I was thinking of An American in Achen's post about life in Germany last night. I wanted to add one more thing to her list. There are rules of social etiquette in Germany. Chances are that you will not know anything about them when you get here, and then when you violate them, Germans will look at you like you were raised by a pack of wolves.
Important German Social Etiquette Rule: When you enter a room (including a room of family!) you must go around the room and shake hands with EVERYBODY, starting with the most senior person in the room (oldest) and all the women.
I violate this rule all the time!
Another trip down memory lane . . . Bad Zwischenahn, Spring 2003.
It was Easter. The German and I had been together for about 4 months and we had already talked about marriage (yes, things moved quickly between us). I knew all of his family and had even met his extended family including the matriarch, Oma (Grandma). This women is tiny, but she wasn't afraid of the Red Army in East Prussia and she isn't afraid of this American. She is a very imposing person for someone so small.
I had been invited to Oma's for Easter Brunch. This was a big deal. My first meeting with the family did not go so well. They were a little suspect of me because the German broke up with his girlfriend (a good German girl) before we got together. I was determined to impress.
When we got to the house, I shook a few hands and was immediately paralyzed by fear. Then I started to stand off to the side. I felt very awkward and had no clue what to say. It doesn't help that some of them speak Plattdeutsch with each other (Lower German, a dialect spoken in northern Germany which is actually closer to Dutch and English than German).
In my self-conscious state, I forgot to shake Oma's hand. She sort of glared at me and did not say much. The German explained to me latter what I had done wrong. I don't know why, but eventually she warmed-up to me, and now I consider her my own Oma.
I don't get the handshaking thing with family. When I see my aunts, uncles, cousins and grandpa in Michigan, I give them a hug. I would never shake their hand. In fact, I am sure my Uncle Curt would make fun of me for the rest of my life if I did. If I shook my mother's hand? She would ask me if I was angry with her and then ask me if I was on crack.
I have started my greetings with Oma with a hug, like I would with my own family. It has brought us closer together. I am one of the few people who does that and I think that she enjoys it.
So dear, Germany bound traveler, remember to shake when entering a room. Oh, and try not to bring up George W. It can also lead to uncomfortable situations.