Today marks the first day of a new, irregular series of posts I’m calling “How to Vienna”, “Vienna” playing the role of a verb because there is indeed a right way to Vienna, and a wrong way. And though I’m a big proponent of learning through trial and error (mostly error in my case), it can still be helpful to know about the ins and outs of a culture different from your own prior to an upcoming visit or move. The series will cover a variety of topics – german classes, walking down the street (yes, it’s necessary), public transportation, clothing – to name a few, and will be written based on my 4 years of mistake-making experience as well as fact-checked by my Austrian friends beforehand.
To kick off the first entry of the series, how about we start at the very beginning of Vienna 101: greetings and goodbyes.
The first time I ever walked into a Viennese grocery store, I was immediately filled with a rush of fear as every employee in my vicinity loudly said something in German, in unison, upon my entry. “Grüß Gott!”, literally translated to “Greet God”, is one of the most common greetings you’ll hear around the city rather than the “Guten Tag” you may have learned from Rosetta Stone or the movies.
- Grüß Gott = Austria, Guten Tag = Germany
Another Austrian greeting you may hear is “Servus”, or “Servas” depending on the Austrian who’s saying it. It’s just another, less formal way of saying hello.
When someone greets you with Grüß Gott, Servus, or simply “Hallo”, the expectation is for you to greet them back. If you get spooked like I did because of your lack of German knowledge, just try to repeat back what they said to you. Your accent will most likely give you away anyway which will help them to understand why your eyes are so wide.
Once you get past the initial greeting and move on to a more conversational level, always use the formal “Sie/Ihenen” when talking to a person you don’t know. This is especially important if you’re talking to someone older than you, and especially-especially important if the person is elderly, because that probably means they’re traditional and expect a traditional greeting. I’ve been told that the language here is changing thanks to millennials who are more keen to skip past tradition and go right to the informal “Du”, but not everyone is at that place yet, so don’t assume you can “Du” with an Austrian grandma unless you’re curious about what it’s like to be told off in public. (Note: It’s terrifying.) In addition to using the formal Sie/Ihnen, it’s your job to wait for whoever the Sie/Ihnen is to let you know it’s okay to switch to the informal Du. I am TERRIBLE at remembering to do this. In the U.S., you is you is you is you. There’s no formal and informal way to say it. You’re just you. But here I get all kinds of flustered when I have to use Sie/Ihnen and figure, We’ve been talking for 5 minutes so we’re good to go ahead and switch, right? I may be right, but I may also be wrong. Follow their lead and Du what they tell you. (Eh? EH?)
- Use Sie/Ihnen when you’re meeting someone new and/or older than you
- Ask “Siezen oder duzen wir?” if you’re eager to switch to the informal; by doing this you’re politely asking “Are we being formal or informal during this conversation?”
- Exceptions to the rule (that I know of) are:
- at Lush, because employees are trained to jump over the formal and straight to friendship
- most non-traditional coffee shops
- hangouts with friends of friends (ask your friends about it first)
- informal church settings (ex: I go to a house church so the setting is very chill and informal, and as a church family we’re all at the same “level” so to speak, so the Sie/Ihnen is bypassed with the part-of-the-family Du. This may not be the case for all churches so check with an Austrian friend before you attend.)
Expect to be thrown off your guard a bit when you receive an honest, blunt answer to the question “How are you?”. In the U.S., “how are you” is another polite way of saying hey. If someone were to tell us for real how they were doing, it would be kind of strange, specifically if it were coming from someone we’d never met. In Vienna, you can expect the truth no matter the relationship. Sometimes the answer to “how are you” is what you expect – “I’m good, thanks!”, while other times it’s “Not too good, actually. My cat just died and I’ve got an enormous headache and work has been terrible lately, I stubbed my toe this morning and my favorite show got cancelled. You?” The honesty can be overwhelming at first, but over time you may start to appreciate the lack of sugar-coating that goes on around here. No games, just the straight up truth.
You may also be surprised by being greeted in places you weren’t expecting. Like I am still not used to being greeted in elevators. Not everyone does it, but it’s enough to make me think, Oh yeah. This is a thing. Waiting rooms, too. Definitely a thing, still not used to it, and always forget about it every. time.
If you’re in a more intimate setting, like brunch with friends or at church, really any meet up of some kind, it’s polite to greet everyone individually, including those you don’t know. If you know someone well, it’s culturally polite to greet them with a kiss on each cheek, starting with the left side. It’s not necessarily a literal kiss, but more of a kiss noise when your cheek meets theirs. Just do how they do it in the movies, basically. If you’re meeting someone for the first time, keep it to a handshake.
Back to the cheek-kissing for just a second. When switching from the left cheek to go to the right cheek, pull back or embarrassing things can happen, like unintentional lip touching as was my case. The greet-kiss was new to me so I was still trying to master the swiftness of the movement, and early on in my attempts at being a natural greet-kisser, I failed hard and totally kissed a good male friend of ours smack on the lips in the middle of the left-to-right cheek switch. It took me weeks to greet him like he wasn’t carrying a contagious disease. So to reiterate: kiss, PULL BACK, kiss.
- In a group setting, greet everyone present
- Women “greet-kiss” or “bussi” other women and men, left cheek first then the right
- Men “greet-kiss” or “bussi” women, shake hands with or hug men
Last Sunday Baby Lucy and I went to house church without Will and Elliott because Elliott was sick. My throat tickled before Lucy and I left, but by the time we made it to the church apartment, my head felt like a balloon. I tried to pay attention but it wasn’t going to be my day. Thoughts of home filled my congested head, so I started to prepare for my and Lucy’s exit, which began with counting the number of people who were at church that day.
1, 2, 3,…
That may sound like a weird thing to do when thinking about going home. But if you need to know how much time to give yourself before you pack up and leave a setting where your presence is easily noticed, there’s no shame in a quick body count. With other Americans, I can assume it’ll take me about 2 to 3 seconds to tell them goodbye. A quick “See ya!” will usually suffice. With Austrians, however, I can usually assume it’ll take at least 1 minute or more to part ways. And since it’s expected that you tell each individual in the room goodbye, I set aside time that both allows me to say my goodbyes and catch the next necessary bus without having to rush. Have you ever overheard an Austrian get off the phone with someone? If you haven’t noticed before, try to invisibly eavesdrop the next time you spot someone on the phone in the U-Bahn, then count the number of times they say some form of “bye” before they actually get off the phone. Just like there’s the possibility of there not being a quick answer to “how are you”, the same can be true upon your departure. It’s possible to have a mini-conversation all in one goodbye, and that’s not including your responses, which probably take longer because German. If you forget to do this, don’t beat yourself up too much. It has taken me 4 years to remember to tell everyone in the room goodbye, and I still fail. Who knew greetings and goodbyes would take so much practice??
- Give yourself time to tell each individual goodbye; in other words, don’t say “Ciao!” and take off
- The same kiss/handshake/hug greetings are appropriate and expected for goodbyes
- Exceptions to the individual goodbyes rule are:
- kids – If you have kids who clearly need to get home, most will understand and a quick wave and loud “Tschüß” will be fine
- illness – They’ll understand
- emergencies – Of course
- large groups – Sometimes you just can’t say bye to everyone
There are formal and informal ways to say goodbye. (I know, the formal vs. informal is kind of exhausting, but you’ll catch on.) It’s the same with Sie/Ihnen: reserve Wiedersehen, Wiederhören (for when you’re on the phone), or Wiederschauen for those you don’t know or for whom you just met. Phrases like “Schönen Tag/Abend noch” (Have a great day/evening) or “Schönes Wochenende” (Have a great weekend) are fine for both formal and informal goodbyes. And there are a number of ways to informally say your goodbyes.
- Reserve goodbyes such as Wiedersehen, Wiederhören (for when you’re on the phone), or Wiederschauen for your Sies and Ihnens
- “Schönen Tag/Abend noch” is accepted across the board
- If you are at the receiving end of this phrase, an easy and polite way to respond is with words like “Ebenso”, “Ebenfalls”, or “Gleichfalls”, all of which means “likewise”. You can also bring back the formal with “Ihnen auch” which means “you too”
- Tschüß, Bussi, Dickes Bussi, Ciao, Baba are the common ways to say goodbye to the Dus in your life
- Extra points for wishing “Schöne Grüße an” someone who is not present (If your friend is at brunch but his wife, for example, is not, it’s kind to tell the husband to please tell his wife that you said hello.)
That about covers it. Hopefully this will aid you during your first few weeks in the city or days touring. Keep in mind that though the cultural expectations of this city are the same, how or when Austrians say hello and goodbye does not apply to all Austrians, just like “Americans are so loud” doesn’t apply to every American (…but probably most). An Austrian may greet you in an elevator, the next may not. Another may take just a few seconds to tell you bye, another may not. These are merely my observations and experiences which will be different from your own. Remember that no one is the same –
except Austrian grandmas. They keep this city in check and are to be respectfully feared.
If you’ve got a great story about messing up a greeting and/or goodbye, please tell me. I can’t be the only one who’s accidentally kissed someone.