Whilst the hard and fast legal rules of German society can be easily found and obeyed, like the red man and riding your bike in the bike lane for instance. Unwritten rules can be hard to pick up for foreigners in Germany and although you won’t be arrested for committing a faux pas it is always better to try not to cause offence unnecessarily. These are geared towards life away from work and the office, where different rules can exist.
Wishing a person ‘Happy Birthday’ before their birthday. Germans are a superstitious lot and will not accept birthday wishes until the actual day. Even 11.30pm before their official birthday starts is still too early, believe me, I was made aware of this loudly by the birthday boy who covered his ears in horror at my best wishes when I had to leave his party early. On the plus side the birthday boy or girl will usually pick up the bill (or at least a round of drinks) on their birthday, something to be aware of if you are planning a party.
Not waiting for Guten Appetit. Politeness dictates that a table will wait for everyone to be served, and a round of ‘Guten Appetit’ (enjoy your meal) to be offered before you begin to eat. It can also be offered individually which comes in handy in restaurants where not everyone is served at the same times. You might also hear Mahlzeit (mealtime, the shortened form of Gesegnete Mahlzeit or blessed mealtime) used instead in Austria and Bavaria, which effectively means the same thing.
A knock on the table. Shaking hands is the preferred greeting in Germany, it can however take considerable time to shake every hand if you are in a large group. As a result, the goodbye handshake can be skipped altogether, by a swift rap of the knuckles on the table or bar. Historically it is associated with the Stammtisch (regulars table) that you will find in most Kneipe (pubs) and restaurants, their oak table could not be touched by the devil so a simple knock to say hello or goodbye to the regulars was enough to prove you were who you appeared to be, and not the devil in disguise.
Greetings and goodbyes. Many Biergartens and restaurants have large tables that mean that you may be expected to share with other guests, it simply saves space for larger parties. On joining a table it is polite to offer a greeting and then simply ignore each other until goodbyes are exchanged when someone leaves. This is my experience in Bavaria completely, people do not want to interrupt your dinner or make conversation with strangers. In Baden Württemberg and beyond though my experiences have been quite different and sometimes I have been known to make a run for the small tables if I want a nice quiet dinner.
Drinking, and in particular toasting has a few intricacies of it’s very own
Not just Prost (Cheers). Whilst Prost is the most commonly known toast to most visitors to Germany, it is generally only used to toast with beer. Zum Wohl (to good health) is used more commonly when toasting with wine or schnapps.
Make eye contact. The superstition here is that you must make eye contact whilst toasting otherwise you’ll be on the receiving end of seven years of bad sex (or luck, depending on who you talk to).
Clink the bottom of your glass. A lot of glasses are rather delicate at the top, particularly those used for Weißbier (wheat beer) and can get broken by overenthusiastic toasting, clinking the bottoms is much safer.
Don’t put your drink down after a toast, except in Bavaria. Toasting then putting down your glass before taking a sip invalidates the toast. Yes, now you’ll have to start all over again. If you have a Maß Krug (litre mug) though, you can place it down on the table to change your hand position from holding the handle normally (perfect for toasting, no danger of your fingers getting broken) to one more suitable for drinking, sliding your fingers through the handle and sort of cradling the beer.
Toasting with water. Also frowned upon as bad luck, though I’m not sure that it’s relevant anymore. Having seen plastic bottles, tea cups and baby sippy cups all enthusiastically toasting away, I don’t think anyone is going to judge you.
I’m always learning, generally the hard way, about these small differences and peculiarities of everyday life, I’m happy to pass on the results of my many mistakes to you so you don’t have to make the same ones.