Germans are known for being organised, methodical and rigorous in the way they plan their work day and personal lives. This extends to the notoriousness that German planning and punctuality plays in their culture, whether that be for their train to work running on time or for turning up in a timely manner to an official appointment.
Let’s take a look at how the cultural trait of being on time and advance planning plays out in various common scenarios which expats will almost certainly find themselves in.
German Punctuality: Planning you can set your watch by
I learnt this one the hard way. It’s normal for German colleagues to arrive 5-10 minutes early, stand awkwardly by the coffee machine or shuffle papers, check their phones and such whilst waiting for other attendees to arrive, and then meetings typically start promptly on the hour.
There is usually not much small talk of what you did at the weekend, how are the kids, did your team win? Perhaps a round of introductions if some attendees do not know everyone, and then straight into item 1 on the agenda. And yes, there will almost always be a detailed agenda, sent in advance.
While this may sound excruciatingly obvious, BE ON TIME.
If somebody’s business relies on timed appointment slots throughout the day (doctors, tax advisors, lawyers etc), then keeping them waiting is lost revenue from other customers they could have seen due to your inability to get your shit together.
This isn’t just a German punctuality thing, it’s just good manners!
The same is applicable for appointments with government bureaucracy. If you need some paperwork to be signed or approved by an unfriendly and / or bored civil servant, don’t give them an excuse to make your life difficult.
Yes, it’s irritating, especially when you may have been made to wait for them, but it is what it is. If you achieve what you want to from the meeting, then it’s worth it, right?
Going to someone’s home
Be on time. Check in advance how to get there, where the nearest bus or tram stop is or what parking is like. Being late is considered rude in the eyes of your German host. Unless they say “come anytime after 5” or “around 7”, then anything other than being punctual is not the done thing.
It’s not the same as in English or American culture where a given time basically means come any time after this, preferably about 15-30 minutes later. The culture of German punctuality means the other guests will all plan to arrive there at the set time. If it’s a dinner invite, this is even more important. And most definitely the complete opposite to Latin culture, where the time has little bearing on when anybody actually shows up and is almost taken the other way, meaning don’t show up before this time but any time afterwards is OK, whenever that may be!
On the other side of the fence, if you are inviting German guests to your home, bear in mind that the time that you tell them in the invitation will be taken literally as the time they will be there. Don’t get caught still in the shower or cleaning your apartment when your first guests show up!
Meeting at a restaurant
If you are meeting for dinner, the usual etiquette is to be reasonably punctual. Nobody is going to get annoyed if you arrive 15 minutes late (unless it’s just 2 of you, then be on time!), but any longer than that could be interpreted as inconsiderate in the etiquette of German punctuality. This is certainly the case if it is a reasonably large group and everybody is hungry, and waiting for you before they all order food. If you’re running late, it is polite to message the host and to tell them to proceed without you and that you will order your food separately when you arrive.
Don’t be surprised to be invited to a German friend’s birthday party months in advance!
And if this does happen, don’t accept out of politeness and then flake on them at the last minute. Better to say no (they won’t be offended) than to commit and disappoint. This is considered rude in German culture.
It is normal in Germany for the birthday boy or girl to pay for drinks or the buffet, depending on what type of setting and celebration it is. No-shows or last minute drop outs are, as you could imagine, pretty inconsiderate. Certainly if it is a “round birthday” (runde Geburtstag) i.e. a 30th, 40th etc, then a lot of planning, organisation and financial commitment will have gone into this, often to the sum of several hundred Euro.
If it’s just a casual barbecue where everyone meets in a park and brings their own stuff, then turning up later than the planned time or not giving a firm commitment is not such a big deal. Otherwise, make sure you get there on time.
The general rule here is to be on time. Many online dating profiles actually will state lack of punctuality as one of the turn-offs! It just reinforces how this is a cultural trait which is held in very high esteem by Germans. Dating is also a great way to immerse yourself into speaking German, if you’re struggling with learning the traditional ways.
For someone who generally struggles a bit with punctuality, this one was a killer for me. The first time I turned up for a date 10 minutes late, I had to do a lot of grovelling and on subsequent dates it was always brought up as a reminder!
Ladies, you will be cut a bit more slack than us blokes, but even German guys will not tolerate you turning up half an hour late. Unless, that is, you REALLY are a good catch!
Another good tip here is to reserve a table at the bar or restaurant you are intending to meet at or go to. This being Germany, the land of planning, if you turn up spontaneously at a popular bar or restaurant without a reservation, especially at the weekend, then you and your date might not get a table. I suspect this is not exactly the first impression you want to make?
So there you have it. An interesting fact to conclude here is that for German expats living abroad, one of the most frustrating aspects of life for them is the lack of punctuality in their host countries’ cultures! The saying of “Ordnung muss sein”, roughly translated as “order must prevail”, is just one more example of this: Germans just don’t do chaos.