberg – Berlin’s countercultural hotspot – in a suit will only attract odd looks from the local hipsters. Likewise, expats wearing a swimsuit in a designated Freikörperkultur (Free Body Culture) area will gain a reputation as a prude.

During Oktoberfest, Bavarian locals are keen to see newcomers join in the festivity by dressing up in a Dirndl dress or Lederhose. Those who turn up to the celebration in jeans and a T-shirt will certainly miss out on the fun.  

5. Peeing while standing

Follow by example and take a seat. Photo: DPA

“Toilettenordnung” or toilet etiquette dictates that German males pee while sitting down. Even though this practice seems to defy most cultural conventions, along with the male anatomy and the laws of gravity, most Germans grimace in embarrassment or horror when they discover that male expats stand up over a ‘sit down’ toilet.

The main aim behind this German convention is to minimize splash back, which also inspires the design of German shelf-style toilets. Some public bathrooms make a point of educating uninformed newcomers about this custom, instructing them “Bitte im Sitzen pinkeln!” (Please pee sitting down!) and, as if this command doesn’t suffice, illustrating the correct form with a comical cartoon.


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