Monday, March 4, 2019

Manners and Etiquette: Knigge Part 1

In German, Knigge represents proper social behavior one should practice in pleasant company. The term comes from the man who first published in Germany a manual for etiquette in 1788: Adolf Freiherr von Knigge. His work was called Über den Umgang mit Menschen (On Interaction with People). I found this topic interesting enough to buy this book a few months ago, being mainly curious how German Knigge would compare to the way I was brought up.

In this weekend's newspaper were two articles about Knigge, including an interview with Clemens Graf von Hoyos, chairperson of the 300-member Deutsche-Knigge-Gesellschaft (German-Etiquette-Society). Thanks to their society German Knigge also provides guidelines for things Freiherr Knigge could not have imagined in 1788 such as online and Smartphone Knigge, escalator use, and travel/airplane etiquette.

Ok, despite Elke Stadler, Knigge-Trainerin, ending her article by saying that we common folk should not go about instructing others (especially publicly) on which rules they are breaking and how they should behave, I thought I'd share with my fair readers what I've learned!

Keep in mind that etiquette rules are different from country to country, and at home we may all do as we damn well please. But to avoid the problems Julia Roberts faced in "Pretty Woman" when out in higher society than we're used to, Knigge tips and guidelines can be helpful.

Things to Avoid (??)

"Guten Appetit"

Wait, what?!? It is ingrained in every German's psyche not to dig into a plate of food without waiting for someone - parents, waitress, table companion - to say "Guten Appetit"! They and I will go on wishing a "Guten Appetit" no matter what Frau Stadler says. The reasoning behind why this is sketchy is what caught my attention. In earlier times it was a serious faux pas to say this to nobles because it called the quality of the food and kitchen staff into question! There was no need to wish wealthy people a "good appetite" because that came from the delicious and aromatic victuals all by itself. 

Commoners, however, were forced to eat whatever they could find or buy with their meager funds, and their food was often near-to rotting scraps and leftovers. The phrase "Guten Appetit" amounted to: "I hope your appetite is strong enough to force that food down." Now, even in that context "Guten Appetit" fits well as a Swabian compliment, so in our house we will continue to use it.


This is a common phrase coworkers or bosses say as they leave the office or meeting for their lunch break. There is no equivalent in English, although it translates to "meal time." The closest in English would be "Time to eat!"

So what's wrong with this one? This time the explanation is very modern, although the origin of the phrase comes from monasteries and convents. Monks and nuns usually kept a very tight routine and were directed about by church bells and chimes because of course they didn't have watches or Smartphones to tell them what time it was. "Mahlzeit" was a reminder that it was now time to eat pray and then eat. Obviously nowadays as we are surrounded by clocks, computers, Smartwatches, mobile phones, etc., we do not need to go about telling other people what time it is or announcing our intentions to go check out what's in the Kantine.

Many people these days are trying to pay better attention to their health, fitness, and eating habits. Quite a few of your coworkers may choose to use their lunch noon break to go for a walk, meditate, work out, or take a power-nap, and therefore reminding them of a meal is rather out of place for the same reason you wouldn't tell someone "Enjoy the donuts I brought!" when you know he is on a diet or fasting for any reason.

We should probably stop posting food pictures, too.

Our Knigge-Trainerin recommends saying "Guten Mittag" or "Angenehme Mittagspause" instead, wishing your colleague a "good noon" or "pleasant noon break".

Anstoßen mit Gläsern

This is clinking glasses with each other before taking your first sip of wine, beer, etc. We're back to the Middle Ages for this one.

We're doing this wrong anyway -
we're supposed to look at each other, not the camera.
And M was trying not to spill and waste the beer.
When enemy knights found themselves face-to-face unexpectedly, there were often subtle exchanges that amounted to threats - an indication one wanted to fight or even kill the other. When they banged their mugs together, the intent was that some of the brew would slosh over into the adversary's mug. When both drank - holding eye contact, of course! - it was an assurance that neither beverage was poisoned.

These days our glasses are more delicate than back then, and there is a good chance a too-enthusiastic bump will cause damage. Since we generally no longer need to prove to others that we haven't poisoned their drinks, it is better nowadays for the group to lift their glasses, make direct eye contact with everyone round the table, and say a collective "Zum Wohl!"


Oh, come on! I was taught saying this to a poor sap who sneezed is politeness!! I actually first heard about a movement to get people to stop saying this while still in the US. There the idea was that we should not draw attention to someone else's bodily functions. We don't say anything when the bloke next to us coughs or farts, after all...

The Knigge-Trainerin says allergy-sufferers will sing this one from rooftops! The idea is to not publicly point out someone else's weakness. By saying "Gesundheit!" every time someone sneezes, we are bringing unnecessary attention to an uncontrollable reflex, which the poor chap is all too aware of. During allergy season or when someone is sick (in which case she should rather keep her germs at home), it is a nuisance to have someone respond every time the sufferer sneezes!

Just for fun, I'm going to list a few no-noes at the table from the Knigge book pictured above which I had not ever really thought about but now know go against German Knigge, at least when adults do them. I would venture to guess many/most of my Landsleute don't give a thought to any of the following either, except those in high society.

One should not...
  • take a drink before the host/ess has given a toast.
  • cut spaghetti noodles with a knife.
  • cut meat (such as meat loaf) with a fork.
  • salt or pepper the food before tasting it.
  • park your cutlery resting on your plate with the handle on the table.
  • hold your wine glass above the stem.
  • blow on the food to cool it.

I'm jetting off to visit my kids this week (with apologies to Greta and Co.), and when I return I'll surely have Part 2 of this post ready - concerning travel Knigge. Assuming I don't end up in the slammer for drubbing the twits sitting near me, of course.

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