Germans have a reputation for being rigid and strict with the rules, but also for being hard working and efficient. If you are caught breaking the rules, someone will easily point it out to you. The main exception in Germany seems to be the speed limits.
More importantly, the German meaning of “politeness” is quite different from the Anglo-American concept of polite remarks, gossip and political correctness. Germans place a high value on honesty, openness, the ability to deal with criticism and generally not wasting others’ time. Unfortunately, this often applies to your interactions with them, not their interactions with you. Once you lose your mind, it is very difficult to control it again. As a result, there is usually no introductory verbiage in business meetings. Titles (such as Dr., Prof. etc.) are used more in the South than in the North. Some colleagues who have worked together for many years still address each other by their last name. When a German introduces himself to you, he often simply tells you his surname and asks you to address him as “Herr/Frau…”. The direct use of first names is most likely to be perceived as derogatory, depending on the situation. Of course, there are differences between young and old people. You should consider the use of the family name and the official you as a sign of friendly respect. If you are having a drink together, you can offer the informal you and address your colleague by his or her first name. However, this may be considered a faux pas if you are significantly younger or “lower-ranking”.
The German word Freund actually means close friend and someone you may have known for a few years may not call you friend but rather acquaintance.
There is also a strong willingness for mutual agreement and compromise. As for the famous efficiency: Germans are the best recreation-seekers in the world (with an average of 30 days paid holiday per year, not counting public holidays) and at the same time have one of the highest productivity rates in the world. A late train is seen as a sign of a decaying society.
Contrary to popular belief, Germans have a sense of humour, even if it is often expressed differently than in English-speaking countries. If you are around people, you know that sarcasm and irony are very common forms of humour. Puns are also popular, as in English-speaking countries.
Rule of thumb: Be on time!
In official contexts (when conducting business), punctuality is not considered politeness, but a prerequisite for future relationships. Most Germans arrive 5 to 10 minutes early and take it for granted. Arriving more than 2 minutes late to a meeting is considered rude and is only tolerated with strangers unless you can give a good reason in your defence (e.g. being stuck in an unforeseen traffic jam). It is considered a courtesy to call other participants if you seem to be late, even if there is still a chance that you will arrive on time. Regular lateness is considered disrespectful to other participants.
In personal relationships, the importance attached to punctuality may vary from person to person. It is always safer to be on time than to be late, but the issue can be negotiable: If in doubt, simply ask “Is punctuality important to you?”. Punctuality also depends on the environment; in a collegial environment, for example, it is taken much less seriously. For private invitations home, it may even be considered more polite to be 5 to 15 minutes late so as not to embarrass the host if everything has not been prepared.
Behaviour in public
Germany, especially urban Germany, is quite tolerant and your common sense should be enough to keep you out of trouble.
Drinking alcohol in public is not prohibited and is even common in the far west (Cologne and the Rhine-Ruhr area). In some major cities (e.g. Cologne) there are local laws that theoretically make drinking alcohol in public a criminal offence punishable by a fine of several dozen euros; these laws are rarely used against tourists except in cases where alcohol consumption leads to boisterous behaviour. These laws have also been successfully challenged in court in several places. Aggressive behaviour or disturbing the peace will result in a conversation with the German police and possibly a fine or expulsion, whether you are drunk or stone-cold sober.
Pay particular attention to respectful behaviour in places of worship and in places that uphold the dignity of the state, such as the many war and Holocaust memorials, parliaments and other historic sites. Some of these sites have house rules prohibiting disrespectful or disruptive behaviour. These rules can range from a reasonable ban on taking photographs during religious ceremonies to things that may seem strange to you, such as a ban on men keeping their hands in their pockets. You should look out for these signs and follow the rules they set out. Another very common sign is “Parents are liable for their children”. This is a reminder that Germans believe both that children should be children and that parents should look out for them so that no one gets hurt and nothing gets broken. If your child accidentally knocks something over or breaks something in a shop, you should usually expect them to pay the price.
Insulting other people is prohibited under German law and, if prosecuted, can lead to a prison sentence and a heavy fine. Charges are rarely brought, but use common sense in any case. Insulting a police officer, however, always results in criminal prosecution.
On German beaches, women can usually swim topless. Total nudity is tolerated on most beaches, although it is not common outside the many naturist areas (called “FKK” or “Freikörperkultur”). They are particularly common on the East German Baltic coast, due to the great popularity of naturism in the former GDR. Nudists can also be seen in public parks in Berlin and in the “English Garden” in Munich. In most saunas, nudity is compulsory and mixed sessions are common. One day of the week is usually reserved for women.
Basically, prosperity increases towards the south: Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria are the two richest federal states and compete with Switzerland and Austria for quality of life. The further north the traveller goes, the more liberal things are: Hamburg and Berlin have gay mayors, bars and clubs are open all night, and the density of young artists in Berlin-Friedrichshain easily surpasses that of London, Paris or Manhattan. Northern Germany is in the same cultural circle as the Netherlands and Scandinavia, even the food and architecture are more pragmatic, simple and unsophisticated than in the traditionally Catholic south. Contrary to the general trend, Hamburg is the richest city in Germany (and one of the ten richest regions in Europe), ahead of trendy Munich.
The Nazi period
At the end of the 19th century, Germany was probably the most enlightened society in the world. As a mental exercise, try to think of five famous physicists, philosophers, composers or poets without mentioning a German name. This dignity and prestige suffered a severe setback during the period of National Socialist rule under Hitler. Since then, the Third Reich has been a permanent scar on German national identity, it is considered a stain on Germany’s national honour and will remain so for a very long time. Every German pupil is confronted with it about 5 times during his school years and has to visit a concentration camp at least once (most of these places have been turned into memorials). Not a day goes by without educational programmes on television and radio dealing with this period. Growing up in Germany, whether in the GDR or West Germany, meant and still means growing up with this bitter legacy, and every German developed his or her own way of dealing with public guilt. For the traveller, this can mean confusion. You may meet people (especially young people) who want to tell you about Germany’s turbulent history, and you may want to see for yourself that Germany has come a long way since then. Choose appropriate places to talk about the topic and be polite. If you are visiting friends in Berlin, you will have a hard time keeping them from constantly dragging you to one of the many memorials.
Humour, even if innocent, is a bad way to approach the subject and is offensive. Even worse: what may look funny abroad can result in a prison sentence (up to 3 years) and a heavy fine in Germany. All Nazi-era slogans, symbols and gestures are banned (except for educational purposes, and even these are heavily regulated), and displaying them in public is illegal. Foreigners are not exempt from these laws. Don’t even think of showing the (Roman) Nazi salute as a joke! An example: a German court recently had to decide whether it is legal to wear a crossed-out swastika (to show that you are against the ideas of National Socialism) because it always contains a forbidden symbol! (This ruling has since been overturned, but still shows how sensitive the issue is). Religious swastikas are exempt from this rule, but you should still avoid wearing these Hindu or Buddhist symbols so as not to cause unwanted offence.
Probably the best way to deal with it is to stay relaxed. If people around you like to talk about German history, take the opportunity to have an honest, even very personal conversation. If you want to avoid difficult moments, don’t bring up the subject.
The Era of the German Democratic Republic
Compared to the Nazi era, Germans have a more open attitude towards the post-war division of Germany into East and West. Communist symbols, GDR songs and other insignia related to East Germany circulate freely (though not very often in the West), and many people have a certain nostalgia for the country, hence the artistic and commercial movement “Ostalgie” (nostalgia for the East). Be careful when talking about the East German secret police (Stasi), as many people in the East were affected by the control of all areas of life by this organisation, which maintained an extensive network of informants throughout the country during the communist era. Although it is now 25 years since the division, there are still cultural remnants often referred to as the “wall in people’s minds” and the last two years seem to have reinforced stereotypes between East and West, if anything.