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Living in Germany
Body Language and Small Talk
Sometimes, when coming to Germany, expats and international travelers 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.
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Our gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice say a lot more about us than the words we speak out loud. In Germany, lots of physical distance and a moderate tone are appropriate in most situations. Hugging another person, patting them on the back or kissing their cheek is reserved for meetings with close friends and family members; yelling, shouting, and screaming at someone is incredibly rude. Direct eye contact, however, is very important. Even if it is impolite in your own culture, Germans like to meet another person’s gaze directly: Avoiding it seems insecure or unfriendly to them.
While they dislike shouting, Germans do talk with a blunt directness that may sound arrogant or brash to people from other countries. Such frankness and assertiveness are perfectly normal in most cases. Your German colleagues or neighbors do not intend to offend you. Unless they are from Berlin or Bavaria, where people are (in)famous for their peevishness. In turn, when they compliment you on something, you can usually be sure that they mean it. Polite exaggeration and flattery as social conventions are not very common in Germany.
When it comes to small talk, Germans seldom chat about personal details from their private lives at first. Instead, they enjoy discussing travel, sports, or “harmless” hobbies such as going to the movies or cooking. You should avoid potentially controversial topics like religion and politics, which are best left to discussions with good friends. Allusions to the country’s Nazi past and its role in the World Wars are taboo – even in joking.
Invitations and Gift-Giving
Most Germans keep their professional and private lives separate. An invitation to a German home therefore indicates that they regard you as a potential friend and would like to socialize with you more often.
If you can’t accept the invitation because of other commitments, do not hesitate to say so, but do thank your hosts for the offer. However, if you choose to accept, you should take care to cancel the appointment only in case of unavoidable emergencies. As Germans indeed like punctuality, you should arrive on time, albeit not too early. (If you are early, you might interrupt your host’s preparations.) If you are more than 15 minutes late, you should phone them on the way in order to apologize.
While gift-giving is highly inappropriate in a business context, Germans love receiving small gifts on social occasions. A small seasonal bouquet is the perfect present to offer your hostess as long as you avoid red roses (passionate love) and white lilies or chrysanthemums (funeral flowers). You could also bring nicely wrapped sweets, a bottle of wine, little souvenirs from your home country or toys for any younger children in the family.
After the event, don’t forget to thank your hosts, both in person when you leave and later on. Sending a hand-written “thank you” note is still appreciated after very formal dinners, but for a more casual and relaxed evening, a phone call or a friendly e-mail is perfectly acceptable today.