Living in a foreign country is full of challenges, especially when it’s party season. Over the years, we have betrayed our own natural politeness by getting it wrong; horribly, embarrassingly and shamefully wrong. Manners were highly rated in my family and I regard myself as a polite girl. While I don’t relish the idea of parties, I have the social confidence that whatever the situation, I will be able to handle it. Living in another country where you aren’t tuned in to the norms can bash that confidence right out of you, and that’s when you adapt, or leave. I speak a German that’s flawed but sufficient to have whole friendships in, yet somehow there are cultural things that hover above language that I just don’t grasp. So in case you’re planning to live in Germany or just visit, I offer here some tips on party etiquette that I have gleaned from hard experience.
Misleading Invitation I, or Assume There Is More Information Than The Invitation States
We went to a Bastelnachmittag yesterday – an afternoon of crafting Christmas decorations for the windows of Lily’s classroom. Basteln is not my forte, but I am happy to do it under adult supervision, and the children adore it. The invitation said “Come at 1530, bring your mugs and some Christmas biscuits.” Dutifully, I did all of the above, but was mortified when I got there to see that each and every German mummy also had a steaming thermos of tea, coffee or hot chocolate and that some had baked cakes. Nowhere did the invitation state “bring your own drinks” but somehow 25 women had managed to intuit that that was the case. Me, the only foreigner in the room, presumed that drinks would be provided. It did not cross my mind for one second that “bring your mugs” could be stretched to mean “bring drinks of your choice”.
Misleading Invitation II, or Don’t Assume There Is More Information Than The Invitation States
When we came back to Germany for this, our second, stint, we were invited to a Sixties party. It was our first month here, I was now a stay-at-home mum rather than a working girl, and I was keen to get out there and meet some people. Thomas and I got ready – he as a hippy, in flared pants, psychedelic T-shirt and sandals. I went the Christine Keeler route – hair teased into an enormous bouffant beehive, black kohl-rimmed eyes and pale pink lips, winkle-picker stillettos, and some sort of clingly black number. We parked in a Heidelberg car park and progressed to the party, self-conscious about being out in public in our dressing-up clothes. When we got to the party, we ascended the stairs, with me feeling slightly apprehensive – would I remember my German? Would I remember people’s names? At the top of the stairs, we looked into a large room full of people, all partying, all drinking and … all … wearing … normal 2003 clothes. We were the ONLY people who had dressed up.
At another party, early on in our first German stint, we walked into a room where a semi-circle of guests were standing stiffly, making chit-chat. We smiled politely, waiting to be introduced, but the hosts – our friends – were rushing around pouring drinks and doing party things. There was a pause in the conversation, people looked at us, a couple muttered “Abend” but no introductions were forthcoming. Shortly afterwards, the hosts’ neighbours arrived, with their two children, neither of whom were more than ten years old. We clutched our drinks and watched with increasing embarrassment as the family of four moved around the room, shaking hands with every single person there and introducing THEMSELVES.
When Thanking, Know Your Dictionary
We had a large joint birthday party and had invited some of my development team. These were people who seriously needed to get out – the types who wear Birkenstocks in the snow, eat flat food and don’t know how to talk to girls. Anyway, they managed to bring both Thomas and I spectacularly thoughtful gifts – for me a hardcover copy of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full in English and for him some beautifully packaged juggling balls. At the party, they mostly stood around eating large helpings of food, but a couple managed to dance and even talk to some girls. On Monday, I went to thank them for the gifts. I opened the door of their office, made eye contact – always difficult – and when I had the full attention of everyone in the room, confidently uttered in German the words: “Thank you very much for presents. I love my book and Thomas is very enttaeuscht with his juggling balls. He’s so enttaeuscht really.” Then I smiled and left the room, accounting the stunned silence that followed to their complete lack of social skills.
Months later, we were listening to the radio in the car and the DJ said something about being “enttaeuscht“. I said to Tom, “That means impressed, doesn’t it?”. “No,” he said, “it means disappointed.”
Other Crucial Things to Know:
1. When an invitation says “Come at 20h00” that is what it means. If you a party-giver, expect all your guests to be crowding into your home at 20h01. If you are attending a party, and you take 20h00 to mean “8 for 8.30”, all the the food will be gone.
2. Germans expect food at parties. It is unlikely that they will offer to bring any, but they will bring armloads of gifts for you, for the children, for your visiting mother-in-law. Prepare to be inundated with hugely generous presents.
3. Germans don’t dance. They may, at a push, late into the evening, get up and dance to “99 Red Balloons”, but if you want to have a dancing party, invite foreigners, especially Latin Americans. They dance. And so do South Africans.