Group of people sitting at a table

Group of people sitting at a table ()

Newly arrived in Germany? There’s no shortage of cultural norms of behavior just waiting to trip up the unaware. If there’s one thing you learn from living abroad, it’s that when those first forays into the fray go slightly off the rails, it’s important to brush off any momentary discomfort, hold one’s head high and learn from the experience. Here is just a short list of the many transgressions I committed myself while adapting to the cultural norms of behavior during my first months and years in Deutschland.

In the supermarket

Perhaps no experience was more traumatic than my first few trips to the local Aldi. Nothing prepared me for the lightning speed in which the cashiers scanned the items, and it soon became apparent that clearing the minuscule platform upon which the scanned items landed at an equally brisk tempo was imperative. No orderly filling of the shopping bags I had brought from home was called for here. Purchases were obviously meant to be plowed into a shopping cart and bagged and sorted on my own time.

Before I had learned all of ten words of German, an Aldi clerk told me off for a transgression I had committed with regard to my purchase of wine. Apparently, one should never, ever place glass bottles on the checkout counter in the upright position.

On the street

The sin of inadvertently straying into the dedicated right-hand bike lane while walking along the sidewalk is one I didn’t make twice after being shouted at by an irate cyclist.

No matter that there were no cars to be seen in either direction, crossing the street before the signal of the walking man had turned green elicited enough dirty looks to keep me on the straight and narrow to date.

Pool and sauna

On my first visit to my new town’s indoor pool, I was told I that wearing a bathing cap was a must. (In the intervening years, however, I have noticed this rule is no longer strictly enforced.) While I was never explicitly told off for not wearing shower shoes, I soon gathered this too was essential kit for a swim session.

While I was aware that entering the textile-free environment of the sauna while wearing a bathing suit was a big no-no, it was trial and error that taught me it was essential to place a towel beneath my feet when working up a sweat in the sauna and to never, ever open the door when the “sauna master” had already commenced his ritual involving pouring scented oils over the stove and wildly whipping a towel in the air to force pockets of hot air into circulation.


Even now, after listening to a speaker whose words I agree with or find inspiring, I have to stop myself from breaking into applause as the rest of those gathered knock vigorously on the table.


By a stroke of luck, I discovered that when German friends who are fluent in English would use the phrase “I invite you,” what they were also saying is that they had planned to pay for my drink or dinner. Correspondingly, I nowadays only use the word “invite” when I am prepared to foot the bill.

Other cultural norms I have adapted gradually. I wish my fellow diners “Guten Appetit” and wait until everyone’s been served before we collectively start eating, and I look all those present in the eye as we clink glasses in cheers. I don’t believe anything bad will happen if I fail to stick to the norm, but I do believe in good manners.

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