Earlier this month, I posted a blog about the cultural faux pas I committed in Germany when using the wrong form of “you” (the informal “du”, instead of the formal “Sie”) in an exchange with a stranger.
This week, I’m going to continue the series by telling you about another cultural faux pas I committed – but this time, it was actually on American soil!
Over the holidays, my German-born husband, Mike, and I met up with a couple of his German friends in a nearby city. On the first night of our stay, we went out to dinner at a local pub. The style of the restaurant was casual – you’d order your drinks and food at the counter, and then take a number back to your seat so that the server knew where to find you.
My husband and I ordered first, and then I scouted out a place to sit while Mike helped his friends finish their order. While I settled into the booth, my drink order arrived ahead of the food. Parched from an hour of walking, I started to sip my drink as I waited for the others. Within a few minutes, the rest of the group arrived – as well as their drink order. It was at that point that Mike’s friend, Florian, lifted his glass in a toast. I looked around and realized that I was the only one who had touched my drink up until that point.
A few minutes later, my food and my husband’s food arrived. As is customary, we waited to eat until his friends’ orders were also delivered. Once everyone had their dishes, we started to dig in. I could tell from the look on our guests' faces that they seemed surprised that we had waited so long to start. A few moments later, Mike leaned forward explained: “in the States, people generally don’t start eating until everyone’s food is on the table. But you usually start your drink as soon as it arrives.”
“Ahhh!” responded both of his friends in unison. I could tell from the look on their faces that they now understood why I had started my drink in advance of them. But I did feel slightly embarrassed about my own cultural oblivion and the fact that I may have come off rude to our guests.
Throughout the course of their stay, I made sure to follow the European etiquette and held off starting my drink until customary toast had passed – at least at the beginning of dinner. Breakfast and lunch were often less formal.
I also found that the toast itself generally plays out differently in the German culture than an American would expect. Signaling the beginning of a meal, the toast is a sign of respect that can be preceded by “zum Wohl” (to your health), “Prost” (cheers) or a message to your guests. Glasses are clinked one-by-one (rather than in a group cluster) and you must be sure to look the other person in the eye when you tap their glass. If you think I am kidding about this, just try it in Germany. Chances are, the other person won’t let you get away with averted eyes – lest you both suffer seven years bad luck, as says the widely-known old wives tale!
So you can be sure that next time I’m in Germany – or the next time I host German guests – I’ll leave my glass put until the meal officially begins. And if a toast is involved, I’ll definitely be making eye contact! Prost!
Have you ever experienced a cultural faux pas? Share your story and we may feature it on our blog!