Sometimes, when coming to Germany, visitors 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.
Germans tend to be rather reserved with strangers, business partners and casual acquaintances.
Meet and Greet
In order to describe German customs and social interactions, intercultural consultants like comparing Germans to coconuts. Both have a hard exterior shell, which may take some time to crack, but are soft and sweet on the inside. Practically speaking, this means that German customs generally impose a certain formality when interacting with strangers and casual acquaintances.
Most first meetings in Germany are characterized by a great degree of reserve. Germans will treat you politely, but not warmly, and they may not appreciate levity, joking around, or ironic wit. This is probably where the preconception of the dull German devoid of humor comes from. Just give them a little time. If you are gradually getting to know them better, they will eventually relax and prove that Germans do know how to have fun.
Proper Forms of Address
When you meet a German for the first time, polite German customs require you to err on the side of conservatism: Make direct eye contact with your new acquaintance; shake hands briefly, but firmly; use a formal greeting such as “Guten Tag, Herr Schmidt” or “Guten Morgen, Frau Müller. Es freut mich, Sie kennen zu lernen.“ (”Good morning, Ms Müller. It’s a pleasure to meet you“). German customs place lots of emphasis on the correct form of address and a person’s title, particularly if you interact with business contacts, a person you have never met before, the elderly, and people entitled to your respect (e.g. your superiors in a business setting or an academic context).
Make sure to use the polite way of addressing Germans at first (“Sie”). Also use Herr/Frau (Mr/Ms) + title + last name: for instance, Herr Doktor Meier. The word Fräulein, which is often quoted to be one of the more important among German customs, is even more outdated than the English “Miss”, and younger women in Germany often regard it as patronizing.
First names and the casual form of address (“Du”) are reserved by German customs for friends, family, and younger people like university students. However, when your new acquaintance, neighbor or coworker offers you to talk on a first-name basis, courtesy in German customs dictates that you accept: They are trying to be particularly friendly. In young-skewing, international, or “trendy” businesses, though, most people will be on a first-name basis immediately – just see how they introduce themselves and follow their example.
On the Phone
Erring on the side of formal politeness is also recommended when making phone calls in Germany. Don’t phone people at home late at night or early in the morning, during lunch hours from 1 to 3 p.m. when stay-at-home parents with children like to rest, or on a Sunday, a day reserved for quality time with the family and meeting up with close friends.
Always remember to say your full name when answering the phone (“Hallo, John Smith am Apparat.” – “Hello, this is John Smith speaking.”) When calling someone who is not a close friend of yours, treat the person on the other end of line with formal courtesy, even if it’s “only” the receptionist offering to forward your call. (“Guten Tag, hier ist John Smith. Könnte ich bitte mit Herrn Doktor Meier sprechen?” – „Good afternoon, this is John Smith speaking. Could I talk to Dr Meier, please?“)