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Culture and Society: Greetings and Courtesies


Privacy and order are central German values, so greetings tend to be polite and restrained. The default is toward formality and little expression of emotion. Rather than being cold, Germans see this as respectful of others' dignity and privacy.

Informal Greetings

When entering a group of people, Germans greet each one individually with a brief, but firm, handshake. Children are also included in the handshaking formality. On leaving the group, a German will usually take the time to shake each person’s hand again. 

Germans use the informal second-person pronoun du (you) instead of the formal Sie (you) during casual greetings, which only occur between family, close friends, and with children. Germans generally use first names when speaking at this level of familiarity. When meeting a couple, Germans shake hands with the wife first as a gesture of chivalry.

Generally, Germans do not greet strangers on the street or in public places. However, it is considered polite to voice a general greeting when entering or leaving a small shop, even if the shopkeeper is busy helping another customer. These include Guten Morgen (Good morning), Guten Tag (Good day), Guten Abend (Good evening), and Gute Nacht (Good night). In the southern part of the country, Guten Tag is often replaced by Grüß Gott (Hello, or Greet God).

Germans greeting close friends in a casual situation may say Grüß dich (Hello or Greet you) and the contracted phrase, Wie geht’s? (How goes it?), a literal question about one's well-being. Replies include Sehr gut (Very good), Es geht (So-so), Nicht so gut (Not so good), or Slecht (bad), followed by Danke. Und mit dich? (Thanks. And with you?). A German who wants to introduce him- or herself in a casual way would say, Ich bin ___ (I am ___), or ask, Wie heißt du? (How are you called?). 

Upon leaving, Germans will shake everyone's hand again and say Auf Wiedersehen (Until we meet again), the more casual Tschüss (Bye), or Tschau (Bye), a Germanization of the Italian word.

Formal Greetings

Formal greetings are the norm for interactions with older family members and anyone outside of one's family and close friends. It is considered polite to greet older and higher-ranking people before younger or lower-ranking people. A brief, firm handshake with direct eye contact is the standard formal greeting for both men and women.

When addressing someone formally, Germans use the polite second-person pronoun Sie (you) instead of the familiar du (you). Additionally, the honorifics Herr (Sir) or Frau (Madam) normally precede a person's surname. (Fraulein for younger, single women, has fallen into disfavor and is no longer used.) First names are not used in a formal context.

To greet someone formally, a German would say one of the time-of-day greetings mentioned above, followed by the more formal, Wie geht es Ihnen? (How goes it with you?). Possible responses include Sehr Gut (Very good), Gut (Good), or Es geht (So-so), followed by Danke. Und mit Ihnen? (Thanks. And with you?). 

Introductions are generally made a person of higher rank, or by a mutual acquaintance. It's considered polite to introduce higher-ranking people first, followed by lower ranking people. If a mutual acquaintance is not available, however, a German may take the lead with, Bitte, darf ich mich vorstellen? (Please, may I introduce myself?), followed by Ich heisse ___ (I am called ____). To ask the other person's name, he or she would say, Wie heißen Sie? (How are you called?). After introductions, it's polite to express pleasure with Sehr angenehm (Very pleasant) or Es freut mich Sie kennen zu lernen (It's a pleasure to meet you).

When taking leave, a German shakes everyone's hand again and says, Auf Wiedersehen (Until we see each other again).

Business Greetings

High standards of formality are the norm in German companies, where titles and position are very important. Common business titles include Doktor (Doctor, meaning Ph.D.), Professor (Professor), Lehrer (Teacher), Arzt (Medical Doctor),  Ingenieur (Engineer), and Anwalt (Lawyer). If someone has multiple titles, they are all used in succession, with professional titles appearing first, followed by professional degrees. For instance, a director of a laboratory with two doctoral degrees whose name is Eberhard Faber is addressed as Herr Direktor Doktor Doktor Faber, even in social conversation. Germans holding doctoral degrees and professorships have the titles made part of their legal name and are addressed as such.

The use of formal titles and listing of degrees extends to business cards. A typical card will normally include the person’s full name with titles attached, position in the company, degrees earned, and possibly professional associations with which the bearer is affiliated. Exchanging business cards is an important part of German business protocol.

In a business setting, the higher-ranking German associate usually introduces lower-ranking ones. Introductions generally begin with higher ranking people and continue on down to lower ranking people. An exception to this rule occurs in the business and academic worlds when a person is introduced by a junior member to a group where everyone else is of a higher social rank. In this case the one being introduced will shake hands with only the most senior member present.

Conversation Topics

Germans do not engage much in small talk, preferring in most situations to get down to the business at hand. When they do take the time to chat, however, conversations tend to be on public topics rather than private ones.

Sports are a frequent subject of conversation, especially Fußball (soccer) which is the country’s national pastime. Current events and politics are also frequently discussed as are job-related issues. Stories relating to a person’s travels either within the country or across the border are always welcome, and among beer drinkers, lively debates over the merits of the various domestic and imported brews. 


Not all topics are welcome among Germans. Personal questions about one's salary or the cost of a possession are considered inappropriate unless among close friends or family. Also, questions about World War II or the Holocaust can be misinterpreted as accusatory.

Certain phrases are not only taboo, but illegal. Publicly voicing expressions related to Nazi Germany and the Third Reich, such as Heil Hitler (Hail Hitler), carry prison sentences of up to five years.