German etiquette rules: is after the pandemic before the pandemic?

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The Germans were world champions in shaking hands, but that has changed radically as a result of the pandemic. DW editor Louisa Schaefer, originally from the US, wonders if the typically German gesture is making a comeback.

  • Behave! On the pitfalls of German manners

    The handshake

    Before the pandemic, people in Germany shook hands at every opportunity, as if it were a national sport. Whether it's getting to know each other, an official congratulation or to seal a contract. Even children sometimes shake hands. Let's see if handshakes pick up again after the pandemic. In any case, it is no longer considered impolite to do without it.

  • Behave! About the pitfalls of German manners

    Kiss or none?

    If it becomes more informal, the handshake is followed by kisses – sometimes one, sometimes two. But only if you know each other well. Hugs, on the other hand, are only enjoyed by close friends and family. The pandemic changed all that: elbows and feet came into play instead. Today, many think twice before deciding on a particular form of greeting.

  • Behave yourself! About the pitfalls of German manners

    Du oder Sie?

    The personal address in Germany depends on whether you meet formally or privately. Basically, one is addressed with a polite “Sie”, as opposed to the universal “you” in English. The informal “du” is used in private, but only among people of the same age or younger. Because older people are also used in the generic form here – until the “du” is offered.

  • Behave yourself! About the pitfalls of German manners

    “Who is that on the phone?”

    The polite “Sie” is also used when making phone calls. The first thing to do is to introduce yourself: “Hello, my name is…” So please don't be surprised if the person you're talking to doesn't answer “Hello?” picks up the phone, but also introduces himself with his full name. Practical! So you know right away whether you dialed the right number.

  • Behave yourself! About the pitfalls of German manners

    Excuse me, please

    In the event of a collision or if you ask a stranger for information, an “Excuse me!” for use. Or in short “sorry”. If you want to apologize for minor disruptions, you often hear a simple “sorry”. However, Germans use the English-speaking word rather informally and not as excessively as in many English-speaking countries.

  • Behave! About the pitfalls of German manners

    Knock, knock!

    The Germans certainly did not invent knocking on the door. But they have developed their own version. If you knock on a private door, you wait for the resident to open it. But if you are waiting for the doctor in a treatment room, for example, he only knocks briefly and immediately enters the room. Some office colleagues also show similar knocking behavior.

  • Behave yourself! About the pitfalls of German manners

    Say it with flowers

    Germans like to give gifts – especially when they are invited. Then they are happy to bring the host a bottle of wine, chocolates or a bouquet of flowers. The latter is also often used in other ways, even if you don't know each other particularly well. For example as a thank you or as a birthday present.

  • Behave yourself! About the pitfalls of German manners

    Discovery of punctuality

    Punctuality is probably Germany's best-known export and an absolute must for formal meetings and discussions. In the private sphere, friends forgive one or the other unpunctuality. However, anyone who is more than 15 minutes late is considered impolite. Then you should announce the delay by phone or text message and apologize in advance.

  • Behave! About the pitfalls of German manners

    Leave it outside

    Germans like to take off their shoes – of course only in private circles, for example on home visits. Then the treads stay in the entrance area or – if it's muddy and wet outside – on the doormat in front of the entrance door. So make sure you choose the right socks. Meanwhile, the landlord is happy not to have to clean his apartment afterwards.

  • Behave yourself! About the pitfalls of German manners

    Feelings of home

    As soon as Germans come home, they slip from one pair of shoes to the next – namely into their slippers. This ritual has two components. For one thing, the floors stay clean. On the other hand, the slippers stand for the feeling of being at home. Some Germans even bring their slippers, especially if they have children – as a way of showing respect to the host.

  • Behave! About the pitfalls of German manners

    Table manners

    Putting your hands (but definitely not your elbows) on the table while eating is considered polite. In addition, fork and knife have a clear role: the fork belongs in the left hand and the knife in the right hand. The wine glass should be held by the stem so it sounds better when toasted.

  • Behave yourself! On the pitfalls of German manners

    Even cutlery has its place

    If you take a break while eating, place the fork on the plate diagonally to the left and the knife to the bottom diagonally to the right, i.e. the fork at 8 o'clock and the knife at 4 o'clock. Clear message: Here the food goes even further. If, on the other hand, you are full, the fork slides to the knife, see picture. That way the waiter knows: Nothing is going on here.

  • Behave! About the pitfalls of German manners

    Say it with style

    Germans have a concise expression for starting a meal together. Instead of a cumbersome “Enjoy your meal”, as it is common in English, it says “bon appetit” here. That comes easily and gladly over the lips. This image gallery from 2018 was updated in March 2023.

    Author: Louisa Schaefer (woy)


  • Behave yourself! About the pitfalls of German manners

    The handshake

    Before the pandemic, people in Germany shook hands at every opportunity, as if it were a national sport. Whether it's getting to know each other, an official congratulation or to seal a contract. Even children sometimes shake hands. Let's see if handshakes pick up again after the pandemic. In any case, it is no longer considered impolite to do without it.

  • Behave! About the pitfalls of German manners

    Kiss or none?

    If it becomes more informal, the handshake is followed by kisses – sometimes one, sometimes two. But only if you know each other well. Hugs, on the other hand, are only enjoyed by close friends and family. The pandemic changed all that: elbows and feet came into play instead. Today, many think twice before deciding on a particular form of greeting.

  • Behave yourself! About the pitfalls of German manners

    Du oder Sie?

    The personal address in Germany depends on whether you meet formally or privately. Basically, one is addressed with a polite “Sie”, as opposed to the universal “you” in English. The informal “du” is used in private, but only among people of the same age or younger. Because older people are also used in the generic form here – until the “du” is offered.

  • Behave yourself! About the pitfalls of German manners

    “Who is that on the phone?”

    The polite “Sie” is also used when making phone calls. The first thing to do is to introduce yourself: “Hello, my name is…” So please don't be surprised if the person you're talking to doesn't answer “Hello?” picks up the phone, but also introduces himself with his full name. Practical! So you know right away whether you dialed the right number.

  • Behave yourself! About the pitfalls of German manners

    Excuse me, please

    In the event of a collision or if you ask a stranger for information, an “Excuse me!” for use. Or in short “sorry”. If you want to apologize for minor disruptions, you often hear a simple “sorry”. However, Germans use the English-speaking word rather informally and not as excessively as in many English-speaking countries.

  • Behave! About the pitfalls of German manners

    Knock, knock!

    The Germans certainly did not invent knocking on the door. But they have developed their own version. If you knock on a private door, you wait for the resident to open it. But if you are waiting for the doctor in a treatment room, for example, he only knocks briefly and immediately enters the room. Some office colleagues also show similar knocking behaviour.

  • Behave yourself! About the pitfalls of German manners

    Say it with flowers

    Germans like to give gifts – especially when they are invited. Then they are happy to bring the host a bottle of wine, chocolates or a bouquet of flowers. The latter is also often used in other ways, even if you don't know each other particularly well. For example as a thank you or as a birthday present.

  • Behave yourself! About the pitfalls of German manners

    Discovery of punctuality

    Punctuality is probably Germany's best-known export and an absolute must for formal meetings and discussions. In the private sphere, friends forgive one or the other unpunctuality. However, anyone who is more than 15 minutes late is considered impolite. Then you should announce the delay by phone or text message and apologize in advance.

  • Behave! About the pitfalls of German manners

    Leave it outside

    Germans like to take off their shoes – of course only in private circles, for example on home visits. Then the treads stay in the entrance area or – if it's muddy and wet outside – on the doormat in front of the entrance door. So make sure you choose the right socks. Meanwhile, the landlord is happy not to have to clean his apartment afterwards.

  • Behave yourself! About the pitfalls of German manners

    Feelings of home

    As soon as Germans come home, they slip from one pair of shoes to the next – namely into their slippers. This ritual has two components. For one thing, the floors stay clean. On the other hand, the slippers stand for the feeling of being at home. Some Germans even bring their slippers, especially if they have children – as a way of showing respect to the host.

  • Behave! About the pitfalls of German manners

    Table manners

    Putting your hands (but definitely not your elbows) on the table while eating is considered polite. In addition, fork and knife have a clear role: the fork belongs in the left hand and the knife in the right hand. The wine glass should be held by the stem, then it sounds better when toasted.

  • Behave yourself! On the pitfalls of German manners

    Even cutlery has its place

    If you take a break while eating, place the fork on the plate diagonally to the left and the knife to the bottom diagonally to the right, i.e. the fork at 8 o'clock and the knife at 4 o'clock. Clear message: Here the food goes even further. If, on the other hand, you are full, the fork slides to the knife, see picture. That way the waiter knows: There's nothing more to do here.

  • Behave yourself! About the pitfalls of German manners

    Say it with style

    Germans have a concise expression for starting a meal together. Instead of a cumbersome “Enjoy your meal”, as it is common in English, it says “bon appetit” here. That comes easily and gladly over the lips. This picture gallery from 2018 was updated in March 2023.

    Author: Louisa Schaefer (woy)


A few weeks ago I had a doctor's appointment in Cologne… and was amazed when the doctor first held out his hand when I entered the room. Slightly stunned, I asked him if one could really do that again. He laughed and replied: “We need to be able to do that again!” Okay, as an orthopedist he has a rather hands-on approach anyway, but at least I was still wearing an FFP2 face mask and that made me think.

As I left the practice, however, I realized that the gesture of his handshake and his witty response to my joke had done me good. What crossed my mind on the way home was, “One more thing that's going back to halfway normal!” The only question is: do we really want things to go “completely” back to normal?

World Handshake Champion

Only then did I realize what the lifting of the last corona protection measures in Germany means in the past few months (although at the time of this publication masks are still mandatory for visitors to hospitals, nursing homes, doctor's offices and other health facilities).

< img src="https://static.dw.com/image/63035844_404.jpg" />

Totally normal? Shaking hands in Germany

In 2019, I wrote an article for the DW series “Meet the Germans” about German manners and how the Germans seemed to be world champions in shaking hands – so much so that at times it almost felt like a national sport for me. I'm an American and have lived in Germany for many decades – but the ritual of shaking hands has always remained a rather formal gesture for me.

And Germans shook hands all the time: not just on formal occasions like business meetings or when being introduced to someone – no, even when wishing someone a happy birthday. Even the children joined in: My then three-year-old German niece and my ten-year-old twins politely shook hands!

Is “after” the pandemic “before” the pandemic?

In the three During the tough Corona years, people in Germany have changed their behavior when dealing with each other: keep a distance of 1.5 meters and also “foot greeting” or “elbow bump” instead of shaking hands.

So what should you do now – in 2023 – when a doctor in Germany shakes your hand? I asked Linda Kaiser for advice, the deputy chairwoman of the Deutsche-Knigge-Gesellschaft e.V. in Essen. Adolph Freiherr Knigge (1752-1796)  gave recommendations for 1788 in his book “About dealing with people”. Rules of conduct and an appreciative coexistence of people. The German Etiquette Society would like to maintain and spread these “ideas rooted in Enlightenment and Humanism” says the association's website.

Linda Kaiser, German Etiquette Society e.V.

“In doctor's surgeries, I've always found shaking hands unusual,” says Linda Kaiser. “Because I don't know if I absolutely have to have this physical contact with someone who might just have had some other illness on their hand . Meanwhile [i.e. after the pandemic, editor’s note] you can reject the handshake without it being perceived as impolite,” says the expert. What a relief!

Relearn etiquette

Today, however, one can also refuse other forms of greeting without appearing rude, emphasizes Linda Kaiser. Recently, for example, I had an appointment with friends. We were all vaccinated and recovered, so we thought it was okay to hug to say hello. However, one of the women took a step back and said “no, I'd rather not” when I wanted to hug her. I was a little shocked, but then she explained to me that she was scheduled for surgery the following week and therefore didn't want to take the risk.

The bottom line, says Kaiser, is that we're all learning how to dress again what is considered polite and how to show respect to someone: “Questions are asked like 'How may I greet you?' or 'May I hug you?' People sometimes prepare a bit more now.”

Teaching manners online or in person

During the lockdown, Kaiser offered online courses on German etiquette, such as “how to set a table, how to hold your wine glass, how to address someone”. However, that is something different online than showing someone live how to eat spaghetti correctly with a fork: “Interaction with each other should ideally take place on site and in person,” says the Knigge expert. After all, many young people only started their professional lives during the pandemic and no longer even know what it means to interact live.

Home office: sweatpants instead of a suit

“Many are now Video call experts, but when they turn up somewhere in person, they might be shy and reserved,” Kaiser said. After many months and even years of video conferencing in sweatpants, many don't even know how to dress anymore, she adds.

You can adopt the dress code for professional success – correct manners, on the other hand, require more time and sensitivity, especially for people who have mostly worked from home in the past three years. In video conferences, you were always separated by the computer monitor, says Kaiser. “It suggests a distance: I'm sitting in my home and I'm protected, everything's fine. Then maybe I'll say things that I wouldn't say otherwise. In a room full of people in real life it's something completely different again,&nbsp ;It's not that easy for me then.”

The nuances of interpersonal communication become all the more clear on site and in person. Would I shake hands with a doctor in the doctor's office again? I think I'll do without it – the smile (still under the face mask for the time being) will probably have to be enough as a gesture.

For more German peculiarities, visit the page of our series “Meet the Germans”. All videos from “Meet the Germans” are also available on YouTube.