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GERMANY EXPLAINED

Eight unwritten rules that explain how Germany works

From carrying cash around or calling in sick to having lots of energy in the supermarket, we've compiled some unwritten rules to help you navigate life in Germany better.

A person looks at cash in their wallet.
A person looks at cash in their wallet. People in Germany have to carry cash. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

Carry cash at all times 

Whereas many other countries accept card or contactless payments almost everywhere (hello, Sweden!), Germany is still severely lagging behind in this area. So much so that it’s very much the norm to see a sign in a restaurant or shop that says ‘Nur Bargeld!‘ (cash only).

Now that’s not to say you will never be able to pay with card in Germany. In bigger businesses like supermarkets, and even in lots of smaller shops, it is very much possible, and growing in popularity. But the fact is: you could be told at any time that card payments aren’t allowed. So you have to carry cash on you, just in case. 

Recently, a massive Germany-wide technical fault with a card payments terminal meant that even in places which normally accept card, people were forced to pay with cash. Although it was a tech failure, one of the issues was that the card machines hadn’t been updated. It raised questions about how prepared businesses in Germany are to move into the future when it comes to paying for goods.

READ ALSO: Why are card payments getting rejected in Germany?

The supermarket is a sport

If you’ve experienced going shopping for food in Germany, you’ll be aware that there’s some serious business going on at the checkout. We’re not talking about the amount of money you’re spending on cheese and beer (although we respect that), but rather the speed at which the cashiers puts your items through. Call it a race. Call it a sport. Call it whatever you want – regardless, you need to have a system in place for getting everything into bags, and out the door before you receive deathly stares from staff and other customers for taking too long. 

A shopper zooms around a supermarket in Kaarst, North Rhine-Westphalia.

A shopper zooms around a supermarket in Kaarst, North Rhine-Westphalia. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Federico Gambarini

Actually, one of the best ways to do it if you have a lot of stuff (and you’ll see this often), is to refill your basket or trolley with your items and go to a designated packing area to fill your bags in peace. This way you won’t have to deal with the stress of filling your bags at 80 km/per hour. 

However, it’s not just the conveyer belt where you need stamina, you’ll also have to move quickly if a new checkout line opens. In some other cultures, when a new cash desk lights up, you would let those in front of you go first since they’ve been waiting longer. This isn’t the case in Germany. People will rush to a newly opened till, and they won’t even look twice at who they’re cutting in front of. 

Don’t try and split the bill (and look out for invites!)

It’s worth keeping in mind that people in Germany generally don’t split the bill in social situations. It’s more common to pay exactly what you owe (unless you’re a family or couple where you probably already have an arrangement in place). So in restaurants and cafes you’ll find that servers say: zusammen oder getrennt (together or separately) when you ask for the bill. More often than not, a group of friends will say getrennt and pay what they owe right down to the last cent, one by one with the server. 

But if someone says: Ich lade dich auf ein Bier ein (I invite you for a beer) then they will likely pay for it. That’s because the word for invite (einladen) in German also has the meaning ‘to treat,’ – to pay for the other person. So if you specifically use the word ‘invite’ to ask someone out for food or a drink, you’d probably be expected to pay. 

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

Don’t be afraid to call in sick

Foreigners from countries where there is a pressure to work even if they feel like they’re on their death bed are often surprised to find how at ease Germans seem to at calling in sick to work.

A person blows their nose in bed.

Got a cold? Stay in bed! Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Maurizio Gambarini

Covid has meant that everyone across the world now tries to stay clear of people when they have symptoms like a cough or runny nose. But the Germans were doing this long before the pandemic hit. Their culture deems it appropriate to call in sick and stay at home if they need it. Going to the doctor (which is needed to get a sick note) on a regular basis is also fairly normal. 

Of course, some jobs will have more pressure on employees than others to show up for work. But there is a much higher cultural understanding of the need for people to rest and recuperate when sick – not force themselves to work and possibly infect others.

READ ALSO: From nudity to sandwiches – the biggest culture shocks for foreigners in Germany

Tip the right way 

When it comes to tips (Trinkgeld) in Germany the norm is generally around 5-10 percent. But the way you do it is also important to know. It’s best to ask for a little less change back rather than leave money on the table, which is the case in many other European countries. 

Our tip for tipping: Use the German phrase ‘Stimmt so’, which means ‘keep the change’. Otherwise you can just state the amount you would like to leave when handing over money or card to the server. For instance if your food costs €8.30, you can say ‘€10, bitte’ which means that’s how much you are giving them including the tip.

READ ALSO: What to know about tipping culture in Germany

Think before asking for tap water in a restaurant

One cultural etiquette that’s essential to know how to handle is tap water – you might not get it if you ask for it! Traditionally in Germany, tap water or Leitungswasser is not a free thing given to guests in cafes and restaurants. People are expected to buy bottled water. This has changed a lot in recent years, though, especially in more international places. 

This is alarming for Americans in particular since free water for the table is the norm in the States. 

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

Toilet habits 

We’ll get straight into it – men in Germany are expected to sit down to pee. Not when they are out and about and there’s a urinal in a public facility, but in homes – they usually have to sit down. Why? Well, to limit the splashes that often occur when men do pee while standing up. So it’s out of respect for everyone in the household, no matter their sex. Sounds like a step towards equality to us. 

A toilet paper roll on a toilet. Get used to German toilet habits.

A toilet paper roll on a toilet. Get used to German toilet habits. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Martin Gerten

According to a survey from 2016 (yes, it’s a long time ago, but it’s clearly not the most talked about subject in Germany), half of the men surveyed said they generally prefer to pinkeln (pee) standing up – but 67 percent said they urinate sitting down at home. 

Learn the lessons of communication

There are a few things The Local team has learned since arriving in Germany:

– De direct. It’s not a myth that Germans are more direct than others. It’s definitely better to get to the point and it’s not considered impolite.

– Don’t do small talk, or if you do, don’t expect people to get it. It’s not that Germans don’t like to have a laugh (they do), but the culture of small talk many foreigners are used to in their home country doesn’t exist in Germany. Shop employees don’t really want to have a light-hearted chat with you. Servers in restaurants aren’t that up for banter. Save these chats for people you know.

READ ALSO: Ask a German – do you ever make small talk?

– Not everyone is your friend. One thing non-Germans can struggle with is the culture of acquaintances. Germans take friendship very seriously, and it can take a long time and effort to form a friendship. Before this point, people are considered a Bekannter (acquaintance).  Don’t take offence. It’s still a good thing and you’re probably on the road to becoming a friend. But it’s best not to overshare too much until you’re buddies for life.

– Remember to use the appropriate formal or informal language (Sie or du) depending on who you are talking to! 

READ ALSO: German word of the day – Duzen/Siezen

These are just a few unwritten rules we’ve come across in Germany. If you have any more you’d like to add, please leave a comment below. We’d love to hear your views!

Member comments

  1. I have been here in Germany over 40 years now and one of the unwritten things that I learnt very early is that ‘you should walk on the right, just as vehicles drive on the right’

  2. After two years in Germany, I’m surprised how much tolerance is shown towards smokers, especially when walking in the street. On the plus side, I find drivers much more respectful than I expected, at least in towns.

    1. I find that surprising too. It’s also weird that people can smoke in bars in Berlin (maybe other places too!)

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RENTING

From nudity to BBQs: What you can (and can’t) do on your balcony in Germany

When the sun is shining, there's nothing better than spending quality time on your balcony in Germany. But you may run into some problems with the neighbours if you don't follow these rules...

From nudity to BBQs: What you can (and can't) do on your balcony in Germany

If you happen to live in any German city, you’re probably used to fitting most of your outdoor living onto your balcony.

They may be slightly smaller than your average garden, but it’s amazing how versatile they can be, from hosting friends for dinner and drinks to testing out your fledgling plant-growing skills.

Of course, this being Germany, there are a set of rules that you need to follow in order to stay on the best possible terms with your neighbours. 

Here’s how to make the most of your balcony this summer while avoiding awkward conversations or even visits from the police. 

Naked sunbathing

Legend has it that the English poet William Blake and his wife used enjoy sitting out in their garden stark naked pretending to be Adam and Eve. 

But while nude biblical scenes may be all well and good in a Lambeth garden, German law unfortunately calls for a slightly more conservative approach.

That doesn’t mean that stripping off on your balcony is necessarily forbidden. However, you do need to consider whether the neighbours might see more than they want to while you’re catching some rays. 

As is generally the case with rules for what you can and can’t do on your balcony, the law says that you’re more than entitled to take off your clothes in your own private space – but this shouldn’t impact your neighbours. 

To get around this, you may want to put up a screen between you and your neighbour’s balcony, or even go full Adam and Eve (William Blake style) with a strategically placed plant or two.

Another option is position your sun umbrella so it blocks your neighbour’s view – just watch out for any gusts of wind that may strike at an inopportune moment.

READ ALSO: What are the laws around nudity in Germany?

Sex

If al fresco sex is your thing, you’ll once again need to make sure that the neighbours don’t accidentally catch sight of what’s going on. Obviously, getting a report filed against you may dampen the mood somewhat.

The same applies to making loud noises or even having some “intimate” time in front of a window that people can see into. In the worst-case scenarios, both can be grounds for a police complaint. 

Barbecues 

Participating in Germany’s unofficial national sport – Grillen – is technically also allowed on the balcony, but there are some rules to know.

The first is that you should avoid open flames and any kind of BBQ that doesn’t come with an actual grill. 

If you can, you should also try not to send a billowing cloud of smoke over to your neighbours’ windows or balcony while you’re cooking up a storm. In the worse-case scenario, you could face a fine for excessive smoke under the Emissions Control Act. 

Barbecue on the balcony

A barbecue with burgers and vegetables. People who want to have a barbecue on their balcony should watch the smoke. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Beyond Meat | Beyond Meat

That means an electric grill might be preferable to an old-fashioned coal barbecue.

Certain states and districts also have rules about how often you’re allowed to barbecue outside. In Berlin for example, twice a month is considered reasonable. It’s also a good idea to alert the neighbours beforehand if you’re planning a grill-fest anytime soon, and some regions require this by law. 

The other thing to note is that some rental contracts have clauses that ban barbecues on the property or even just certain types of barbecue. So be sure to read the small-print in your Mietvertrag (rental contract) to ensure you don’t accidentally break the rules.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Can I have a barbecue on my balcony in Germany?

Parties 

There’s very little better than sitting out on a warm summer evening sharing a drink with friends – but you may wonder how much socialising is considered too much.

The good news is, you’re perfectly entitled to invite people over and have fun in your own home, and you certainly don’t need to whisper the second you go outside.

That said, German states do put in place a legal Nachtruhe (night-time quiet) period between 10pm and 7am, so you may want to turn the music down or take the party inside during these hours. 

Once again, it’s also considered polite to give neighbours a heads-up before inviting a big group of people round, especially if it’s going to be a big event like a birthday party: most of them won’t begrudge you a bit of extra noise on a special occasion, but it’s always nice if they know what’s going on beforehand. 

Smoking 

Surely no neighbour would begrudge you a quick ciggie on the balcony once in a while, right? Right.

In principle, you’re perfectly allowed to smoke on the balcony. Once again, just be mindful of the neighbours, who may not be that pleased if a cloud of smelly smoke blows over their way. 

CCTV

Depending on where you live, you may have considered installing a CCTV camera for a bit of extra security. But is this actually allowed under German privacy laws?

Yes and no. 

In Germany, everyone is entitled to protect their own residence and property with video surveillance, but this should exclusively record what happens on the property.

That means you can have a CCTV camera pointing at your balcony that can record any trespassers, but it shouldn’t record people and areas outside of this remit – so you certainly can’t use it to spy on your neighbours or record what’s going on in their private space. 

Decor and plants

When it comes to turning your balcony into your own personal oasis, you pretty much have free rein. Whether you want to try your hand at growing tomatoes or fancy hanging a banner for your favourite football team, it really is up to you.

The only thing to watch out for is that you don’t obstruct your neighbours’ view or install anything so elaborate that you end up damaging the brickwork or the integrity of the balcony. For this reason, snap hooks and dowels are a no-no. 

Fairy lights and other light features are absolutely fine as well, although your neighbour does have the right to demand they get turned off at 10pm if they’re disturbed by the light pollution at night.

A Ukrainian flag on a balcony in Wilmersdorf.

A Ukrainian flag hangs from a balcony in Berlin Wilmersdorf. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder

It’s a similar state of affairs with wind chimes, which may constitute a noise disturbance if your neighbour happens to dislike them. Once again: communication is key. Check with them beforehand if you’re worried your musical decor may be considered a nuisance. 

On the plant front, pretty much anything goes, apart from ivy and other climbing plants. These tend to be a problem because their roots can damage the brickwork. 

You’ll also need to make sure your plant pots are relatively secure and won’t fall down onto the street in heavy winds. And, it should probably go without saying, but spraying your neighbours in the face with a hose every time you do some “watering” is not considered very neighbourly. 

As always, common sense should be the order of the day: a few drips of water or stray petals from your plants on your neighbour’s balcony can’t be helped, and as such, they shouldn’t be a problem. 

READ ALSO: ‘The pandemic made people want to grow stuff’: How a Berlin balcony project led to a chili revolution

Hanging out laundry

If your balcony is big enough, you may want to hang your clothes on a rack out to dry on your balcony.

Although it seems harmless enough, it can actually be forbidden if that is written into your rental contract. As with everything in Germany, check the fine print in your contract before you go hanging your underwear out to dry in the wind. 

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