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Etiquette in Germany: In Public

Sometimes, when coming to Germany, expats and international travelers have the stereotype of dour, rigid, and humorless Germans firmly lodged in their mind. Fortunately, this cliché regarding German customs and behavior is exactly that – just a cliché.
In many parts of Germany, smoking is only allowed outdoors.

Public behavior in Germany is based on the concepts of reserve and formality as well. If you enter an establishment like a small corner shop, the sales assistant will greet you with a polite “Guten Tag”, “Grüß Gott” or “Moin moin” and say goodbye (“Auf Wiedersehen”) when you leave. You should reply in kind.

Germans consider it impolite to draw too much attention to themselves in public. Even when meeting a casual acquaintance in the street, they may not stop to say hello. So, if you receive simply a smile and a nod from a new business contact you happen to pass on your way to the supermarket, they are not being impolite or disrespectful. If they do pause and engage in some small talk, though, appreciate the friendly gesture.

On the Street

You should take care not to invade other people’s personal space, to snap your fingers, to point at someone or to raise your voice (unless it’s an emergency and you urgently need help, of course). When you need to make your way through a crowd or accidentally bump into someone, a quick “Entschuldigung” (“I’m sorry…”) is considered polite.

Breaches of etiquette like spitting on the street, listening to loud music, littering the pavement, smacking chewing-gum or public drunkenness in any other context than the Munich Oktoberfest are frowned upon as loutish behavior. Showing lots of skin or excessive displays of affection are only common among teens and younger Germans, especially in the bigger cities. Even there, they might encounter odd looks, raised eyebrows or disapproving remarks from more conservative Germans.

Having a snack in public is perfectly fine as long as you don’t make other people uncomfortable: for example, by eating a dripping ice cream cone on a crowded bus or having spicy food with lots of garlic immediately before going to the cinema.

Smoking

While anti-smoking laws were neglected in Germany for a long time, smoking in most public buildings and means of transport was strictly forbidden in 2007. The details of these smoking bans differ from state to state, particularly when it comes to smoking in bars and restaurants.

In some federal states, restaurants can offer “smoking rooms” that are strictly separated from the rest of the venue. Small pubs are exempt from smoking bans if they clearly indicate that they are a smoking venue and don’t let anyone under the age of 18 enter. There are exceptions for tents at beer festivals too. Smoking in the street is perfectly legal, though, and quite a few Germans do it all the time. However, if a person standing directly next to you asks you to stop smoking – for instance, because they have a baby with them – the considerate and appropriate reaction is to respect their wishes.

 

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