German Cultural Taboos

by Mark F. Weber on May 18, 2011


Avoid stumbling over German cultural taboos while traveling in Deutschland for business or pleasure.  The German people are very gracious when a visitor shakes their cultural norms.  To show respect, especially in business, understand Germany’s customs and avoid stepping into a taboo hole.

What is common in America and other countries, may disturb, annoy, or insult a German.  Here are some examples:

  • Punctuality – Do not be late for even a minute.  Arriving late is an insult.


  • Hands-in-pockets – Keep your hands out of your pocket while speaking to Germans.  They consider it slovenly behavior.  Keep hands by your side.


  • Chewing gum – Keep the gum in your pocket, where the hands used to be – ditto on slovenly behavior.


  • Okay sign – The American A-Okay sign, (index finger and thumb forming a circle), is an obscene gesture, (calling a German an a—hole).


  • Blowing nose – A German will leave the room, find a restroom or private area, and blow their nose.  Honking into a handkerchief or tissue at a dinner or conference area is disturbing to Germans.


  • Cleaning fingernails – This is probably a global taboo, but Germans prefer you clean and file fingernails in private.


  • Opening windows – It may be warm.  Not everyone showered that morning.  Do not open a window to get a breeze.  Germans fear a draft may lead to a fatal disease.  You will hear ‘Es Ziet’ as soon as you touch the window.


  • Flower colors – Flowers are a great gift in Germany.  Red is for romance. Carnations signify mourning.  Lilies and chrysanthemums are for funerals.  Yellow roses are safe.


  • First drink – Yes, you are thirsty after a long business or tourist day.   As a guest, wait for the host to offer a toast before the first sip.  Clink glasses or acknowledge everyone in the room.  Reply by saying, ‘Prosit.’

Avoiding German cultural taboos is an annoyance to some travelers.  Why are some foreigners so sensitive?  Any of the above taboos will not create a diplomatic problem.  Knowing and following the rules is a sign of respect.

Thank goodness, there are no American taboos.  Imagine taking your family to an American public beach.  Next to where your children are building a sand castle, a German couple removes their swim suits and sunbathes in the nude.

While you are thinking about that, here is one more cultural taboo suggestion.  Leave the A-Okay gesture at home, no matter where you travel.  It is offensive throughout the globe.  Okay?

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I am an international business professor in Pittsford, NY who managed a business unit for a German company. My passion is family and friends, plus roaming the countryside on my road bicycle.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

MG May 18, 2011 at 7:11 am

I can not confirm that the Okay sign is an obscene gesture. Maybe in some rural areas, but by the majority it is known as a sign for “Okay” or “Everything alright”


Mr Wendal May 18, 2011 at 7:37 am

The opening windows one is ridiculous … you will catch an illness breathing the same recycled air as 50 other people. Traditions have a place, but when they do the very opposite of their intention it’s time to move forward.


Colleen Setchell May 21, 2011 at 7:18 am

I’ve lived in Germany for over 2.5 years and have never come across anything about opening a window or blowing your nose. In fact, my German colleagues are the first to open the windows in most situations and blow their noses…well….when they need blowing. I think these points might be region specific, I live in Hessen, maybe they are a little more laid back here :-) Thanks for the post though!!


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