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You will notice that casual and sportswear are very common in Germany; one reason being that many people use a bike. People wear smarter clothes in their free time, i.e. going out in the evenings or at weekends. Even in professional life not every company dictates a dress code. However, you are of course expected to dress up for a job interview and dress appropriately for guests.
If you need to ask e.g. for directions and still do not feel sure how to ask in German, young people will more than likely answer in English. Formerly, French (in the West) or Russian (in the East) used to be taught in school.
In order to attract someone's attention, you can say Bitte! or Entschuldigung!. Even Hallo! is commonly used, although not always appropriate.
As you probably already know, the German language differentiates between a polite (Sie) and a less formal way (du, ihr) to address people. The first time you meet someone – except for children and people not older than you in a relaxed context – it is better to use the polite form. It is always the older person, if at all, who offers to use du. No need to feel upset if they do not: it is not unusual that really open-hearted people keep using Sie.
Every culture has different rules for small talk. In Germany, work is a perfectly acceptable subject – even after work, which may surprise others. Depending on your background and what you are used to, you might experience German people as distanced (they may not expose personal issues as quickly as you expect) or on the contrary as pushy (e.g. someone can ask you very direct questions). In the latter case, you can mention that you do not feel comfortable – that is always better than trying to avoid that individual forever.
The famous German straightforwardness – getting down to business nearly without warming-up and telling their opinion in a rather unveiled way – varies of course from one person to another, but is undeniably noticed by many non-Germans. Within evident limits, it is socially accepted and does not usually interfere with personal relations: people may criticise you very openly and show you immediately after how much they appreciate you. This is especially important at work.
Eating & drinking
You can find a wide range of food types in restaurants, cafes and shops. This variety is not only due to the different nationalities living in Germany – nationals love eating dishes from other cultures and countries, and going out to eat something exotic is a bit of a holiday. A lot of international dishes have become part of everyday German food culture.
Furthermore, eating vegetarian and vegan food is gaining in popularity all the time. Most restaurants and pubs offer at least some veggie alternatives. Information about ingredients (including allergen sources or types of meat) is usually available, so you can choose what you (do not) want to eat. A good example is our canteen menu plan.
If you want to try typical German food, it is very likely to contain pork, unless you are by the sea with access to fish and seafood. But also beef, veal, poultry, and lamb are commonly available.
As for beverages, although beer is very popular and wine widely appreciated, it is absolutely no problem to refuse to drink alcohol. Mineral water is usually sparkling, and often mixed with fruit juices or even wine (Schorle). You will also find different teas (black, green, herbal, fruit...) as well as a large variety of coffee specialities.
Environmental awareness is indeed part of the German way of life. It shows in practices such as energy saving, waste separation, deposits for drink or food containers, fees for plastic bags, and many others.
Public and private green areas enjoy great popularity. People love their gardens, and many spend most of their spare time outdoors. Wandern (walking in the woods or mountains, from easy to demanding) is still a very popular activity, and highly recommended by the way.
You have surely practised a restaurant visit in your German language courses.
In restaurants and pubs, they will ask you immediately what you want to drink. If you prefer to first have a look at the menu, just tell them.
In order to address the waiting on staff, simply use the same expressions as for everybody else (see Communication).
Depending on the situation – your appetite aside! – it will be natural to order more or less. What your fellow guests order could be a good orientation.
In a beer garden or at a big table, different groups of guests may sit together.
If you go out with other people and unless you are an invited guest, every single person (or people who belong together, like couples) will pay separately. This is common behaviour and does not mean anything negative. If somebody decides to invite you, they are being really friendly. Do not expect them to do the same every time.
For tipping, you tell the waiting on staff what you want to tip at the time of paying, usually by rounding up. This can be rather complicated in the beginning, but also a good language exercise.
As a student, you are required to have health insurance. The university cannot allow you to register without it. And in turn you enjoy reduced rates thanks to your student status.
If you want to visit a doctor, you do not need to go to the hospital unless it is an emergency and/or outside of doctor's office hours.
In Germany, doctors have their own offices, both GP's and specialists. You are free to choose any doctor who accepts your type of insurance. It is always better to make an appointment. If you appear without prior notice, you will have to wait a long time or you might even not be attended to.
Pharmacies can only sell some general drugs such as aspirin without a medical prescription. For prescriptions, there is often a minimum fee to be paid at the chemist's, and sometimes some additional charge. This is regulated by law.
On Sundays and bank holidays most people do not work and all public institutions as well as many shops are closed. Other businesses related to leisure (such as cafes, restaurants or cinemas) remain open. Petrol stations are always open and are often used as 24-hour shops.
Hospitals, the fire service and police are of course available at all times.
Beside the real holidays listed at Academic Year, some of which may vary from state to state, some days are working days but somehow special, and may have different opening hours.
Shrove Monday and Shrove Tuesday - February or March (in the Carnival time)
Mother’s Day - second Sunday in May
St Nicholas’ Day - 6 December
Christmas Eve - 24 December
New Year’s Eve - 31 December
Meeting other people
Even more than in other situations, in order to interact with other people in a friendly atmosphere you will need to pay attention to the way they behave and become aware of what is surprising for you.
Among young people, a kiss on the cheek and/or an embrace is becoming more and more popular. However, the traditional way of greeting others in Germany is shaking hands. When you meet somebody for the first time, it is always better to offer your hand and maybe get a kiss instead than feeling embarrassed for placing a kiss on somebody’s cheek who was not expecting it.
People of all ages enjoy going out in Germany, but it is also very common to welcome friends and guests at home.
If your friends invite you to a party, ask them simply if you should bring anything. The answer can vary between nothing, a salad, bread for everyone, why not something from your country or even whatever you want to eat yourself, e.g. for a BBQ.
For a smaller gathering, e.g. dinner, you can bring something like an appetiser or dessert, or a bottle of wine. Some people might not open the latter, which sometimes intrigues non-Germans. It means that they appreciate your present and want to save it for another occasion. And if you bring some chocolates, they might not open them for the same reason.
If you are invited to have lunch with your friend's grandmother, come well-dressed, with a bouquet of flowers and above all, be punctual!
Before you enter a house and unless it is a very formal situation, ask what you should do about your shoes. Some people will be glad if you take them off, and probably offer you some indoor slippers or socks. Other will leave it up to you, and others again will tell you to keep them on. The latter will be thankful if you use the doormat.