This article is a great overview of fun and surprising facts about German culture and traditions.
German culture and traditions are surrounded by many stereotypes and myths. Some are true, some used to be true, but are outdated, and some are plain wrong. If you come to Germany, you'll 100% discover traditions and cultural behaviors that you never knew existed. Some experience a culture shock when they learn taht groceries are usually closed on Sundays, others get surprised by the lenient attitude towards nudity in some parts of Germany.
Germany is one of the biggest economies in the world, with a complicated and rich history.
With a population of over 80M people, Germany is a guarantor of stability in Europe and plays a crucial role in upholding the European Union and unity. Germany is home to over 11M foreigners, and over 115M people worldwide are learning German. It makes it one of the top 5 most learned languages globally! As expats and German language learners, we've heard a fact or two about German culture, yet often we know only the cliches.
It's important to note that these traditions are not exclusive to Germany. Many apply equially well to Austria and Switzerland, the so-called "DACH region". Loss geht's!
- German culture and presents
- Pleasantries? No, thank you!
- Small talk in Germany is different
- Planning ahead and the culture of no surprises
- Mittelstand and hidden Champions: the backbone of German economy
- Garbage rules: recycling as a lifestyle
- Five foods Germans love
- Body positivity: No clothes? No Problem!
- Weekends in Germany: a curious story of closed Sundays
- Tatort: Germany's favorite TV show
- Oktoberfest: there can't be too much beer!
- German punctuality: myth or true?
- Berlin: the capital of Döner
1. German culture and presents
Some cultures consider giving gifts as a norm, but not Germans. You won't win anyone's favor with gifts whether it's a business setting or another official context. If it is the right occasion (e.g. birthday or Christmas) and you have a close relationship to that person you can give a small present, of course. Try to pick something simple but of good quality (e.g. good wine or chocolate). Other than, the best way to make someone like you is to make sure you're doing your job and being efficient.
2. Pleasantries? No, thank you!
Germans are always praised for their efficiency. Part of that is also the way they communicate.
Oftentimes in a business environment there is not much time for pleasantries and they might be dropped completely.
This could seem off-putting to those who are used to being asked how they are doing at the beginning of an email. Germans – for better or for worse - tend to skip that part and get right to the juicy business.
Questions in bullet-points, deadlines marked in red and the only question is, whether there are any further questions. Praise is scarce and the critique is quick – but productive.
An agenda is in general not a suggestion, it is a fixed schedule that can only be altered ahead of time, and a slot for small talk is usually not on it. If you try to deviate and stray off the topic you’ll probably get ignored or cut off.
If this is how your boss and your colleagues communicate in e-mails or during meetings, don’t take it personally. Everybody is doing their best to prevent overtime and to get the work done well to enjoy that sweet (or bitter) “Feierabendbier” after a successful day.
3. Small talk in Germany is different
There is a nice little anecdote a Brazilian student, Ana, once told us. She works at a major German Company in Brazil and her Manager, Herr Markler, is from Stuttgart, Germany.
One morning they enter the elevator together. Ana is a very skilled small talker so she asks:
- How was your weekend, Herr Markler?
- Why [are you asking]?
Germans don’t like to share – or overshare – personal information. Talking about things happening at the office, like a new intern or manager, a new product or the next office party, are fine. Talking about children, family, your Christmas party at home, is less common. Except, when you are talking to your best office buddy.
The younger generations are changing this, but in big companies where the majority of managers is 50+ years old, one still has to pick the right topic for that elevator ride.
So keep in mind to ask yourself how well you know the person, what age that person is, and what position the person is in.
4. Planning ahead and the culture of no surprise
Planning in advance is something deeply ingrained in German culture. It’s quite common for Germans to plan their trips or events months and years in advance. This habit seeps into most aspects of life – from business to travel to education.
On the one hand, this makes spontaneity almost impossible. It’ll be quite hard to bring your friends together on a Saturday night on the same Saturday. Germans do plan a lot. They make checklists for shopping, book holidays months in advance to secure the best room, take an umbrella when the probability of rain exceeds 25%, buy insurance for almost everything.
But on the other hand, the culture of not liking surprises offers tons of benefits to everyone around the world. German products are considered some of the highest quality and crazy reliable because, well, Germans don’t like surprises.
If you move to Germany to get a job, knowing this cultural trait might help you a lot in understanding the German business culture and perhaps using it in your job interviews.
5. Mittelstand and hidden champions: the backbone of German economy
Mittelstand is a German word used to describe middle-sized, often family-owned companies in Germany. Unlike household names such as Apple, Netflix or Zalando, these companies are not on everyone’s lips, but they are crucial to Germany’s success as one of top 5 strongest economies in the world.
The Mittelstand is often described as the heart of Germany’s economy – and rightly so, given that mid-sized firms account for the largest share of the country’s economic output, employ about 60 percent of all workers, provide crucial training, and contribute significantly to corporate tax revenues in Germany.
Economists and journalists often call them hidden champions because these companies and brands are not well-known. Sennheiser, Rimowa and Otto Bock, for example, are mid-sized firms that manufacture some very well-known products. Other companies suchs Kirchhoff or G.A. Röders may be slightly less well known, but without them there would be very few cars on the roads, skis on the slopes, or passengers travelling safely and comfortably on airplanes. These mid-sized and family-owned businesses successfully create value and develop markets in cooperation with larger enterprises. There is probably no industry in which mid-sized firms are not represented. And, of course, many big players listed on the stock exchange today once started off as mid-sized family businesses.
The media sometimes give the impression that Germany’s economic landscape is made up entirely of large companies. In reality, 99.5 percent of all German companies belong to the mid-size sector – more than in any other industrial nation.
6. Garbage rules: recycling as a lifestyle
Germany is one of the world’s leaders in recycling and there are many contributing factors to that. One of them is something everyone needs to learn - garbage sorting rules in households!
Those who move to Germany unavoidably face the challenge as they see trash bins of different colors for the first time: how the heck do I recycle in Germany?
It can be a bit tricky before you get used to it. Does a paper towel belong to paper or household waste? How about tea bags – do they belong to bio trash or waste? And so on and so forth.
In general, there are 5 types of waste:
- Yellow: Recyclebar material includes packaging and items made of plastic, metal and composite
- Green: Glass items
- Blue: Paper and cardboard
- Brown: Organic waste
- Black: Household waste
Once you figure it out, it does feel like you are a lot more integrated into German society. And despair not, there are handy visual guides that’ll help you nail this:
7. Food and culture: Germans love these 5 foods
German cuisine can be quite different from region to region but there are foods that are quite common almost anywhere you go. Here is a list of top 5 foods that most Germans love.
Brot & Brötchen
Bread, in the form of a loaf (Brot) or a small, usually crusty roll (Brötchen), is an important part of the cuisine, which is eaten all over the country and served with most German dishes. Bread is enjoyed with most meals, especially breakfast and dinner, but also at lunch (usually considered the main meal of the day), which will often be served with rolls on the side.
Currywurst is sold from stalls and fast food eateries in many towns and cities, and if you want to know what food competes with Döner Kebabs in Germany, you will quickly discover that it is Currywurst.
It is not a dish that Germans eat at home, but instead it's something that is eaten 'on-the-go'. Its nutrition is negligible, but this plate of chopped up sausages, chips and a spicy ketchup sauce is an incredibly popular German food, especially after a few beers.
A Schnitzel is made by tenderizing a piece of meat (such as chicken, beef, veal, or pork) and then covering it in egg, flour, and breadcrumbs before frying it in oil. Very similar to a French escalope, the Schnitzel actually originated in Austria.
This dish is a good example of the typical German food served in bars, restaurants, and fast food eateries. Schnitzel plus fries is a very popular and satisfying choice.
A dish from the southwestern regions of Germany, Käsespätzle is made from layering small Spätzle pasta (egg noodle pasta) topped with grated cheese and fried onion. It is usually served with a salad.
Those moving to Germany from the US or Britain will find that this is the closest they will get to Macaroni Cheese, and will no doubt also find that it has more depth and flavor than their own home dish.
Brezel is the German term for 'pretzel', although you may see them sold under either name. Available at bakeries and on street stalls, a Brezel is made with a long strip of dough which is folded into a knot and then boiled before being baked. This results in a chewy brown crust and a soft fluffy interior.
It is typically then flavored with salt, seeds, or cheese and served with a mustard dip. The origin of the Brezel is fiercely contested, but they have long been associated with Christian celebrations, with many viewing the knot shape as a symbol of the holy trinity.
8. Body positivity: no clothes? No problem!
The attitude towards nudity diverges across cultures and geographies. One thing that sometimes causes a cultural shock to many visitors to Germany is the fact that Germans don’t really care about nudity and your body, at least in some contexts.
Obviously you can't just go around exposing yourself in the streets. That would still be highly inappropriate and, depending on context, a legal offence. Having said that, there are places where being naked is just OK. That could be a bit unexpected if you’re not prepared for that.
For example, public saunas, gym showers and pools. Often you are simply not allowed to enter a sauna in your undies. And even if you did, you’d stand out like a white crow. Here is a reddit quote by a native German adding some perspective:
We just distinguish between sexual and non-sexual nudity. Sexual nudity is inappropriate (and legally forbidden) in all public places. But non-sexual nudity is totally okay whenever it serves some kind of purpose. Like for example showers obviously work better if you take them naked instead of in a swimming costume - so taking showers at the gym or the pool naked is totally okay and even encouraged because it's seen as more hygienic.
It’s also quite common to spot your neighbors sunbathing naked on their balcony or their garden, see mothers feeding their babies in public, and spot half or fully naked people on public beaches. An important thing to understand is that it’s not about promoting anything or showing off your body parts or sexualising nudity. It’s just that it doesn’t cause any confusion or embarrassment because it’s simply part of the culture.
9. Weekends in Germany: a curious story of closed Sundays
On their first visit to German speaking countries, many tourists and expats get surprised about how most supermarkets and restaurants are closed on Sundays. While people in many countries treat Sundays as the day for weekly grocery shopping, Germans see it differently. (Not) working on Sundays has been regulated already for 125 years in Germany.
In 1892, the Workers' Protection Act came into force in Germany, which banned Sunday work for most sectors, especially commerce. For churches and the labor movement, it was a success. This was the first time Sunday work was prohibited by law in Germany. The influence of the church at that time was probably quite strong. And according to the Bible, man should rest on Sunday and on Sunday there should also be time to go to church.
Even today, the laws still ensure that most stores remain closed on Sunday. There are exceptions for gas stations, pharmacies, bakeries, a few supermarkets or on special occasions. Every year there are a few “open Sundays” when stores are allowed to operate, usually from 1pm to 6pm. Currently, opening hours are regulated by state laws, and four open Sundays are usually possible each year.
That said, there is a growing movement against these strict laws. Pressure is coming from retailers who want to keep their stores open on Sundays to generate more revenue.
So if you decide to come to Germany, Switzerland or Austria, make sure to do your grocery shopping on Saturday or otherwise you risk having an empty fridge on Sunday.
10. Tatort: Germany’s favorite TV show
Despite a large variety of TV shows that keep popping up every day on streaming services and TV channels, there is one TV show that’s been around for 50 years and still captures the hearts of German TV watchers – Tatort.
The name translates to “Crime Scene” and has been airing since 1970. It’s a unique TV show as it doesn’t just follow a single special ops team or a detective and his team as they heroically solve murder cases.
It’s produced by dozens of small and big TV channels in Germany, Austria and Switzerland affiliated with ARD, a joint organization for public broadcasters. Every partner channel contributes a few episodes to the 30 episodes that air every year.
Therefore, the series is a collection of different police stories where different police teams each solve crimes in their respective city. Uniqueness in architecture, customs and dialects of the cities is therefore a distinctive part of the series and often the city, not the police force, is the real main character of an episode. And each episode lasts nearly 90 minutes which makes Tatort more like a collection of feature movies. Tatort is an amazing show for German learners as you can pick up different dialects and learn a lot about various regions and cities across Germany, Austria and Switzerland all the while becoming a part of an intergenerational cultural phenomenon.
And you know the great part? You can watch it free of charge on ARD (you might need a VPN if you are outside the EU).
11. Oktoberfest: there can't be too much beer!
Oktoberfest is not just another fair. It’s the world’s largest Folk Festival (Volksfest) with millions of liters of beer consumed every year. The tradition has been around for over a century and is still going strong today.
Surprisingly it didn’t start as a beer festival, but as a wedding celebration with a horse race! You read it right, a horse race. Andreas Michael Dall’Armi, Member of the Bavarian National Guard, had the idea of celebrating a wedding a little differently for a change. Prince Regent Ludwig of Bavaria, the later King Ludwig I, and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen were to be honored with a huge horse race. The king Max I Joseph of Bavaria really liked the idea. The couple was married on 12th of October 1810 with the festivities taking place on 17th of October on the grounds of Theresienwiese, to be later named after the bride, and featuring the exact horse race suggested. A year after the wedding celebrations, everyone was in agreement: We want more! And that’s how Oktoberfest became an annual event over time, albeit without a horse race.
Want your mind blown? Here are a few fun facts about Oktoberfest:
- The last Oktoberfest was in 2019 and 6.3 Million people attended it!
- The largest Oktoberfest took place in 1985 with over 7 million attendees
- In 2019, around 7.3 million liters of beer were served
- And as for food, not any less impressive: Oxen: 124; calves: 29; roast chicken: 509.420, pork sausage: 122.658 pairs, knuckles of pork: 80.259
Today, the Oktoberfest is the world’s largest folk festival and it draws around six million visitors annually. Each year, it continues to break new records ranging from the quantity of beer consumed to the amount of chicken devoured.
12. German punctuality: myth or true?
Are Germans as obsessed with punctuality as the stereotype claims them to be? Let’s find out about how Germans received this label in the first place.
Historical records show that punctuality and time were not that important before the industrial revolution. However, that changed in the 19th century. Two historical factors contributed to the shift.
One reason for punctuality was that Germany was only now emerging as a unified state. Originally, it consisted of many small individual parts. Each city still had its own clock. Travelers had to set their clocks forward or backward by one minute every 18 kilometers – depending on whether they were traveling from west to east or vice versa. From the 19th century onwards, the railroads and the rail network developed enormously. Trains had to be coordinated and goods had to be brought to the station on time. And passengers also had to be on time.
The second reason was Prussian rulers. Punctuality was ensured by the Kingdom of Prussia (a direct ancestor of today's Federal Republic of Germany). In Prussia, punctuality was strictly observed, especially among soldiers and civil servants. Punctuality was considered a Prussian virtue, and it was transferred to other parts of Germany. Thus, German punctuality emerged as a part of education and daily life.
Good, now we know how things developed. But is this still true?
Not really. Punctuality is still important in the business setting, but younger people don’t really identify themselves with this virtue. Buses and trains do run late. Patients who come at a predetermined time still often wait for a long time for their turn. Many public construction projects exceed their deadlines by years. Punctuality moved from a cultural identity to a desired social norm just like in other countries.
13. Berlin: the capital of Döner
If you go on a guided tour of Berlin, when passing through the streets of Kottbusser Tor (“Kotti”), your guides will point at a small kebab shop around the corner and tell you that that’s where döner kebab was first invented! Inspired by Turkish cuisine, this fast-food sandwich of sliced meat has become the symbol of Berlin’s culinary culture.
The urban legend goes that a man called Kadir Nurman put a bit of meat inside sliced bread for the first time in 1972. Eventually, the recipe evolved into what we eat today. Döner shops innovated and started adding salad, tomatoes, feta cheese, fries, and other ingredients.
According to the Association of the Kebab Producers in Europe (ATDiD), there are 16000 kebab shops operating in the city. Together they sell 600 tons of meat per day and generate more than 3.5 billion Euros per year!
To ensure quality and customer satisfaction, the association created a certification process. Only those who pass a seminar on hygiene in storing, preparing, and serving the finished kebab are awarded the ATDiD quality seal, which can be displayed on the snack bar.
One of the most popular Kebab shops in Berlin is Mustafa’s Kebab Booth. It has made it into the top city attractions and is a must-visit place for many Berlin tourists. It takes an hour on average for your turn to come. After so much waiting it’s no wonder that the kebab tastes so mouth-wateringly delicious.
Well, hopefully now you know more about German culture and picked up a few trivia facts for your next social event. Germans and German speaking countries have a rich culture and history that's worth exploring. And often it's much more exciting than it seems at the first sight.