Austrians (especially those over 40) take formality and etiquette seriously. Even if you are the least charismatic person in the world, good manners can get you far in a social situation. On the other hand, there are endless ways to get your foot in the door and raise your eyebrows because you broke an obscure rule.
In general, staff in most continental European countries do not show the same level of courtesy in shops and other services that people from other continents might be used to. For example, you may be insulted by a shop assistant when you want to buy something. In Vienna, a café without bad-tempered and arrogant waiters is not considered a real café.
The Austrians as a people do not “like” Germany or the Germans, at least in the sense of competition, and are quite sensitive about this. 80 million people in northern Germany and 8 million in Austria have made this rivalry even more intense. Don’t compare Austria negatively with Germany, you will quickly annoy the inhabitants, because Germans are seen as arrogant rich scoundrels who drive tourists around on bad days.
What is perhaps surprising for a more conservative nation is that Austria’s attitude to nudity is one of the most relaxed in Europe. The portrayal of full nudity in the media and in mainstream advertising can come as a shock to many visitors, especially those from outside Europe. It is not uncommon to see women swimming topless on beaches and in leisure centres in the summer. Although wearing a swimming costume is usually compulsory in public swimming pools and on beaches, it is generally allowed to take off one’s clothes when swimming “in the wild” in rivers and lakes. Nudity is compulsory on Austria’s many naturist beaches (FKK Strand), in thermal baths and hotel saunas. As in Germany, you should not wear a swimming costume in the sauna, otherwise you will attract strange looks.
Some basic rules of etiquette (of course, most of these rules are not really important if you are in a young audience)
- When entering and leaving public places, Austrians always greet with “Guten Tag” or “Grüß Gott” and say goodbye with “Auf Wiedersehen”. When entering a small shop, say “Grüß Gott” to the shopkeeper at the entrance and “Wiedersehen” at the exit (the “Auf” is usually off). Telephone calls are usually answered by saying your name and ending with “Auf Wiederhören“.
- Do not raise your voice or shout in public, especially on public transport. This could be interpreted as aggression. If you speak a language other than German, it is even more important to speak softly in order not to be noticed as a “loud foreigner”.
- When you are introduced to a person, always shake their hand, do not put your other hand in your pocket, say your name and make eye contact. Failure to make eye contact, even out of shyness, is considered condescending.
- It is customary to kiss each other twice on the cheeks when friends meet, except in Vorarlberg, where people kiss three times, as in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Fake air kisses also work. If you are not sure if it is appropriate, wait until the person you are meeting starts to greet you.
- When drinking alcohol, don’t drink until you toast (“anstoßen”). Say “cheers” or “cheers” and above all, look them in the eye when you toast.
- In restaurants, it is considered rude to start smoking while someone at the table is still eating. Wait until everyone has finished or ask if everyone agrees.
- If you have drunk all your wine and still want more, you can pour some into your glass, but only after you have kindly asked everyone around you at the table if they want more.
- If you really want to show manners while eating, let your unused hand rest on the table next to your plate and use it from time to time to hold your plate while eating, if necessary. Austrians generally use European table manners, i.e. they hold the knife in their right hand and the fork in their left and eat with both utensils. It is polite to rest your wrists or hands on the table, but not your elbows.
- In most Austrian households it is customary to take off one’s shoes. This is a habit that is widespread in most Central European countries, perhaps because of general cleanliness, but also because gravel and melted snow from pavements can cause damage to a home in winter.
- The Austrians (as well as other Central European nations) are very fond of using honorary titles. Many books have been written on the subject of Austria and its title mania. There are more than nine hundred titles in many categories such as professional titles, university degrees, honorary titles, official titles, etc. People who consider themselves serious always expect to be addressed by their proper title, be it Prof., Dr., Mag. (Master’s degree), Dipl.Ing., Ing. or even B.A. This is especially true for older people. Young people are generally much more relaxed in this respect. The title craze is something to be aware of, but it is also often the subject of satire and self-irony, so it should not be taken too seriously. So it should not be taken too seriously. Strangers should not understand it or care (entirely) about it.
- In German, you should always use the Sie form when speaking to foreigners or older people. Du is mainly for friends and family. Younger people usually address others as du. Misusing these forms is considered impolite. Switching from one form to another can be very irritating for English speakers, but it is a good idea to use the right form for the right situation. However, if you make a mistake, people will excuse you by saying that you have limited language skills. In Tyrol, the du form is used more often than elsewhere.