Do-s & Don′t-s: Etiquette in Austria
Etiquette has been a big deal in upper-class Austria especially during imperial times. These days, you need to discriminate between fake-etiquette that is used to show off with “how cultured” Austria is, and actual social expectations regulating the behaviours of individuals.
Etiquette is mostly transmitted within families and therefore strongly dependent on the social background of a person. Some people care more about manners and etiquette than others. Tourists and international visitors are normally treated with much tolerance and patience.
If you speak German, a more detailed understanding of Austrian′s customs regarding etiquette is expected. In the following paragraphs you will find the basics of good manners. They are more than enough for the average tourist.
Let your host introduce you or – if by yourself – introduce yourself. Shake handswith the people you meet and look into their eyes. Kissing a lady′s hand is still seen in Vienna, but of the “showing-off” category and anachronistic in my view. If a man in Austria (and the countries of the former Empire) kisses a hand, he ideally waits until the hand is presented to him (the lady decides how high she wants to lift the hand or how far she wants the gentleman to bow).
The man than takes the hand and moves his face just above the hand′s back. Traditionally, the lips do NOT touch the hand. Most Austrians that kiss hands today don′t know how to do it properly and embarrass themselves. Stick with the handshake, I would say.
Ladies (Damen) are referred to as “Frau” and the name (for example, “Frau Österreich”). Gentlemen (Herren) are referred to as “Herr” and the name (for example, “Herr Österreich”).
Formal You & Casual You:
There are two ways of approaching people with “you” in German, “du” (casual)and “Sie” (formal). If you know German, you know this. If you don′t, but chose to learn some phrases, make sure to learn them the formal way to avoid sounding rude.
Titles & Degrees:
Austria has an impressive list of 819 titles and degrees. Many people get their title or academic degree included in their passports and they even a master (“Magister”) degree is written before the name. Most titles are used instead of a name when referring to a person directly, for example “Herr Magister” or “Frau Doktor”. Recent years saw the arrival of the Anglo-American “MA”, “PhD” or other “new” degrees. Most elderly Austrians are confused by these and try to translate them.
Greeting & Thanks:
Formally “Grüß Gott” (“May God greet you”, typical for Austria an Bavaria) or casually “Servus” for hello and good-bye. “Danke” means “thanks” and “Bitte”means please, you also respond with it to thanks (as with “you are welcome”). “Auf Wiedersehen” is the formal phrase for saying good-bye. Greet and thank when entering a shop, leaving a bus and at all other occasions when interacting with people.
This is socially dependent. Traditionally, a gentleman would open doors for a lady, help her into the coat, move her chair, and so on. This is good etiquette, and is still common in certain social environments in Austria. However, especially among left-wing, feminist women, such behaviour can be seen as patronising and anachronistic. If in doubt, just ask. Personally, I prefer the conservative way, but found compromises with the (few) feminists among my friends.
Austria is among the lucky countries in which train delays of five minutes get announced at the platforms with an apology. Punctuality is a big deal and you should call your host if you are running late. For dinners, 5 to 15 minutes delay would be generally tolerated – being later than 15 minutes might upset your host.
In terms of cutlery, start with the outside first and work your way to the centre course by course. Dessert spoon and fork are behind the plate. At formal occasions, wait until the “chair” (alpha-male, officer in chief, capo de tutti capi or whoever is the most senior person on the table) nods towards the table or takes knife and fork to invite everyone at the table to join in eating.
Most Austrians will start with “Mahlzeit” or “Guten Appetit” (bon appetite), which is polite to wait for in most occasions, but inappropriate at very posh, formal dinners (I have been told off once for wishing a friend bon appetite at a casual dinner at home, so be aware that some people take this matter serious). Keep your hands on the table during dinner, but not the elbows.
In taxis, restaurants and other areas, service charges are usually included. Austrians make even numbers on bills by tipping less than 10 percent. For example, having a meal for 12.60 Euro would typically result in a payment of 13 Euros.
Religion & Churches:
Use common sense and behave respectfully. Obviously no shouting in churches, no running around, ideally no naked legs or shoulders (although especially touristy areas in Austria are more laid-back about that than countries of the Mediterranean).
Public Nudity & Topless Action:
Public nudity is wide-spread in media and advertising in all of Western Europe, Austria is no exception. It is a matter of your environment if personal nudity is appropriate or not. As a rule of the thumb, look at locals′ behaviours and follow their example. At pools and lakes, there is often a “FKK” zone for nude swimming.
Social Implications of Etiquette
If you ask Austrians about an upper-class, it is likely that they will look at you somewhat confused and refer you to the wide middle-class and the longstanding socialist traditions that effectively eliminated at least the most pressing poverty. Upper-class as a concept is something strange to Austria – and yet there are few countries that have a stronger correlation in education or income and life expectancy, income of children, social status, and so on, than the German-speaking countries.
I am always fascinated how well the upper-class is ignored in Austria and yet maintains its behavioural and social rituals that often date back to the days of the monarchy. If an Austrian tells you that there is no real upper-class in this country, ask how many friends he has that went to one of Vienna′s international schools; ask about the last time he went to the Salzburg Festival; if he would feel comfortable dining and using the correct cutlery in one of Salzburg′s top-restaurants; or if he has heard of the “Adelsclubs” of Vienna (associations for Austria′s ex-nobility). If there′s no upper-class in Austria – who is involved in these things?
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