If you’ve never been to Germany, you may be wondering what you can expect when you get here. Depending on where you come from, the cultural differences can be mildly amusing to downright unbelievable. We’ve put together a list of the top cultural differences that visitors to Germany may encounter. This list focuses primarily between the differences between the United States and Germany.
Toilets are not free in Germany
In Germany, you generally have to pay to use the toilet. Whether it is a rest area on the autobahn or in the middle of the city, the majority of the toilets you encounter will not be free. We’ve all seen the signs in our home countries: “Toilets for customers only” and it’s the same here, although more strictly enforced. Generally speaking, if you are at a restaurant or store as a customer, you can use the toilets free of charge. Often times, the business will have a dedicated toilet attendant stationed outside with a small table where users can place coins on. The “fee” for using the toilet is sometimes (in more touristy areas) written on a sign but not always. Generally it is customary to leave between 20-50 cents to use the toilet in Germany.
Eating & Drinking
This section will be most helpful to Americans, who over the years have gotten accustomed to a number of things that aren’t really usual in the rest of the world. The German restaurant experience holds many cultural differences, primarily being: free water, refills, tipping and paying for your meal.
In the United States, it is customary to have an ice cold glass of water placed on your table before you order your meal. The water is free and the diner can have as much as they want. In Germany, a drink is only brought to your table after you order it. If you order a water in Germany, they will bring you a glass bottle of water and it costs roughly the same amount as a soda. If you want free water, you may be able to get it by specifically asking for tap water (“Leitungswasser”), although you should be prepared to get a strange look and the smallest glass of water you’ve ever seen.
Holding your fork and knife
You may be surprised to learn that Europeans hold their utensils differently than people from the United States. It is customary in Germany to place your fork in your left hand and knife in the right. You may be asking yourself, what other way is there? Well, it’s called American style. Items are cut on the plate, then the knife is put down, the fork is then moved to the right hand and used to eat. Germans are efficient at many things and eating is one of them. I believe most Germans would consider the fork switch to be very time wasting!
Germans love sparkling beverages. They love them so much that your server may even bring you sparkling without even asking. Be sure to specify whether you would like normal or sparkling when ordering water. Your server may also ask you “With or without Gas” if you didn’t specify, but don’t count on it!
For those unaccustomed, a refill is when the server comes by your table mid-way through your meal and takes your empty glass away only to return it full to the brim. This does not exist in Germany. Soft drinks are not as popular in Germany and you must specifically request another soda (for which you will also be charged).
Paying for your meal
Paying for your meal is a straightforward process but may be different than in your home country. When you wish to pay, just ask your server for the cheque. They will come to your table, hand you the bill and wait. The payment and tip (if any) is handled directly at the table. Simply tell the server how much you would like to pay (tip included). Example: The bill is 27 Euro, you hand the server a 50 Euro bill and say “30”. The server will hand you back a 20 Euro bill.
Tipping is a bit different in that it is not required or expected. In fact, tipping large amounts of money can be considered culturally ignorant and should be avoided. Although you should not tip if you received bad service, remember that the service expectations in Germany are far, far lower than in other countries. An example might be a waiter only checking in on you once during your meal — this is not uncommon, nor considered bad service in Germany.
A tip of 5-10% of the total bill is a normal amount to tip in Germany for good service. It is also common in Germany to round the bill up when paying. Example: If your bill comes to €18.75, it would be common to round that up to an even twenty euro if you had good service.
For more information about tipping in Germany, please see our Money Matters section.
German is closed on Sunday
There isn’t much open on Sundays, after all, it’s meant to be a day of family time and a bit of rest for over worked souls. Agree with it or not, it’s a fact in this country. Nearly all shops, supermarkets and businesses are closed on Sundays. Restaurants are typically open, but you’ll want to check beforehand. The exception to this rule is that small convenience stores (called “Spätkauf” or “Spätis“) are allowed to operate as well as businesses inside larger train stations.
While not a law, Germans also keep noise levels down on Sunday. It’s best not to mow the lawn or do any kind of drilling or hammering on this day.
The Germanic Stare
Perhaps owing to their storied history, Germans are well known for their staring antics. While generally harmless it can be a bit uncomfortable to encounter first hand. Germans will stare at you for a few different reasons, the most common reason is that you are different. Whether you are dressed differently, sound different or just look different, you may get a stare. The people doing the staring are generally the elderly, but not always.
You also may be getting stares because you’re doing making a cultural snafu. Are you taking an entire seat on the U-Bahn for your backpack? Stare. Are your feet up in the train? Stare. Do you have curry wurst all over your face? Stare. Are you with a group of other people (and probably being way louder than the rest of the room)? Stare.
Drinking in public
Visitors to Germany are welcome to drink in public. Want to walk down the street with a beer? No problem. Feel like sitting in the park while having a beer? Ok. You also won’t need one of those ridiculous paper bags around it. As long as you’re not causing trouble or heavily intoxicated, no one will care.
Counting with your fingers
Yes, Inglorious Basterds got it right [NSFW]. If you start counting with your index finger, you’ll be spotted right away. Germans start counting with the thumb, then index finger and so on down the line.
That’s it for now.
We hope you’ve learned something new about Germany and feel free to leave a comment if you’ve encountered any strange cultural differences while in Germany.