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13 things foreigners do that make Germans really uncomfortable

13 things foreigners do that make Germans really uncomfortable
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
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.

Germany is a complex country made of 16 different states with lots of regional differences, especially when it comes to culture and values. 

So, of course it’s hard to generalise. But there are still several ways guaranteed to make many Germans feel awkward.

Here are a few that tend to make people in Germany feel at best uncomfortable – and at worse annoyed. If you can think of any others, let us know.

Making small talk

Germans are not unfriendly; far from it. But try having a bit of light-hearted banter with a supermarket worker or restaurant server in Germany, or attempt to ask a stranger how their day is going, and they will look at you like you’re from another planet. 

Small talk is just not Germany’s strong point. As we discussed in a recent Local article, there is no exact translation of “small talk” from English to German. One of the translations – oberflächliche Konversation, means superficial conversation and signals how this concept is viewed here: a bit meaningless.

READ ALSO : Are Germans really rude or just avoiding politeness overload?

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See also on The Local:

Small talk is more often used in Germany as a way to get to know someone better, rather than a colloquial concept.

So if you start a polite little chat with someone in Germany, they’re likely to think a) that you really like them and want to start or progress a friendship with them,  b) that you’re speaking for the sake of it and are probably a bit daft or c) that you’re being insincere. 

Apologising all the time

“Sorry, I’ll move for you” “Sorry, is that okay?” “Sorry, can I help you” “Sorry, can I get past you?” “Sorry, can I sit here?”

Sound familiar? For some nationalities (especially the Brits and Americans), sorry is NOT the hardest word, it is one of our most-used words. And, sorry to break the news, but Germans don’t understand this. 

If Germans are really sorry about something, they will say “Es tut mir Leid” but it would have to be quite serious to use this expression. “Entshuldigung” is the equivalent of “excuse me” or a less serious sorry, with many Germans just using the English word “sorry”.

But while some countries have made apologising an everyday part of culture, this just isn’t the case in Germany. Germans will use their sorries much more sparingly. You won’t hear it often in customer service situations, for example.

Don’t expect to hear much apologising in busy transport situations. Photo: Depositphotos/Iamway

It’s not even super common in awkward public situations. 

If a German person, lets say, bumps into you on the U-Bahn they might not even apologise because they view it as nobody’s fault. – it’s just a busy train, what do you expect?

It would also be really weird if you apologised to a German before doing something you’re perfectly entitled to do, like take a seat next to them on the bus. 

What’s the lesson? The Germans are seriously perplexed by this excessive politeness. Maybe some of us need to say sorry less? We’re still working on it. 

READ ALSO: How dropping the small talk helped me make friends with Germans

Talking loudly

Some visitors to Germany – or those that have made Deutschland their home – may get some deathly stares when they take a pew at the pub or in a restaurant and begin to talk to their friends. 

Why? Well, because often the volume on our voices is set to full blast, even if we don’t realise it. 

As a Scot I know from personal experience that when I’m with other British people, native Germans get annoyed as our conversation gets progressively louder (especially if there are a few beers involved). 

Germans on the whole opt to use quieter tones in public for their private conversations. So if you’re from a country where you regularly talk as if you’re giving a presentation to a huge group without a microphone, then just be aware that it could get on the locals’ nerves. 

Eating at your desk

It’s not really the done thing in German workplaces to stuff a badly-made sandwich and packet of crisps into your mouth while you’re typing away on your computer at your desk. 

Lots of Germans prefer to go to their canteen. Photo: DPA

In many workplaces, you’ll be encouraged to at the very least eat your lunch in the canteen or anywhere away from your desk, if not take a full hour’s break. 

It’s traditional in Germany to eat a large hot meal at lunch time (which is usually taken between 12noon and 2pm) and workplace canteens often reflect that with their excellent choices (I’m looking at you Käsespätzle – cheesy pasta – or potatoes and quark).

In fact, the use of the greeting “Mahlzeit!” (mealtime) reflects this part of German culture. You might find a German colleague say that to you just as your leave your desk to go and fill your stomach, although in some parts of Germany it’s used as a greeting all day long.

Things are changing in Germany and you may find more people do eat at their desk but it’s still a bit frowned upon. 

Basically lunch is taken seriously, and who are we to argue with that? 

Having a huge meal really late at night

On the topic of meals, it’s not really the done thing to opt for the Mediterranean way of life and eat a meal late at night. 

I mean, people do it of course, especially in the cities where there is a more diverse population and lots of different restaurants. 

But the traditional way in Germany was always to have a cold meal in the evening because you’ve already had your main meal of the day at lunchtime. Abendbrot (which translates literally to evening bread) often consists of, yep you guessed it, bread as well as cold cuts of meat, cheese and salad. 

Using Sie and du forms incorrectly

The German language has many challenges but this one is down to the context of the conversation and that makes it quite tricky to grasp.

For example, starting a new job in a German workplace is a minefield. In many parts of Germany would be extremely frowned upon if you waltzed in and used the “du” form with your boss and colleagues before they offered you that option. 

READ ALSO: To du or not to du: How to crack one of Germany’s most tricky etiquette dilemmas

But if someone is younger than you or in a less senior position then they’re meant to use the polite “Sie” form with you. The fact is there are no solid rules, you just have to judge the situation and trust your gut instinct. To save yourself from making a faux pas it’s probably best to stick to “Sie” with strangers. 

But if you used the “Sie” polite form in an edgy cafe, people might screw up their face at you. 

As a foreigner, Germans are usually nice and won’t judge too much if you get it wrong or make a mistake but it doesn’t stop you feeling a bit silly. 

Trying to split bills

In Germany the norm (at least in groups rather than families) is to pay for your own food getrennt or separately. What that usually results in is a complicated set of sums between the guests and the server as everyone tries to work out what they owe down to the last penny. 

Germans usually split the bill. Photo: Depositphotos/Elnur

And usually you tip in Germany by rounding up the total due, and you tell the server how much you want to pay, rather than leaving money on the table as you are leaving. 

On that note remember that if you invite someone out to eat then you are expected to cough up for it because einladen (to invite) in German carries the meaning that you will pay.

So when a German says they want to invite you for coffee, they mean they will pay for it. 

Asking for tap water in a restaurant
If you really want to make a German feel uncomfortable, ask for tap water (Leitungswasser) in a restaurant. It is guaranteed to make them squirm.

In lots of German restaurants getting tap water isn’t even an option and it is normally seen as rude to ask for it, although things are starting to change slowly regarding this issue, especially in big cities.

READ ALSO: Five things to know about tap water in Germany

Generally, though, there’s not the same culture of drinking tap water in Germany that there is in some other countries. 

Not taking your shoes off at someone’s home

It’s polite in Germany to ask your host if they would like you to take your shoes off when you visit their home. 

In some cases, German hosts will offer their guests slippers to wear while they are inside their house which is rather sweet, really. 

Turning up fashionably late

Okay, it is a stereotype that Germans are really punctual but we’ve found that being on time is an important part of the culture here. 

If you get an invitation to someone’s house – especially for a meal – it is best to arrive on time, or as close to on time as you can manage. There really is no such thing being fashionably late in Germany. 

Also be aware that in a business context, being on time often means arriving 10 or 15 minutes early. 

READ ALSO: Seven German habits that foreigners really struggle to cope with

Being vague 

Germans really like details. Here’s an example: if you ask a German person how big their flat is they wouldn’t just explain how many bedrooms it has. They’d be able to tell you the exact size in square metres.

If you want to impress Germans, memorize numbers and be exact when you’re explaining things. 

Oversharing

If you really want to freak a German colleague or an acquaintance out then just let rip on everything with no boundaries. Tell them about what you had for breakfast, how much you earn, who you support politically, and, I mean, why not if you’re on a roll, when you had your last poo.

These are details you might share with your best friend but Germans take a slower approach to friendship, preferring to build it up over time. 

When you’re getting to know Germans you have to be patient. But remember: once they trust and like you, you’ll likely have a friend for life. Although it’s still perhaps best to keep your toilet habits to yourself for the most part.

Saying I love you

Just a casual “I love you” written on the sand in Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania. Photo: DPA

Germans find it a little strange how often some people say “I love you”. Those three words should be reserved for very special occasions and when you really mean it, many people in Germany believe.

Even using the word “love” to describe things (eg: “I love your lipstick!”) is a bit much when you can use the more measured word “like”.

Love is not to be thrown away at the end of a phone call or on your next door neighbour’s cute dog.

Perhaps it’s down to the fact that Germans do like to take their time getting to know people, and might then want to take a little longer to say the L word in a relationship, or out loud at all.

Often you’ll find Germans prefer to use the phrase “Ich hab’ dich lieb” (I really, really like you) because “I love you” just carries a bit too much weight.

But it’s always better out than in. So Germans: we really do truly love you and we don’t care how awkward that makes you feel. 


Member comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

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