Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

Party Pointers for When You’re Next in Germany


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.

DIY Introductions

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.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

22 thoughts on “Party Pointers for When You’re Next in Germany

  1. Love it! that’s hilarious. But what I love most is your and Thomas’ ability just to throw yourselves in. I am sure the Germans give you massive points for enthusiasm, if not accuracy..

  2. Thanks, Emma. We are nothing if not enthusiastic!

  3. This entry reminded me of the first birthday party I attended in Germany, where I was the only foreigner. The other ten guests of the birthday girl (woman of 40 years) had all known each other since childhood practically. The guests spent the whole party sitting around the dinning table, eating the huge delicious elaborate feast the birthday girl had prepared, drank endless bottles of equally delicious wine, smoked endless amounts of cigarettes, finished off a bottle or two of good Grappa and talked and talked and talked the whole night away. Not only did they talk, they talked about sex, politics, and religion: topics to be avoided in my culture. Then to make matters worse (in my eyes), they all got up to leave, very reluctantly, and left the birthday girl with a kitchen full of dirty dishes.

    Since I was staying overnight at the birthday girl’s apartment, I prepared myself to hear all sorts of complaints about the ingratitude of friends that expect you to supply all the food and drinks, don’t dance, talk the whole night through about deep and dark topics, and up and leave without even cleaning up. Much to my surprise, the birthday girl turned around after seeing the last guest out the door, with the happiest smile (slightly drunken tilt to it as well) and proclaimed the party a roaring success. Her observation… nothing makes your heart warmer then being able to talk about anything under the sun with dear and loving friends.

  4. All those unknowns of a different culture – while we certainly embarrass ourselves, we also enjoy the surprises of every day life much more when we “don’t know it all” (which is what living in another land does to us – it humbles us).

    Thanks for sharing the fun of learning!

  5. These are just the most wonderful observations about living in another culture. I love the one about you showing up in full on sixties gear (I’ll bet you looked fabulous)! It reminds me, in fact, of the time two German friends showed up at a Halloween party that wasn’t — as far as I knew anyway — meant to be a costume party dressed in a harmonic convergence with you & Thomas in their own sixties gear. She was wearing the best fur vest I’ve ever seen.

    And the thing about food and gifts really makes me wish I lived in Germany.

  6. There are cultural gaps even within one’s own country or one’s own background. Sometimes, it’s just family stuff. For instance, in my family, new year’s eve festivities generally end at 24:00 on December 31st. In my wife’s family, they really get started at 00:00 on January 1st. Finding common ground was not really easy.

    Costume parties are the trickiest, wherever you go. Our wedding dance was supposed to be a masked party: it said so on the invitation, no more, nor less. Yet probably only about one on ten (all-French) guests had so much as a zorro eye-mask.

  7. I hugely admire anyone who can embrace different cultures and traditions, as you do. Thank you for sharing your experiences — now I know what to expect if, and when… Being overly sensitive and someone who likes to get things right the first time, I would have gone into hiding after the first faux pas, not to be seen again for six months and even then, reluctantly.

    The invitation said “Come at 1530, bring your mugs and some Christmas biscuits.” reminds me of a dying Australian tradition of inviting ladies to bring a plate to a party. It’s not unknown for people who are new to the country to do just that — bring a plate only not knowing that the invitation refers to a plate of food.

  8. Well Kerryn, now I know. Henceforth I shall presume that “bring mugs” means “and stuff to put in those mugs”. Mandarin, you’re right, of course, everyone does things differently. Were you and your wife disappointed when your friends and family didn’t GET the masked ball idea? BL, that couple is obviously our lost soul brother and sister. I KNOW their shame. Funky Uncle, of course it does make our lives much more colourful that we’re frequently making idiots of ourselves. Lilalia, I like your German party story – it’s very familiar and I have come to enjoy the emphasis on talking rather than dancing, though the teenager in me misses dancing a little.

  9. We were disappointed, and at the same time, we were proud to be the ones with the finest masks (venitian-looking feathery artwork).

  10. HeeHee…I used to read the blog of an American living in Germany–had to abandon it for personal reasons–but your assessments/descriptions/etc. fall right in line with hers. It tickles me. 😀 (Especially since *most* of my ethnic heritage is Germanic).

  11. Wonderfully funny, Charlotte, but ow – reminds me why I am such a recluse. I’m too afraid of falling foul of the social etiquette in my own country, let alone anyone else’s!

  12. Ah, that explains why the lesbians all lóòked at me in Munich. Oh the terror of those raised eyebrows! The room seemed full of elegent, sophisticated, soigné, blond femmes; “stepford lesbians” as my friend and colleague put it. I didn’t know I was supposed to acost them with my clumsy bulging English ways and introduce myself, now did I?

    On the other hand, “eating flat food” made me struggle not to laugh out loud at work.


  13. Hey,
    I just love the stuff you write on Germany!! Being from Koeln, but having lived in Canada for a year and now in Manchester, Uk, in my 3rd year, I really appreciate reading about my own country’s ideosyncracies with such a gentle undertone and how right you are!!! Enjoy and be patient with them good old Germans. Speaking of politeness, I find myself missing the straight-forwardness of my fellow country-people sometimes and have a hard time to grasp the rules of British politeness..but that’s another story:) Take care!!

  14. Your post made me think of my experiences in Australia. They say Australian and British culture is similar but I have found myself in some embarrassing situations here. For example, the other night I went to a sit-down dinner and was seated at the head of my table. I shouldn’t have been put there. All night, I was mentally rearranging the seating so that the correct people were in the correct places! I felt mortified but nobody else seemed bothered.

    When you used “disappointed” instead of “impressed” it reminded me of when I lived in Japan and I learnt the Japanese word for graveyard, “ohaka”. Pleased with myself, I dropped this into conversation, only to realise later that I’d said “o-baka” – “honourable-stupid”.

  15. charlotte
    i enjoy your writing, particularly the cultural observations! we are saffas living in ireland, and you would think that two english speak post-colonial societies would be similar enough to avoid mass embarrassment. and you’d be right – but only to a point! also, we were in berlin this past week for a long weekend, and i’m amazed tonote that even in such a short time we picked up some of the same oddities you mentioned.

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  17. Haha love that! Excellent post.

  18. This is excellent and I can just picture it all. I have to say though you have some fairly stuffy German friends. The Germans I know love to dance. Not well, you understand, but they shake their funky groove things to some beat in their own heads with huge enthusiasm. When I first started learning German I used to say, ‘I admire myself’ instead of ‘I wonder’ and during a formal presentation I once said, ‘We’ll throw up on this topic again later.’

  19. Not quite sure how I got here, link>link>link>etc. This post reminded me of the time we children were invited to a Sunday School christmas party. The invitation read “bring a plate” and my (German) mumtook this to mean the church didn’t have enough crockery so everyone was required to bring their own. so we went to the party clutching empty plates and forks…..yes, we were laughed at. Some of the mums who went a supervisors made sure that we shared in the food that the others had all brought. When I explained to my mum the next day she was cross and said the invitation should have been more clear.

  20. very good post, i know exactly what you mean, i’m an expat living in Berlin, it really is all quite different sometimes, i’ve never actually thought about it as i’ve been to parties with many germans and foreigners,it is only the foreigners that dance! but in general lfe is great in Deutschland 🙂

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  22. I am german and sometimes I wish people would really show up right on time! Everytime I throw a party starting at 8pm, the first few guests show up about 1hr later. Therefor, I’m worried for about half an hour… but now I got used to it and simply say “when? oh, the usual time…evening…”

    concerning food: I usually end up prepare a bit and several people offer to bring some, too. But they don’t bring gifts, only occasionally uninvited guests and the “special alcohol” -meaning: normally, parties feature beer, soft drinks, water and coffee. If anyone wants anything else, s/he has to care for it her/himself. But maybe this is a student habit.^^°

    As for the dancing: As you observed lateron, Germans actually do dance -but only when they paid for it, at clubs and concerts. Weird, isn’t it? I can’t explain it…

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