Hamburg's new arrivals can look forward to an eventual confrontation with the unwritten social and cultural rules of the city sooner or later. While sometimes awkward, making a cultural faux-pas every now and then is an essential part of finding your feet in a new environment, so get ready to laugh it off, pick yourself back up, and try again.
But to help you prepare, we’ve summed up the most important Dos & Don’ts to give you a head start!
- Try to speak a little German. Even a cheerful 'Dankeschön' will go a long way!
- Shake hands firmly with people you meet, men and women alike. Hugs and kisses are saved for close friends and family.
- In a professional setting, address people by their title and last name ― e.g. Frau Doktor Jansen ― until you’re explicitly invited to use their first name. If you're speaking to a person with several academic titles, start with the most important one.
- Inform your neighbours several days in advance if you’re organising a BBQ or party. A friendly note somewhere in the building for all to see will do, and a blanket invitation will go a long way as well, even if it's likely to be understood as a mere gesture.
- Abide by the rules, even ones that might not make sense to you. Germans value their equality and tend to frown upon people who act as if they’re 'above the law'.
- Take out cash at an ATM ― many shops, restaurants and bars don’t take debit or credit cards, though this is slowly beginning to change.
- Before taking the first sip of your drink, make eye contact with your drinking partners, and say 'Prost!' Failing to do so is associated with bad luck and other unwanted consequences.
- Greet and thank cashiers, waiters and cleaning staff. Late in the afternoon, a courteous 'schönen Feierabend' (wishing people an enjoyable end to the workday) is appreciated.
- Make eye contact and politely smile to your waiter if you need them. Unlike in some other countries, it’s considered good manners in Germany to leave customers in peace while eating.
- Give tips in cafés, bars and restaurants. While not mandatory, it is customary to give a 10% tip on top of the total sum or to at least round-up the bill for small purchases.
- Split the bill if you like. If your waiter asks 'Zusammen oder getrennt?', they’re giving you the option to pay separately.
- Bring chocolate, flowers or something to drink when you’re invited over for socialising at someone’s home.
- Unwrap birthday presents while the giver is still there. Don’t forget to beam with joy and thoroughly thank them for the marvelous gift.
- Be upset when you don’t get jokes. German humour is difficult to understand for foreigners, as it’s often based on complex word play and puns. Sarcasm is generally not considered funny.
- Make jokes involving 'German' stereotypes. Germany is a diverse place, and many Hamburgers simply don’t relate to Schnitzel-eating, Lederhosen-wearing mountaineers. (Feel free to make jokes about Bavarians though.)
- Avoid serious topics. Germans are typically well-informed and not too keen on small-talk, so feel free to start a conversation about politics, religion or the state of the world.
- Wish someone a happy birthday before it’s their actual birthday ― it's associated with bad luck for the birthday-haver! Strangely, it’s fine to wish someone happy birthday long after the actual day.
- Start eating until others at your table also have their food and you’ve wished each other 'Guten Appetit!'
- Expect that Hamburgers will always be orderly when there is no rule that requires it. While Germany may have an international reputation as the land of Recht und Ordnung, this tends to fly out the window when there is no formal system or cultural norm in place.
- Run a red traffic light. Whether driving, biking or walking, red means stop, and it is not okay to ignore the traffic lights. At least mind the children!
- Bike without proper head and tail lights, both for your own safety and that of others. The lights aren’t just for you to see better at night ― they ensure your visibility to other people in traffic.
- Try to enter the bus or train before everyone who wants to get off has exited.
- Spit on the ground. This is considered very rude and should be avoided at all times.
- Make noise on Sundays. By German law, Sunday is considered a Ruhetag or 'quiet day'. The absence of loud disturbances is taken quite seriously, so it’s best to refrain from drilling holes in the wall or putting together furniture, and check with your landlord before throwing a garden party on a Sunday.