German manners are based on unspoken rules, is what we read everywhere. But it’s actually not true. German manners are based on a book called Über den Umgang mit Menschen (On Human Relations) by Freiherr Adolph Franz Friedrich Ludwig Knigge. Knigge lived in the 1700s and was a German writer, Freemason, and a leading member of the Order of the Illuminati.
It’s hard to believe that the German mannerism of today still goes back to the book Knigge wrote. In fact, I’d go so far to say that most Germans have never seen a hard copy of it (myself included), but Knigge’s ideas are still passed down from generation to generation.
A lot of German etiquette is ruled by Knigge groups
Nowadays, there are several German etiquette groups that give advice on new and evolving topics of a modern society with changing social rules. Just to give you an idea, they have ruled on
- kissing at workplaces (better stick to the traditional handshake),
- on the correct way to end the relationship via text message (ok under certain circumstances – text in German) or
- how to deal with a runny nose in public (don’t trumpet, but dabbing your nose is fine – text in German).
Do you have to say please all the time?
When I was writing about how to ask others politely in German, I shortly talked about whether you should make use of bitte (please) or not. Does the German politeness requires a bitte every time you ask someone for something?
From how I feel about it, which is simply based on being German myself, I don’t think it’s necessary to include bitte in every request you make.
I believe an Entschuldigung (= excuse me) and, especially, using the subjunctive is more important than squeezing in a bitte that can also sound quite harsh and demanding.
But since I didn’t want to base my recommendations for you only on my gut feeling, I consulted the Deutsche-Knigge-Gesellschaft e.V.
And guess what? They confirmed my point of view (sort of). Skip to the end of this post if you can’t wait to read their answer.
How serious are Germans about this Knigge thing?
So, how serious do Germans take those Knigge rules? The answer is a little serious. It is not that we expect everyone to behave like someone from the 18th century or exactly how the Knigge Society nowadays suggests, but it’s a good idea to check on the rules if in doubt. Knowing the rules will also impress your German family and friends (maybe you are even dating a German?). Doing things the old-fashioned (Knigge) way will still be a big plus no matter where you happen to be in Germany.
The Knigge rules are also a fantastic resource when it comes to finding out about the etiquette in a German workplace environment. And this is probably the place where you want to be better safe than sorry.
Q&A on the necessity of bitte
Alright, enough about this man from back then, read here about my question to the Deutsche-Knigge-Gesellschaft e.V. on the necessity of bitte:
Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren,
Es geht um die Frage, ob man immer bitte sagen muss, wenn man um etwas bittet.
Stellen Sie sich vor, ich möchte Sie fragen, ob ich den freien Stuhl neben ihnen benutzen kann (vielleicht in der Bibliothek). Muss man in der Frage ‘bitte’ benutzen oder kann man es auch weglassen:
Kann/könnte ich den Stuhl benutzen? oder fragt man Kann/Könnte ich bitte den Stuhl benutzen?
Ich habe schon gegoogelt, konnte aber nicht wirklich etwas dazu finden und hoffe, Sie können mir weiterhelfen oder mich an jemanden verweisen, der mir weiterhelfen kann.
Vielen herzlichen Dank.
Mit freundlichen Grüßen
Liebe Frau Müller,
Generell ist es immer höflich in eine Bitte auch das Wort „bitte“ einfließen zu lassen. Eine Verpflichtung dazu gibt es jedoch nicht. Rein sprachlich gesehen, können Sie der Bitte einerseits durch die Anordnung der Worte im Satz und im Besonderen durch die Betonung die gewünschte Bedeutung verleihen.
In ihrem Beispiel formulieren Sie Ihren Bedarf, den Stuhl nutzen zu wollen, einfach, klar und zielorientiert. Möchten Sie sich im Sinne allgemeiner guter Umgangsformen korrekt verhalten, sollten Sie allerdings Ihrer Frage eine weitere Frage vorwegstellen, nämlich die, mit der Sie erst einmal höflich die Aufmerksamkeit Ihres Gesprächspartners auf sich lenken. Höflich und „knigge-affin“ würde Ihre Frage daher lauten: Ich bitte um Entschuldigung, ist der Stuhl frei? Auch der Konjunktiv wird als besonders höflich empfunden: “Könnte ich den Stuhl (bitte) benutzen?”
Insbesondere dann, wenn Sie mit Ihrer Bitte eine Leistung abfordern, z.B. Können Sie mir bitte helfen?, kann das Wort „Bitte“ von entscheidender Bedeutung für die Entscheidung Ihres Gesprächspartners sein. Diese Chance sollten Sie nicht leichtfertig verspielen.
Wir hoffen, Ihnen mit diesen Angaben behilflich sein zu können.
The English translation
Dear ladies and gentlemen,
This is about the question of whether you should always say please when asking for something.
Imagine that I would like to ask you if I could use the free chair next to you (perhaps at the library). Do you have to use ‘please’ with the question or can you omit it:
Can/could I use the chair? Or do you say: Can/could I please use the chair?
I have already googled it, but I could not find anything regarding this topic and I was hoping that u can help me or refer me to someone who can help me.
Thank you very much.
With kind regards,
Dear Mrs. Müller,
It is generally always courteous to include the word “please” in a request. However, there is not an obligation to do so. In a linguistical view, you can provide the desired meaning through the arrangement of words in the sentence, and particularly by emphasizing the request.
In your example you formulate your simple, clear and goal-oriented need to use the chair. However, if you want to behave correctly in terms of general good manners, then you should ask another question first, namely the one with which you politely draw the attention of your correspondent towards you. Therefore, your question would be polite and “etiquette affine“: Please excuse me, is the chair taken? The conjunction is considered as very polite: “Could I use the chair (please)?”
The word “please” can be of crucial importance for the decision of your correspondent especially when you are asking for a service with your request, e.g. can you help me, please? You should not carelessly gamble away this opportunity.
We hope we were able to assist you with this information.
Have you heard of Knigge before? Do you think it’s good to have written down recommendations to fall back onto when in doubt? Let us know in the comments (please).
13 replies on “German Manners – What The Hell Is Knigge?“
That’s curious… I was talking about it just today!
I have a question: do you know if there are differences between the german Knigge and the italian Galateo? The concept should be the same (a book with rules written a lot of time ago that we mostly still use even if anyone ever read the text). But the cultures are different.
I’m doing a project (here in germany) about kids and eating habits, that’s why i’m interested in the topic. But still I don’t know much about the german eating habits/rules (Tischregeln, I guess).
It would be also useful a simple summary of these Knigge rules. Maybe a link?
Vielen Dank im Voraus!
Hi Cindie, I’m not too familiar with the Italian Galateo but I did a quick Google search and from what I found Knigge Tischregeln and Galateo seems to be quite similar. I’ve never heard about don’t refuse a drink by putting your hand over your glass or don’t eat pasta with a spoon, but that might as well be part of the Knigge Tischmanieren.
Where to look it up? Well, you can find most topics here but it’s all in German unfortunately. This article here is also about dining etiquette in Germany in general (in English, yay) and for kids you could have a look here (in German).
Hope it helps. Viel Spaß mit den Kleinen!
ciao Anja, very useful post… still useful 9 months later, as you can see!!
Let me just add:
– In Italy only the upper classes follow the Galateo strictly, but obviously (to me) no Italian would ever think of eating pasta (unless it is pasta soup) with a spoon!
– In Italy such doubts like the use of “bitte” in questions can be asked to Accademia della Crusca: their mission is to help everyone (Italian natives included!) use the Italian language properly.
Ciao Oriella! That’s very interesting! I was hoping for someone to clear this all up, really happy you came along 😀 Sorry about the spoon thing (I’m one of them as well :/), but I won’t if I’m in Italy I promise! Thank you so much for commenting <3
Where do you conduct your German classes.?
Hi Renate, I’m based in Melbourne. You can email me at [email protected] directly. Thank you.
Let me explain something about “the Germans”. The “Knigge” rule is very important if you meet high persons in a society or if you’re invited for dinner on Christmas, Eastern or New Years Eve. Especially if you’re dating a German girl/boy, you have to be very polite – which is nearly impossible for the Americans. The first impression counts a lot. If you want to be someone in the Society, you should be familiar with the German culture, should learn a lot of stuff about it and you should definitely know how the “Knigge” rules work. So let me teach you guys that.
You should never use words like guys or buddies if you don’t know that person. Sir or Madame is the right way (Herr/Frau). You also use a formal and polite form to communicate with them (“they” instead of “he/she” if you’re talking about that person or “you” if you’re talking face2face) and don’t forget to use the last name. In General you should use “they” as long as the other side don’t offer to you, to use the informal “you” form. If you meet persons at your age outside of the office/your workplace, it depends. If they are under 25, they wouldn’t be made with you if you’re less polite. Otherwise you can ask them.
Important thing how to introduce persons and how you say “hi”:
Everytime you meet a person, it’s common to shake hands. Not only for the first time. If you meet a person for the first time, it depends which relationship you have to that person. If you know that the person is higher than you, than you say “Hallo, ich bin Herr Maier” (Hello, I’m Mr. Maier) and shakes hand with him, he will say his name as well. In that case it can also happen, that he starts to intoduce himself.
If someone else knows you and you meet a new person he/she already knows, let those people introduce you. If you’re in the same situation, that you already knows a person and for example one family member not, then it’s the same thing:
1. The person who knows each other says “hi” and shakes hand.
2. The person who knows you (the new person) says to the other person. “That’s Nick, he’s a work mate”. (Das ist Nick, ein Arbeitskollege). Usually in that case you say a short sentence why you know that person.
3. The new person says “Hi, I’m Nick Maier. Nice to meet you”. Hallo ich bin Nick Maier, nett Sie kennen zu lernen (Do never ever say “nett dich kennen zu lernen”, thats the impolite form). You may have noticed that you say your full name – usually the person will call you Mr./Mrs. Maier.
4. The person you’re introduced to says “Hi, I’m Mr. Maier. It’s nice to meet you”. In German we would usually say, it’s a pleasure to meet you if we’re the person who replies: Hallo, ich bin Herr Maier. Die Ehre ist auf meiner Seite.
Important: If it’s a high person, he usually says “Mr.”/Herr, if not “firstname lastname”. But that’s not a rule, so be careful!
If you and your boss have a wife, how to introduce?
1. You say hi to your boss
2. He introduce his wife, if not, you introduce yourself to his wife
3. Than you introduce your wife (she shouldn’t introduce herself) to her wife and then to him
How to be a gentlemen?
You have to offer your jacket to a date if it’s cold. You have to walk on the side of the street on the sidewalk, you have to open each door. You have to be polite and friendly the whole evening, in a restaurant you ask her for her jacket and put it to the wardrobe. That means, you help her out and after your visit into her jacket. You have to pay for everything without letting her know how expensive it was. You have to order cultural food instead of cheap food. You should drink wine with her. You should order for 2 persons which means you ask her first. You help her when sitting down which means you put the chair back. In a restaurant, you’re the person who opens the door for her, she only walks 2 or 3 steps in and then you should pass her. It’s very important because that’s a sign to everyone else, you’re the man who protects her and takes care of her. And you’re the person who ask for a table especially if you reserved for it.
The most critical part. Knife in the right hand, fork in the left hand. Do never ever change that constellation. Only if you have a soup and you need a spoon. You will notice if you’ve ordered different menues, that you’ve to start with the cutleries which from the outside to the inside. With every new menue, you use new forks/knifes. Don’t share your food with her. Be the person who refills wine if you’ve ordered a bottle or ask the waitress. (Usually they only fill your glass for the first time when they serve the bottle). Do never ever use you hands for grab some food. Only if it’s bread. I know that sounds weird for US citizen for Pizza, Burgers, … But that’s a non social behaviour only poor people have.
Usually you drive a car to pick her up. You arrive 5min before you told her. You may notice, that she wouldn’t be ready. Don’t make jokes about that and tell her, it’s okay (and please stop the time, it helps you to find out how long she usually is delayed and you won’t have issues with the reservation time). Have a smalltalk with housemates of her or her parents and be very polite. If they like you, she likes you more 😉 You open the door for her and close the door after she has seated everytime you drive with her to a place. If she wants to get out of the car, you should say that she have to wait until you open the door.
If it rains, it is cold or windy, offer her your umbrella, jacket or whatever.
That is only the simplify version you should know and not the total list 😉
Wow, I’m pretty impressed and glad you added some examples to the post! That’s exactly what it was missing before. Thank you so much Martin! Really appreciate the effort you put into your comment. Vielen herzlichen Dank! <3
I have a few comments about your post.
First, using “can” from a grammatical stand relates to the ability …Q-Can I use this chair? A- I don’t know. Have you been trained to use chairs? Using “could” while more polite also has a different grammatical meaning. Using “could” implies some conditions of use. Q- Could I use the chair? A- Yes, but only when your clothes are clean. “Can” is often used more often in informal situations….and by most German speakers due to the word similarity (kann/can). As a child I would ask, “Can I go outside and play?”. My mother would respond “Yes you can but you may not because dinner is in 10 minutes. This was a grammar lesson never forgotten.
A more appropriate approach ( which includes an unspoken “please”) would be to use “may”. Q- May I use this chair? A- Yes you may. When using “may” you are asking for the permission to do something. If there is some desperation to use the chair you could use “Please, may I use the chair?”.
I believe Knigge is a bit on ” autopilot within the German language due to using the Sie versus du forms. Sie and du do exist in English but they are heavily disguised within the grammar, vocabulary connotation, culture and contextual understanding.
In the end, in today’s society, being polite and respectful to and of others is quickly disappearing. I dont think it’s possible to “overuse” please in any language. Using ” please” implies a sense of humility when dealing with those we know or don’t know. It’s refreshing to hear please when someone uses it. It doesn’t make me feel superior or more important. It makes me feel good that someone took the time to be nicer that most others. So, please take the time to use please wherever you please!
Thank you for your valuable feedback, Mac!
you’ve made some good points in your comment! But I must say, as a young German woman, that I might feel disconcerted and maybe even belittled by overly strong “gentleman behaviour”, as if I wasn’t able to care for myself and as if I hadn’t the same standing as a man (not being allowed to introduce myself, to order a meal by myself, to pay by myself or even invite my date etc.). For example, I rather think it is polite if the first person that walks into a building opens the door/holds it open for the next person, no matter the gender, or that invitations should be in turn and not only one-sided. My feelings might not apply to every woman, of course there are probably women who appreciate gentlemen, but in my eyes, equal treatment is more common and valued.
I’m sorry to be so outspoken about it. In general, politeness and respect are very important for me.
I am researching the use of duzen und siezen.
For several years, I have noticed the use of du (kleingeschrieben) on web blogs and when I asked about the etiquette, the response was “Es ist alles egal.”
Hallo Alfred, I think online it’s more common to see the casual “du” instead of the formal “Sie”. I remember Knigge picking up the use of “du” in emails and online – as well as a general trend in a more lenient use of capitalisations – and they reminded everyone to treat emails like physical letters, which would make the use inappropriate in a business setting. I do think the “du” is more commonly used in the German society as a whole these days and it might as well be because of the internet, blogs and social media especially. Thank you for your comment 🙂