Like any other nation, the Germans have their own way of doing things which may sometimes seem rather strange to newcomers. Here are some of the everyday German customs that you will encounter fairly quickly when you arrive in Germany. For a fun look at how Germans "tick", take a look at this website. General information about life in Germany can be found here.
Shaking hands is the normal way to greet both friends and strangers in Germany. Younger people are also likely to greet friends with a hug.
Don't be surprised if you are out for a walk or a bike ride and complete strangers say hello to you. This is a very common thing to do, as is saying hello to everyone as a general greeting when you enter lifts, train compartments, doctors' waiting rooms or small restaurants, cafés and shops.
Germans are relatively formal in their relationships with people they don't know or don't know well, and in these situations will normally use the polite "Sie" form. The Sie form will be used for your landlady, your lecturers or members of university staff, but the informal "Du" form is normal among students. First names are normally only used with people you say "Du" to.
Knocking instead of clapping
In schools and universities it is the custom for students to knock on their desks to show their appreciation, for example at the end of a lecture or after a presentation, instead of clapping.
Living with other people
If you live in an apartment building with other residents, there will be some rules you will be expected to follow, for example regarding making noise after a certain time at night and disposing of your rubbish. Although many apartments have a person to look after the building, a Hausmeister, depending on where you live, you may also be expected to take turns in cleaning the stairs of the apartment building. This is the so-called Kehrwoche.
Sorting your rubbish and recycling
Germans are very environmentally-conscious and as a result have a strict system of sorting rubbish and disposing of it. Most rubbish can be recycled in some way and it is important to understand the system and to follow the guidelines to facilitate recycling. If this is not done, it will cause problems with your landlord and the other residents of the building, and you may even be fined or asked to leave.
Rubbish is sorted into 4 main categories: paper, glass, plastics and metals, and compost. You are expected to follow this system, using the containers provided, both at home, at the university and in public places. With the exception of glass, which you should either return to a shop to get your deposit back, or take to bottle banks to recycle, your rubbish at home will be collected from your apartment building on a regular basis.
Even items which are difficult to recycle, such as chemicals, batteries or old furniture, can and should be recycled, although there is a different system to dispose of such items.
Please note that a deposit is charged on most glass and plastic bottles and many tin cans to encourage recycling. All supermarkets have recycling areas where these deposits can be recovered.
Tipping in cafés, restaurants and bars
Service charge is actually included in the price in cafés, restaurants and bars. Nevertheless, it is the custom to round up the amount to be paid by a small amount. This is done by telling the waiter or waitress the amount that you want to pay. For example, if the bill is €2.90, you willl tell the waiter "€3.00" and he or she will keep the extra 10 cents.
Germans consider it bad luck to congratulate someone on their birthday before the actual day. For this reason they tend to celebrate their birthdays on the day of their birthday, even if it is during the working week, rather than moving it to a more convenient day. They are also more likely to call a friend to congratulate them personally, rather than to just send a birthday card, as is common in the English-speaking world. Germans also usually pay for their own birthday party rather than be treated by their friends and family. This is probably one reason why their celebrations tend to be intimate affairs, often celebrated at home, with only close friends and family. Don't forget, when drinking to someone's health, it is very important to look at each other in the eyes.