Esskultur is important in Germany; Esskultur is the culture of food, dining, and manners. For most Germans, Esskultur begins when they are in high chairs and their parents teach them to eat when the adults are eating, to wait until the adults are finished to be excused from the table, how to use a napkin, and how to use their eating utensils.
In the US, manners vary widely and the manners you learn depends largely on what your family has taught you. We don't have one set of manners, and you can tell by the variety of food we eat; barbecue is largely eaten with the hands, pasta with a fork or perhaps a fork twirling the pasta with the help of a spoon. When alcohol enters the picture, it's a whole other ball game.
So here are some rules to live by to help you understand how Germans dine and to help you avoid some pitfalls along the way. For these rules, we'll assume that you have been invited to a friend's house or out to a business dinner.
1. Plan to Stay.
This American idea of party-hopping or "just staying for a little while" is incredibly tacky and rude. Germans do not do this. Either you accept the invitation and plan to stay for the evening, as delightful or as painful as it might be, or you politely decline.
2. Greet everyone with a handshake.
Yes, EVERYONE. Go around the room, shake hands, introduce yourself by your last name if it's a formal situation, by first name if it's informal, or somewhere in between for a mixed situation. People will fire their names at you and expect you to remember them.
Here's another great point: in the US, if you feel uncomfortable about trying to remember several names right off the bat, we make the joke "if there will be a pop quiz later," and everyone understands that they should remind you of their names when you speak again. This is a wonderful part of American culture in which we help each other out with remembering names. This is not so in Germany; they do not understand this joke. So keep that joke for this side of the ocean and if you need to, politely ask someone their name again as soon as you realize that you didn't learn it the first time.
3. Do not start drinking before anyone else. Learn to wait.
Germans are very conscientious diners and it begins with the before-dinner drinks; wait until everyone has their drink or beverage, as a toast will likely be made, whether a lengthy speech or just "Zum Wohl." This is similar in private dinners as well as in business dinners in a restaurant. Train yourself to accept a glass of champagne or another Aperitif, and get comfortable standing with that glass, not drinking. If it's a dressed-up champagne with a piece of fruit in it, take a moment to take it in. Look around and enjoy the group of people who have gathered together. Get comfortable with waiting to drink.
Americans frequently take a drink as soon as their glass is served. This is very disconcerting to Germans, as they don't understand why you wouldn't wait for others. So be sure to wait. And enjoy it.
If you do not drink, for whatever reason, just say you don't drink ("Ich trinke nicht.") and you'd take a glass of water. A warning: Germans tend to ask nosy questions about people who don't drink, so feel free to respond simply with "I just don't," or "I'm on medication," or "for health reasons." They will make an awkward point about toasting with water being awkward, but leave the awkwardness to them.
4. When toasting, don't clink high-quality glasses.
Wine glasses in the United States are thicker than other countries. In Germany, you can still find very high-quality, incredibly thin wine glasses. Read: they break easily. So when you get that glistening glass of Riesling in your hand and you automatically get nervous due to the thin glass, simply raise your glass up in front of you as you toast others and spare your hosts the panic that you might smash that € 30 wine glass into someone else's € 30 wine glass and make a stain in their carpet.
If others insist in clinking glasses, do so with utmost caution.
5. Be sure to look everyone else in the eye as you toast them.
Yes, look EVERYONE in the eye. It's so important to them that they joke that not looking someone in the eye when you toast them means you wish them 7 years of bad sex.
So get comfortable with eye contact.
And remember to take a drink before setting your glass down. This is as important as looking others in the eye.
So the format is:
Take glass -- wait -- toast with eye contact -- drink -- set glass down.
6. Do not start eating before anyone else. Get comfortable with waiting.
In keeping with this conscientious dining experience, Germans practice eating with others--not before them or after them. At the table, it's considered at the least inconsiderate if not downright rude if you "dig in" as soon as your plate hits the table. Wait until everyone has their meal. Even if it takes a long time, just keep waiting. A proper host will recognize that others' dinners will be getting cold and invite you to begin. You can politely refuse first, they will insist again, and then you can begin eating.
7. Learn to use your knife.
Stop sawing through your food with your fork--which was meant for stabbing, not cutting. So forget about using the edge of your fork, and learn to use a knife properly.
If you are truly unsure, find a finishing school. Ask someone at your office to show you and practice at home.
8. When you are done eating, place your knife and fork together at the 4:00 o'clock position on your plate.
This is a signal to your host or to the wait staff that you are done eating. Do not expect them to clear your plate right away; hosts and most restaurants in Germany do not whisk your plate away ASAP like American restaurants do. They are interested in you having a quality dining experience, not turning tables.
9. When departing, be sure to thank your hosts personally before you leave. And say good night to EVERYONE.
And yes, say good night to EVERYONE by going around and shaking ALL their hands. Yes, it feels pedantic, but Germans appreciate it and it's a simple thing you can do to respect Germanic culture. Plus, you never know what kind of connection you might make with someone by having one more contact with them. Perhaps another business deal, a new acquaintance, or another invitation.
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