Being part of the “western” world–and having experienced heavy Amerikanisierung (Americanization) at least from the end of World War II–many things in Germany will be familiar to an American visitor. There are, though, some peculiarities, some Eigenheiten, especially cultural ones, that Amis (and other foreigners) might find funny at best, confusing at least, or obnoxious at worst. Let me share a few of them with you.
In Germany, it is customary to shake hands when you meet someone. Händeschütteln is common both with strangers and with friends. I remember my mom checking if I correctly shook hands before a Fremder (stranger) would come to our house. When I was a teenager, me and my friends had ludicrous ways of shaking hands–combinations of high-fives and interpretations of greetings we had gathered from rap videos. Today, that only happens when I meet someone from back in the days and we have had one too much. These days, I usually shake hands–a firm, correct handshake (not that limp corpse-like one many people offer you–thanks Mama!). Maybe a slightly smacking one when I know somebody well, combined with some kind of (awkward) semi-hug or whatever you wanna call it. But if in doubt, just a handshake. Of course you do not meet EVERYONE with a handshake–for example most salespeople gehen leer aus (go away empty-handed–oh what an intended pun …). Unlike business partners or acquaintances (e.g. if you are introduced to someone at a party)–basically people you are somewhat closer with than your butcher. Also, you will most likely not shake hands with most of your co-workers as you see them, well, five days a week.
When I was in the States, Händeschütteln was not customary. Especially not when saying goodbye. I know that many Americans find the whole German Abschiedsszene very … funny, to say the least. (German) People line up to shake hands or embrace–it is simply a ceremony with awkward moments (have we said goodbye yet? Or saying goodbye again because you have gotten enthralled in another chat after the first Abschied). Of course you can also shrink aside, at least at a party with many peopl–a party that is not your OWN one, though!
I admit the shaking hands–or hello/goodbye ceremony–thing is quite ambiguous and can be confusing (who to shake hands with and with whom not). But it’s part of German Kultur.
Many idiosyncracies revolve around Geburtstag–birthday. Centuries of Christianity, enlightenment, attempts at substituting those ways of thinking with ideologies from the right and left, and capitalist-pluralist society have not succeeded in removing some sort of superstition among Germans. It is considered bad luck to wish somebody “Herzlichen Glückwunsch!” (Happy Birthday!) before their actual birthday. And es bringt Pech when you give them their Geburtstagsgeschenk (birthday present) before their birthday. So much for that. On a lighter note, Germans like to reinfeiern. That is, they like to start their birthday party the evening befor their actual birthday and continue to celebrate past midnight. At midnight (when a new day–the birthday–has begun, Germans will a) flock to the Geburstagskind (birthday boy/girl) to congratulate him/her and maybe give him/her Geburtstagsgeschenke (presents) b) sing a Geburtstagslied (birthday song–most likely “Happy Birthday” but instead of “dear” they will sing “lieber/liebe” and many will have issues pronouncing the “th,” although this is steadily improving)–or any combination of a) and b) plus birthday toasts of the alcoholic sort. Even when there is no party but more than one person in the room, a gute/r Deutsche/r will go up to the Geburtstagskind and congratulate him/her.
Now imagine my surprise when, once, I was in the States, it was midnight, and nobody congratulated the birthday child! An urge came up in me to approach the birthday child to offer my congratulations–with the words, “Sorry, I am German.” I just had to do it.