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10 reasons why a German might be staring at you

10 reasons why a German might be staring at you
Photo: DPA
Sometimes it is hard to get your head around all the social norms in Germany. But fear not, a local will be there to help - by putting you straight with a withering look.

Among older Germans in particular, a disapproving stare is a feared weapon for putting people who break the country’s social codes in their place. 

Some expats feel like they get it just for looking different, with one writer dubbed it the “the Germanic stare down.”

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A quick look through Google reveals that many expats have been on the wrong end of a German stare – and none have found it very pleasant.

So what are the common faux pas that make a German stop in their tracks and look you unblinkingly in the eye?

Ordering a glass of tap water

Photo: DPA

Some people seem to see free water in restaurants as a right as vital as voting and free speech (cough, cough… Brits). But in Germany, things are a little different.

If you are eating lunch at a restaurant it is very impolite to ask for a glass of tap water. Sometimes a waiter will eyeball you before giving an abrupt “nein.” At other times they will bring the but stare you hard in the eye while putting it down.

READ ALSO: Oh fork: The German dining etiquette Americans might struggle with

There is a reason for this rudeness: in Germany, business lunches are often so cheap that the restaurant makes a lot of its profit on the drinks that people buy.

Taking out the trash on a Sunday

Sunday is Ruhetag in Germany, something that is taken so seriously that there are even laws defining what you are allowed to do. Drilling in your apartment for example is strengst verboten

But even if you take your trash out, you could disturb a neighbour who is reading his Sonntagszeitung. This is sure to lead to a furrow-browed glare through the window.

Not obeying the Ampelmann

Photo: DPA

Yes, this is perhaps the most cliched example of German rule-obeying, but we had to mention it anyway.

Cross a street while the Ampelmann is still red (especially if there are children in the vicinity) and you are sure to get a stare or two from angry bystanders.

Addressing on older colleague with Du

Among the older generations, it can take months or even years of knowing one another before one switches from Sie to the more familiar Du. The signal for when this is appropriate is normally given by the more senior person.

If you work at an old fashioned company and strike up a conversation with a senior colleague by using Du and their first name without having first been given permission, you are sure to be on the receiving end of a piercing stare.

Using Sie with a classmate at uni

On the flip side, if you address a classmate at university with Sie, they are probably going to wonder which century you were born in.

Wearing lederhosen outside Bavaria

Photo: DPA

Some tourists who come to Germany seem to think that lederhosen are the national dress. But while you might see a few of the leather breeches in other cities during Oktoberfest, they are Alpine attire and are rarely seen north of Munich.

Wearing them in Hamburg or Cologne is more likely to elicit a smirk than an angry glare, but you are sure to notice plenty of eyes on you. 

Talking too loudly inside

Photo: DPA

Respect for other people’s personal space is an important concept in Germany. If your group starts chatting loudly and enthusiastically in a restaurant, take a moment to look around. Someone on every table will be sending mental daggers through the air.

Putting your feet up on a chair

Let’s face it, this is an unacceptable habit in any culture. But putting your feet up on the chair in one of Germany’s swanky high speed trains is not going to make you any friends on your journey. You can thank your lucky stars if you only get a nasty look.

Having unruly children

Many German pensioners still hold onto the maxim that children should be seen but not heard.

If young parents are struggling to keep control of their children on a hot day in the Berlin U-Bahn, they are not always met with sympathetic looks from members of the older generation. 

Wearing swim toggles in the sauna

Photo: DPA

And lastly, the greatest faux pas of them all – wearing a bikini or swimming shorts in the sauna. This is taken so seriously, one wonders whether it has been written into the German Verfassung.

READ ALSO: The truth laid bare: What you need to know about Germany's sauna culture

Should shyness get the better of you and you take your place in the sauna covered in Textil, you’ll feel an extra heat on the back of your head – the burning glares of a dozen angry sauna goers!


Member comments

  1. Hold a sign written in German saying “Direct staring is in most cultures, an affront to the privacy of other people and will be taken as a pretext to physical ggression in yet others” Do not do this outside of Germany if you value your teeth.

  2. I’m stared at ALL the time but mostly on the trains. I think for how I look and for speaking English. But I found a perfect antidote! I stare back with a big smile on my face. They then act as if I physically wounded them. They become so uncomfortable and start twitching and immediately turn their gaze away and never look at me again. Triumph! It is an odd phenomenon by Germans – the staring and it is true – they love to boldy stare at you.

  3. I think it is definitely true that “Respect for other people’s personal space is an important concept in Germany.” Or perhaps “personal peace and quiet” would be more accurate.

    Whatever, there is another social norm that sometimes overrides this respect – “If you do not completely and constantly dominate your place while standing in line, then you are signalling that someone else can just take it”.

    This doesn’t just apply to supermarket queues, but also merging in traffic, where it can be pretty stressful. One of the things I miss about England is the concept of ‘civilised queueing’. And holding doors open for people. And saying “Excuse me.” And “No, please, after you!” And, you know, “Thank you.” The list goes on.

    But one thing I have noticed, is that when you behave that way in Germany, they actually really appreciate it – after recovering from the shock that a stranger was nice to them for no particular reason 🙂

    Basically all social niceties with strangers!

  4. I’m fascinated by this article.

    It represents very little of what I have known, and experienced, from “German” society/behaviour for 30+ years now.

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