"When you're at home, behave as if you were on the king's table. This way, when you're at the kings table, you can behave just like home." Many German kids will have heard this advice from parents concerned about their manners. Some of them, like me, will have wondered what king this sentence refers to, with Germany having been a republic for a very long while. Maybe it’s the English Royals, who enjoy huge popularity in their old home country? Anyway, table manners are an important issue for many Germans. Here is what to avoid!
1. Guten Appetit
The number one irritation for German guests in England is the total lack of a proper start signal when it comes to lunch or dinner.Never start eating before everybody around the table sat down and wished each other a “proper appetite” (Guten Appetit). Starting before that is rude, as is sitting down before everybody is there or at least you have been invited to sit down by the host.
2. Which Meal? When?
Of course, the whole idea of lunch being just a sandwich and some crisps already is an outrage, and the confusion about dinner being tea and lunch being dinner (and where the hell does the supper fit in and when do we have afternoon tea?) isn’t helping all too much. Many Germans have the following meals throughout a day Breakfast at home, Second Breakfast at work/school, a warm lunch, coffee and cake in the afternoon and dinner consisting of sandwiches or salad.
3. Rules and Rituals
A German family meal is a celebration following set rituals, be it lunch or dinner. Surely not every German family cares for all the rules involved, but pretty much everyone will care for some of them. The idea of an American style “TV dinner”, eaten from a tray in front of a movie, is an atrocity. As a guest best watch the host and follow his or her lead.
During the meal, use fork and knife, unless you are eating soup. Many Brits seem to have taken over the American habit of first cutting meat on the plate and then eat mainly with their fork, which doesn’t suit German manners. The elbows should never be on the table during meal time, only wrists and forearms rest on the table. Don’t speak with your mouth full (but that’s not really different to the rules in England), leave your napkin on your lap and avoid using it for anything but food related incidents. Most Germans carry paper tissues with them, and they are used for anything else.
Here is an extra challenge: Avoid taking the first sip from your drink before someone has said “Prost!” (cheers!) or "Zum Wohl" (to your well-being). Just like “Guten Appetit”, this is a start signal that should be honoured. It’s also common to clink the glasses, and while you do so, do not lose eye contact. Not because that’s rude, but because it will bring bad luck to you and people close to you (you're welcome to ask German meal partners for the background of this rule. It is a good starter for small talk.)
And who was Baron Knigge?
Freiherr Adolph Franz Friedrich Knigge, born 1752, is the German synonym for impeccable manners– a role he probably didn’t anticipate when he was still alive and a vocal supporter of human rights and civil liberties rather than rules of social interaction. As a freemason and a member of the Bavarian Illuminati he could spark the imagination of modern day conspiracy theorists, but what he actually is remembered for is a book on human behaviour that made him a guru for manners and proper conduct. If anyone ever asks you whether or not you have “read your Knigge” in Germany, it is very likely a hint that you are a wee bit off track.
One thing Baron Knigge didn’t write about: Pasta. Germans refer to it as “noodles”, which can be a source of irritation for some, and they never cut them. Pasta is being rolled around the fork, ideally utilizing a spoon as counterweight.
A rather bizarre bit of German manners shall not be forgotten: The last piece. Taking the last bit of anything on the table is considered rude by many, so it can happen that there are plates of meat, fish or potatoes that all have exactly one little piece left, but nobody touches it. This can look especially weird when it comes to cake. If you are looking for advice how to cope with this situation, we say: Help yourself. Enjoy the irritated giggles and the shocked looks. Leaving one piece makes no sense.
Fancy a bit more insight into “Gutes Benehmen” (proper manners)? Famous German comedian Loriot invites you to join him to a “Benimmschule” (a school of good manners). The sketch is German, but we are confident you will catch the drift either way.