In Germany like in all cultures, plenty of unwritten rules shape everyday life.
We have selected some issues to help you understand your new home:
The European emergency telephone number is 112.
In Germany, dial 110 in order to contact the police and 112 in the case of fire, accident or if you cannot get to the hospital on your own.
If you should ever find yourself in an emergency situation:
If someone else needs help, follow this rule of thumb: Look! Act! Get help!
In Germany like in all cultures, plenty of unwritten rules shape everyday life.
We have selected some issues to help you understand your new home:
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.
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 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 treat you, they are being really friendly. Do not expect them to do the same every time.
For tipping, you tell the waiting 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 in the 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
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.
In Germany, money is less a taboo than in some cultures, but also a more delicate issue than in others.
For instance, many people are happy to explain what a bargain they have made, but if you really want to know how much they have paid for something, you should first make sure that they would not mind revealing the price. In less formal situations, you can ask other students how much they pay for their rent, for example, but it is better to include your question in a context which explains your interest, something like: “I think that I’m paying too much for my room. You live in a similar shared flat. Could you tell me what you pay monthly?”
By the same token, some people will show their social status by means of their cars or electronic devices, but you are not allowed to ask about their wages. And talking about money is definitely not a good idea at a party or when you first get to know someone.
In other situations, the German code of conduct is very practical. When going out together – from a coffee to an expensive dinner – every person or couple will usually pay on their own unless you are treated (see Going out).
As in many other countries and cultures, some people in Germany are punctual and others are not, but the level of tolerance towards a lack of punctuality is indeed lower than in most other countries. In most cases you are actually expected to be on time, and in certain situations punctuality is definitely paramount, e.g. at a job interview.
The most practised religion in Germany is Christianity. Both Protestants and Catholics live here, and the public holidays in your state or region will identify whether you live in a predominately Protestant or Catholic area. Many people in Germany practice other religions. But as in other countries in northern Europe, faith in Germany is considered a private issue. Many festivities and customs are in fact based on religious traditions, but apart from certain rites with a strong social component, worship is not public. To which extent individuals commit to one confession or another, or even to none, is expected not to interfere with public or professional life.
One of the clichés about Germany is how organised Germans are, both in a positive and negative sense.
If you come from another culture, you will more than likely be surprised by the amount of rules in Germany.
First, it is constantly necessary to fill out forms – whether on paper or online. But at the same time, data protection is taken seriously.
Even as a student, you are expected to take out various insurance policies. For instance, as soon as you use your bike you are a traffic participant and obviously can potentially become involved in an accident. You are therefore expected to have insurance. And what about damage to the property you are living in? Keep calm, we do not want you to be afraid. Having simple liability insurance probably covers most contingencies.
What is also true is that there are laws for nearly everything. But these laws, whether traffic rules or rest periods, aim to defend your rights and to ensure a healthy and safe coexistence.
Germany in general and Mannheim in particular are in principle quite safe regions; nonetheless, some elementary rules apply:
Supermarkets, drugstores, bakeries, organic or fast food... in Germany you will find lots of chain stores and franchises, generally self-service. Big shopping centres are usually situated a considerable distance from town centres, but in downtown areas there are still delicatessen stores offering specialities, as well as little grocery shops, most of them family-run. These also function as either self-service, or you may be assisted by the shopkeeper.
Nearly all beverage containers, both glass and plastic, carry a deposit to make sure that you bring them back for reusing or recycling. You will therefore pay an additional fee that is returned when you bring back the empty bottles to a recycling or collecting machine. Take the ticket from the machine to get your deposit reimbursed at the cashier desk.
In most supermarkets you will need a coin or a token to borrow a shopping cart.
Plastic bags always cost extra. The idea is to encourage users to bring their own reusable bags.
Ask your mates and fellow students where they do their shopping. Prices can vary considerably.
Smoking in public spaces is strictly regulated by law. All public transportation, shops, cinemas, restaurants and cafes are non-smoking areas. A few pubs are declared as places that allow smoking, otherwise you can only smoke in the outside areas or in a separate room if available. In airports and train stations there are designated areas for smoking. If you are travelling, many places to stay are smoke-free or only allow it on the balcony. As a smoker, you'd better make sure that it is allowed to smoke before you light your cigarette.
Germany is situated in the Central European Time zone and therefore distinguishes between summer and winter time.
Summer time begins on the last Sunday in March (at 2 am, the clocks go forward by one hour).
Winter time begins on the last Sunday in October (at 3 am, the clocks go back by one hour).
Despite its reputation for being a very cold country, most of Germany has a temperate climate. In the north, winters are mild and summers tend to be warm, whereas winters can be very cold and summers rather hot in the East. In western and southern Germany, where Mannheim lies, the climate is moderate and not every winter is freezing cold and snowy.
Depending on where you come from, you might experience the German winters as really cold anyway, so you will need warm clothes. And you will probably discover that, even on a bright day, the sun does not usually warm up as much as in areas closer to the equator.
What surprises many of our students is the clearly seasonal climate: a spring, summer, autumn and winter rotation instead of alternating dry and rainy periods, or just the same temperature all year round.
Germany uses the metric system, i.e. centimetres, metres and kilometres instead of inches, feet and miles, grams and kilograms instead of ounces and pounds, litres instead of pints, centigrade degrees for temperature, etc.
You can use an app or one of the many converters available on the Internet until you get used to it. And if you visit some rural areas, you will still hear people talking about Pfund (approx. pound, 500 gr) and Schoppen (approx. pint, 500 cl).