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10 weird taboos you should never break in Germany

Rachel Loxton
Rachel Loxton - [email protected]
10 weird taboos you should never break in Germany
Don't forget the eye contact! Photo: Depositphotos/ridofranz

Moving to a new country and blending in with the locals is never an easy task. So we put together a guide to some social faux-pas that you should do your best to avoid in Germany.


Forgetting to make eye contact

Picture the scene: you get to the pub on Friday night and the bartender has delivered a delicious Hefeweizen to you. Just before you take a sip, you raise a glass with your friends and say "Prost!" : But wait a minute, did you give your drinking mates eye contact when your glasses clinked? If not, then you’ve just committed a massive faux pas. 

In Germany, eye contact when your glasses meet is essential. If you don’t do it, you will receive puzzled or angry looks.

Why? Well as The Local discussed in an article, the reasons behind this superstition are not 100 percent clear.

If you ask a German they’ll say no eye contact means you’re both in for seven years of bad sex. 

One suggestion for the eye contact rule is that it comes from the olden days when you had to ensure nobody had poisoned your drink and you established trust by making eye contact.

Perhaps it’s just, you know, nice to have a little bit of eye contact with your drinking buddy. 

READ ALSO: Prost! Why do Germans make eye contact when they clink glasses?

Chancellor Angela Merkel with her Christian Democrat colleague Volker Bouffier. Let's hope they remembered the eye contact. Photo: DPA

Once you've realized your mistake, you'll probably start going to extreme lengths to ensure it doesn't happen again. 

This can result in staring at your pals in a very uncomfortable and awkward way (for everyone) while you try to ensure that eye contact definitely happens. 

Sorry to say, but this behaviour also makes you look distinctly unlocal. The trick is to do the eye contact just as you clink glasses. No staring required. 

I’m still working on it. 

Wishing someone happy birthday before the big day

When a colleague has their birthday over the weekend, or you’re going on holiday and you won’t see them, it’s tempting to say: “Happy birthday when it comes.” But DON'T do that in Germany.

In the Bundesrepublik, wishing someone a happy birthday before the day is widely considered to bring bad luck. That’s the case even if you say it just a day or a few minutes early.

Germans are quite big on the tradition of "reinfeiern" , literally "celebrating into"  the birthday. It’s when guests gather the evening before someone's big day, and wish the person a happy birthday, in stereotypical German fashion, precisely when the clock strikes midnight.

Wait until that moment and not a second earlier to say: “Alles gute zum Geburtstag! (all the best for your birthday)."

READ ALSO: 8 strange superstitions that the Germans hold

Expecting a cake

Remember how in your former country it made sense for you to be given a treat on your birthday? Your friends would buy you drinks or your colleagues would surprise you with a cute cupcake or the like? Well, in Germany, it’s the other way round – you are expected to treat everyone else.

Remember your cake! Photo: Depositphotos/cook_inspire

Buying a drink for your friends in the pub when everyone comes to hang out with you is one way of doing this. You are also expected to provide the cake or dessert. At work it’s often the norm to prepare something for your colleagues, whether that's a homemade cake or just picking up a treat from the bakery.

This can lead to some cultural misunderstandings. Personally, I come from a culture where the birthday girl or boy is spoilt and it would be a little strange to pay for everyone else on your birthday. 

But the good thing is that once your birthday is over you can wipe the sweat from your brow, take a sigh of relief and remember that you’ll get a nice bit of Käsekuchen when Lena in accounts turns 42 in a couple of weeks. 

Or just take your birthday off work.

Wearing your swimming costume or trunks in the sauna

Us foreigners love debating naked culture Germany, probably because it’s vastly different to where we come from. 

For example, wearing a swimsuit or trunks in a sauna or steam room in Germany is considered unhygienic. In other countries, however, it’s thought to be unhygienic to be naked in a spa. It truly is confusing. 

Never forget that Germany is the country of FKK – Freikörperkultur – an informal movement that translates to free body culture.

Germany has a tolerance of and, in some cases, a fondness for being "textile free." Whether it's one of the country's hundreds of spas and wellness resorts, parks or lakes, many people are known for having no qualms about taking their clothes off.

READ ALSO: The dos and don't of public nudity in Germany

That’s why you’ll likely get disapproving looks (or worse) if you do make the faux pas of wearing clothes in a spa or an FKK designated area. 

But take it from me, once you’ve been shouted out by a German for not being naked, you will never do it again.

Photo: DPA

Walking in the cycling lane

Perhaps this is for those of us who are not very used to cycling infrastructure. In the big cities, you really have to look in all directions at every moment when you’re a pedestrian. That’s because there are special lanes dedicated to cyclists or people riding scooters.

And if you accidentally step out onto one, you will hear the “ring ring” of a bike bell very soon. You might also hear: "Fahrradweg!" (cycle lane) shouted in your direction in case you didn't get the message.

It all comes down to rules, doesn’t it? Germans really do like sticking to them and stepping out of line (or into someone else's space) is not on.

See also: if you’re a cyclist riding on a pavement or if you're a pedestrian crossing the road when it's a red light, expect a telling off at the very least – or a fine.

Being too loud on a Sunday

Sunday might feel like a good day to do a big clean up in your flat. But beware that it could raise disapproving looks.

If you're mowing the lawn, vacuum cleaning or putting your bottles into the recycling bin, it's best not to do that during "Ruhezeit" (quiet time).

READ ALSO: 13 things foreigners do that make Germans really uncomfortable

It's a time when everyone is expected to be calm and quiet. It differs from state to state, but takes place most commonly from 1pm to 3pm, 10pm to 7am, and all-day on Sunday.

Not taking your holiday

If you’re trying to impress your boss in Germany by not taking your holidays and staying late in the office, forget it. This doesn’t go down well with anyone because work-life-balance is very important to Germans.

Germans even have a word for the time after you finish work: Feierabend, which indicates just how important free time is to the culture here.

So leave on time and take all your allocated holidays.

Don't risk burnout! Photo: Depositphotos/Alexshadyuk

Addressing people by their first name

If you speak German, you'll be aware that you have to use the Sie polite form when taking to a stranger, someone older than you or in a higher position than you at work.

That means that it's considered a bit rude to use someone's first name if they are a stranger. Stick to Frau or Herr with their surname if you're worried about putting your foot in it. If they'd prefer to use the informal du form, they'll soon let you know.

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

Ignoring people in the lift

Germans are hardly known for having a good chat or being very outwardly friendly with strangers, but in a lift it's a different story.

A stranger you've never met may strike up a conversation with you when the doors shut, or at the very least they might wish you a good day ("Schönen Tag noch!") and say bye.

It can be confusing given that neighbours you've seen for years still don't smile back at you when you pass them in the Hinterhof (courtyard) when you're putting out your rubbish. But it's just something us foreigners have to get used to.

It's also the case in doctor's practices in Germany. Expect a courteous hello and goodbye in the waiting room there, too.

Clapping when you should be knocking

Germans like knocking on the table to show their appreciation. But when do you do that instead of clapping?  It can be tricky for non-Germans to know what's best to do.

To clap or to bang the table? Who knows. Photo: Depositphotos/raxpixel

In academic settings it’s common for students to knock on their desks to applaud a lecture or presentation.  Clapping is usually reserved for concerts or shows (perhaps when there’s not a table in front of you, the norm is to clap).

Knocking is also quite a common thing to do in German pubs when you arrive.

Apparently if you knock twice, it shows your friends that you aren't the devil. According to legend, the Stammtisch, the regular's table in the tavern, was traditionally made of oak which der Teufel was unable to touch as the tree was holy. Knocking on the table proved you weren't the devil in disguise.


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Anonymous 2019/09/06 22:41
"Being too loud on a Sunday" is listed as one of the indiscretions a foreigner might commit. But down in deepest SW Germany where I live the very fact appearing to work on a Sunday can cause offence. Not long after settling in, I was minding my own business quietly clipping my hedge . . . not even on a street but adjacent to a small country footpath bordering our property. An old fellow with a stick walked past and growled at me "Das ist ARBEIT!". I wasn't quick thinking enough to tell him "Doch, es ist mein Hobby".

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