The Rules of Politeness — 40% German (2023)

This might seem obvious but politeness is not a uniform concept. Across the globe, definitions of politeness vary from country to country, in some cases it can even differ from one region to another within a single country. If you ever wish to lose several hours of your life, google politeness theory and see for yourself. What is or isn’t polite can depend on many factors: is the culture in question focused on the group or the individual, how important is relationship building or how much respect is afforded to timekeeping? Small differences can matter and with instant global communication, it’s very easy for cultural interactions to be mislabeled as impolite.

This is certainly the case with the English-speaking world. English, for good or for ill has become the dominant language of global communication. The rise of English as a global language has made life very easy for native English speakers, but it has also led them to assume that their forms of politeness are also the global standard. Politeness is generally assumed to be the same throughout Europe, which can cause no end of problems. The idea that English speakers are the grand arbiters of politeness is not just a purely British perception either. The Germans I work with will often ask me to check if their emails are “polite” enough or will request that I make them sound more “polite” in meetings. It’s true that many everyday phrases in German, once translated, tend to sound more direct but there are more subtle ways than speech that can easily cause offence.

A great example of this is staring. Staring is discouraged from an early age in many English-speaking countries. It is considered extremely impolite and most parents will quickly admonish their children if they are caught in the act of staring at anyone too long. My parents and my grandparents taught this fundamental rule from an early age and it’s no surprise that my family continue the trend by teaching our own children the same rule today. Being taught from an early age that a particular activity is considered impolite fosters the sense that this is a universal cultural rule, it’s always existed. This ethnocentric thinking leads people to project their cultural standards out, if not to the entire world, then at least to neighbouring countries. Living in Germany has shown me that although we may be close, Germany and Britain have numerous small differences, staring being one of them. Generally Germans don’t see the issue.

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Staring at everyone and everything is a part of life in Germany. People will stare at the weird and the wonderful, as you would expect. However, sometimes you’ll look up to find a German person studying you as if they were about to sit an exam based on your every action. This is not necessarily strange, I’m sure we’ve all been caught absently staring at someone. The difference in Germany is that, unlike in the UK, Germans won’t quickly look away when the subject of their staring catches their eye. Instead some will simply continue to stare intensely.

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What makes this particular social peccadillo all the more unnerving is that you don't have to be doing anything peculiar for the eye lasers to be activated, you can simply be going about your daily routine. Walking down the street I’ll often catch people staring directly at me as I walk passed. This can be incredibly unsettling. When I first arrived I developed a paranoia that these stares were because I had something on my face or worse, that I might have made some embarrassing fault. I often thought I’d forgotten to do up the buttons or zip on the front of my trousers, or perhaps had some food or maybe a pen mark on my face. I felt compelled to check. This only served to exacerbate the issue. As people kept staring, I kept checking. This must have presented a rather bizarre and stare worthy situation in itself, as to the innocent German bystander, there was some lunatic wandering around checking his testicles or looking in shop windows to check their face every two metres. Instead of solving the problem, I basically created a staring feedback loop.

Staring can also ramp up the feeling of intimidation. Walking into a bar in Germany, you can often find the entire room staring at you, especially if it’s not your local haunt. Again, this happens in a lot of places, but in Germany there is absolutely no subtlety. if the British must stare, they’ll attempt to do it without being caught. Rarely do people actively turn around to stare at the newcomers as they do in Germany. I’ve walked into a number of bars with my wife only to be faced with a wall of eyes peering back at us. People will continue staring for as long as they deem sufficient, some might go back to their conversations quickly, while others will track your movements studiously.

Staring probably won’t cause any lasting damage while in Germany, but if Germans take this habit with them to English speaking countries, they might find themselves in real bother. The phrase “what are you staring at?” is the precursor to nearly every fight in the UK I’ve ever seen or been involved in. Many times, I’ve had to tell my German family not to stare at people when we’ve been in the UK, especially in those situations where they really want to. My wife’s position is that if you don’t want to be stared at, don’t do things worthy of staring. My position is, if you love your husband and would like him to maintain his rugged good looks, please stop staring at everyone.

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The Rules of Politeness — 40% German (3)

Once the shock of people staring a little longer than expected wears off, it becomes clear that staring in Germany is actually a sign of politeness in certain circumstances. Staring into the eyes of others is an important part of saying ‘prost’ (cheers) before drinking a beer or a glass of wine. When we say cheers in English speaking countries, it’s usually half-hearted and slightly awkward, except after the fifth or sixth beer. At no point is anyone going to do something as intensely-off putting as looking at you directly in the eyes. German drinking etiquette requires the “Prost Stare”. After clinking glasses everyone must then look each other in the eyes or suffer social ostracism. I’ve been told more than once that if a person breaks eye contact when saying ‘Prost’, they can expect to be punished with seven years of bad sex, a punishment that really doesn’t seem to fit the crime. It’s easy enough to get used to the “Prost stare” when there are only a couple of people with you. It only becomes complicated when there are twenty or so people and inevitably you develop repetitive strain disorder attempting to catch the eye of everyone at the table.

Living in a foreign country will always require people to adapt, but even when they do it can be difficult to remove decades of social programming. I have no idea why staring is so prevalent in Germany, but it is. However, it would be unfair to judge German staring by my own culture’s politeness rules. There are exceptions, especially when a man intensely stares at a woman, and a general awareness of the difference is important. After such a long-time living in Germany, I barely notice, but once in awhile I’ll catch someone doing it and wonder if I’m really that interesting.

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What is the German staring problem? ›

In Germany, intense eye contact is a daily occurrence – to such an extend that expats and visitors have dubbed it “The Germanic Stare Down.” German pedestrians also use it to communicate, and the right amount of eye contact at the right time can mean “I am walking here, and it's not my fault if you don't move over and ...

Does Germany have a high or low context? ›

In general, both Germany and the U.S. are low-context cultures, meaning that information and meaning are usually communicated explicitly through words.

How do German guys flirt? ›

Flirting In German: It's All In The Eyes

According to at least one Babbel insider living in Berlin, Germans have a tendency to stare and to hold intense eye contact. This doesn't mean all eye contact is sexy eye contact. It just means sexy eye contact could involve a little more “innuendo” than usual.

How do people communicate in Germany? ›

Direct Communication: German communication styles are quite direct and functionally purposed. People generally speak honestly, clearly and explicitly to arrive straight to the point.

What are Germans most afraid of? ›

Germans were most afraid of rising living costs in 2022, with 67 percent of respondents to a survey conducted in the country confirming this. Other strongly present fears included housing becoming unaffordable and the economic situation becoming worse.

Why do German guys stare? ›

Once the shock of people staring a little longer than expected wears off, it becomes clear that staring in Germany is actually a sign of politeness in certain circumstances. Staring into the eyes of others is an important part of saying 'prost' (cheers) before drinking a beer or a glass of wine.

What is a German kiss? ›

Here's the answer... This weekend, a French friend told me that a German kiss is basically a French kiss but you swirl your tongue around in circles. Have you ever heard of that bad boy before? Have you done it? Would you try it?

How do Germans express their love? ›

Unlike other languages, the German expression “Ich liebe dich” is almost exclusively used in romantic relationships. Nevertheless, Germans like to express their love for their friends and family too. In most cases, they say “Ich hab' dich lieb,” which could be translated as “I have love for you.”

What is considered rude in German culture? ›

Basic Etiquette

It is rude to chew gum or keep one's hands in one's pockets whilst talking with someone. Cross your legs by putting one knee over the other. It is impolite to rest your feet on furniture. Tight punctuality (Pünktlichkeit) is expected in most professional and social situations.

What does 3 fingers mean in German? ›

When counting, the thumb is always the first digit and represents number one, followed by the index finger (2), middle finger (3), ring finger (4), and finally the pinky finger (5).

Do Germans prefer eye contact? ›

Eye contact is expected and respected in Germany. Uninterrupted eye contact can be awkward for those not used to such etiquette and misinterpreted as staring. However, it shows attention and interest in a conversation. It is polite to make eye contact with superiors at work as well.

How do Germans greet each other? ›

The most common greeting is a handshake with direct eye contact. Men usually greet women first and wait for them to extend their hand. Close friends may hug to greet and younger people may kiss one another on the cheek. "Guten Tag" (Good day) or “Hallo” (Hello) are the most common verbal greetings used in Germany.

Do Germans make eye contact? ›

In Germany, it's considered polite to maintain eye contact almost all the time while talking to another person. This is especially important during business meetings. Eye contact is a sign of attentiveness, and you don't need to be afraid of threatening someone with this.

What do Germans like to talk about? ›

When it comes to small talk, Germans rarely chat about personal matters at first. Instead, they focus on sports, traveling, movies or cooking. You should avoid potentially controversial topics like politics or religion, reserving them for good friends only.

Is Germany neutral or emotional? ›

Typical neutral cultures include the U.K., Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, and Germany. Typical emotional cultures include Italy, France, Spain, and countries in Latin-America.

What is the German mentality? ›

Generally speaking, Germans are considered to be well-organized people who love rules and prohibitions and are punctual, hard-working, disciplined, reliable, but also comparatively humorless. In fact, many Germans strive to do everything thoroughly, well and precisely.

What do you call someone who hates Germans? ›

Anti-German sentiment (also known as Anti-Germanism, Germanophobia or Teutophobia) is opposition to or fear of Germany, its inhabitants, its culture, or its language. Its opposite is Germanophilia.

Why do German toilets have a shelf? ›

Advantages: Energy costs in Germany are much higher than in the United States, which includes the cost of water. Therefore, the shelf toilets were designed to use much less water than their American counterparts - hence the shelf.

How can I impress a German person? ›

Still, there may be some things about your friend's next dinner party that will surprise you, so here's a brief heads up about what to expect.
  1. Gifts are definitely Willkommen.
  2. Greet the German way.
  3. 3. ' Keep your hands where we can see 'em'
  4. Don't forget to make eye contact.
  5. Knowing when it's time to dig in.
May 24, 2016

Why do German men sit down? ›

In some bathrooms in Germany, men are required to pee sitting down. To keep the bathroom clean and thus be nice to the person who needs to clean it, you will find a sign in many German bathrooms, requiring you to sit down to pee. You can find some funny signs here.

What is an American kiss? ›


An American kiss, just like a French kiss, involves deep kissing but without the use of tongue.

How do Germans date? ›

A typical dating scenario in Germany

As previously mentioned, many Germans prefer to date within their own social circles. In most cases, groups of friends who know each other well over a long period of time will party together. Eventually, people will simply pair off from the group and creates couples.

Is kissing in public allowed in Germany? ›

In Germany you will probably see couples holding hands or kissing openly on the streets. Do not feel uncomfortable or angry about this as it is considered normal.

How do you call a lover in German? ›

Liebling (darling)

"Liebling" is about as close as German comes to the English "darling." While the expression contains the word for love - "Liebe" - it's also borrowed for other purposes.

How do you show respect in Germany? ›

A quick, firm handshake is the traditional greeting. Titles are very important and denote respect. Use a person's title and their surname until invited to use their first name. You should say Herr or Frau and the person's title and their surname.

What is the middle finger in Germany? ›

It's regarded as an insult punishable by the law. Under German's insult law, using curse words and insulting gestures like the middle finger and sticking out the tongue is illegal. The gesture is known as flipping someone off and is a phallic symbol used in the past to belittle and insult somebody.

What is the rudest German word? ›

die Sau/das Schwein

While die Sau is already very offensive, das Schwein is one of the worst German insults.

What is the hardest German word to say? ›

1. Eichhörnchen (Squirrel) Also a difficult one in English, this is a classic when it comes to difficult German words to pronounce.

What does a Thumbs up mean in Germany? ›

Germans may appear reserved and unfriendly until you get to know them better. Never put your hands in your pockets when talking with someone. "Thumbs up" gesture means "one" or is a sign of appreciation or agreement.

Why do Germans hold their thumbs? ›

Die Daumen drücken (“Pressing the thumbs”)

In Germany, you press your thumbs when you're wishing someone good luck. It's the equivalent of crossing your fingers for someone. Someone might say to you “Ich drück' dir die Daumen!” in the same way one says “I'm keeping my fingers crossed for you!” in English.

Do you tip in Germany? ›

In Germany, tipping is a voluntary act with which one can express one's satisfaction with a service. It is customary to tip in restaurants, hotels, cabs, at cloakrooms and at the hairdresser. The amount depends on the price of the service and the occasion.

What German gestures to avoid? ›

Never use the "okay" sign (index finger and thumb jointed together to make a circle). This is considered a rude gesture. Don't point your index finger to your own head. This is an insult.

Are Germans respectful? ›

German people tend to be thrifty, be sensible, and respect one another's privacy, and they typically respect the structure and laws of society to an above-average degree. There is no place that this sense of 'order' is more apparent than in German business culture.

How do Germans do 3? ›

A German would have ordered “three” with the index, middle finger, and thumb extended. Have a look at this short video where people around the world show how they count with their fingers.

Why do Germans shake hands? ›

The handshake

It's done in formal settings like business meetings, to seal a deal, when meeting a person for the first time or to congratulate someone. But Germans also shake hands to wish someone "happy birthday" or just to say "hello" upon arrival. Even children sometimes shake hands with each other.

Do Germans say bless you? ›

1. German. Interestingly, Gesundheit, the German response to a sneeze, is also the most common expression for English speakers who prefer not to say “bless you.” It simply means “health,” which is used in a number of languages when someone sneezes (makes sense).

How do Germans show 3 with their hands? ›

A German would have shown the number three by holding up their index and middle fingers alongside their thumb. (This is also an example of how important it is to understand the nuances of gestures and body language!)

Is it normal for Germans to stare? ›

Germans have a staring problem: Either the old lady in the house next door is watching your every move or the kid across from you on the subway can't turn away. In Germany, intense eye contact is a daily occurrence – to such an extend that expats and visitors have dubbed it The Germanic Stare Down.

What is the B looking thing in German? ›

In German, the letter ß is known as the eszett or scharfes (sharp) S. It's a special character, similar to the German umlaut you're probably used to seeing by now. But unlike those two dots above a, o or u, the eszett is written as a capital B-shaped character with a tail: ß.

What does a staring problem mean? ›

Compulsive staring is a type of OCD characterized by the persistent need to stare at genitals or breasts, regardless of whether or not someone wants to stare at them.

Why is eye contact important in Germany? ›

In Germany, it's considered polite to maintain eye contact almost all the time while talking to another person. This is especially important during business meetings. Eye contact is a sign of attentiveness, and you don't need to be afraid of threatening someone with this.

What is Frick in German? ›

Frick is a German shortening of the surname "Frederick". Notable people with the surname include: Albert Frick (theologian) (1714–1776), German theologian.

What is the ü with 2 dots in German? ›

The German Umlaut (“diaeresis” in English)

The two dots sometimes placed over the German vowels a, o, and u are known as an Umlaut. The umlauted vowels ä, ö and ü (and their capitalized equivalents Ä, Ö, Ü) are actually a shortened form for ae, oe and ue respectively.

What are the 2 dots over a letter in German? ›

The Letter Ä With Two Dots Is an Umlaut. If you've ever wondered what those two dots above an “ä” are about, they're generally called umlauts. Particularly common in German, they're used to modify the suggested pronunciation of the letter a.

Why do strangers look at me? ›

People are just curious about celebrities and want to get a closer look. They may also think they know you from somewhere, even if they don't know exactly where they've seen you before. People also stare because they're hoping to get a reaction from you. Maybe they want to see if you'll wave at them or smile back.

Why do I not like people looking at me? ›

Social anxiety disorder is an intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others. This fear can affect work, school, and other daily activities. It can even make it hard to make and keep friends. The good news is social anxiety disorder is treatable.

What to do when someone stares you down? ›

Look back, smile and hold the other person's gaze briefly. Most people will smile back and then look away. Look back, smile or nod to show them you have noticed – this may also break the ice.

What does thumbs up mean in Germany? ›

Body Language

Germans may appear reserved and unfriendly until you get to know them better. Never put your hands in your pockets when talking with someone. "Thumbs up" gesture means "one" or is a sign of appreciation or agreement.


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