Doing business successfully in Germany – from a German perspective

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I recently asked my German IT participants in a multinational company to do a bit of brainstorming about their ideas for what it takes to be successful when doing business with Germans. Here are some of the ideas they found important. Of course the list is by no means exhaustive. While researching this topic, my participants and I found one website in particular to be very helpful You can find more useful cultural information about Germany and other European countries on this site.

Recognize that different people have different language abilities and try to be accommodating

Just because someone can create beautifully formed sentences or can speak very rapidly doesn’t mean that these skills are also appreciated by others learning the language. Although English is taught in schools, not everyone has the same skills. One’s expectations and the reality might not match up. Be aware of this and be able to adjust accordingly. It will improve business relationships immensely.

Stating issues or asking questions initially is often appreciated in email form first

Germans sometimes feel self-conscious about their language skills and tend to downplay their real abilities. However, receiving initial information in written form is often appreciated due to understanding issues like accents, rate of speed, potentially unfamiliar vocabulary, etc. After the first email has been sent, however, it is sometimes useful to clarify unclear points with a telephone call.

Don’t underestimate the value of clear, direct communication

Germans like clarity and security. This can be seen in the preferred communication style too. Unlike some cultures where “No” is never stated even if that is what is meant, this isn’t the case in Germany. It is highly respected when you are able to give clear, concise answers to questions. If you mean “No” then say “No” and vice versa. Don’t be surprised if conversations are very direct or even blunt. This is considered normal and valuable.

Know at least a little bit about potentially sensitive topics

Although Germans usually highly regard directness, there are certain topics that you should avoid being very direct about. These include asking about salaries, sharing too much personal information or expecting to be asked out for drinks after a meeting, just to name a few.

Time is very important in Germany

Meetings generally start on time, efficiency is highly valued, and people tend to try to restrict the amount of work they do during the evening hours. While there are exceptions of course, the statements above are often the norm. Although many things have been standardized in Germany, shop opening hours do not necessarily fall into this category. Be aware that shops will not be open later than listed (and might not even let you in 10 minutes before closing time), that lunch times vary, as do opening hours in general. This is true for shops and offices alike.

The role of a meeting might be different than expected

In many English-speaking countries, meetings are places for open discussion and sharing of opinions. This often isn’t the case in Germany. Depending on the participants (i.e. managerial positions, hierarchy etc.), meetings can be a method used to inform others of decisions or deadlines, to communicate roles and responsibilities or to give status updates. When participants are part of a working group at the same hierarchical level, there is often more discussion among members. The tone is usually formal and you are expected to be prepared and only contribute when asked to do so.

More cultural insights

Do you work with other nationalities? Which tips would you add to our list? We’d like to hear from you!

If you are interested to read more about working with different cultures, here are a few suggestions:

2 replies
  1. Gerhard
    Gerhard says:

    Answering your question, Will: You can’t use the first name, if you don’t know the person. Even when you met the person half a year ago for a little chat of 1 or 2 minutes, it is uncommon, in my opinion, to use the first name, because of this. There must be some sort of relationship!

  2. Will
    Will says:

    Extremely valuable post Lynn. Two more points need to be included: firstly, the role of small talk in meetings. In Germany, small talk is usually seen as a waste of time, unprofessional and irrelevant. What counts is achieving all targets on the agenda in an efficient and timely manner. Chatting is something for after work, or break times.

    The second “USP” of German business culture is that when writing emails, the name of the addressee should be included, e.g. “Dear Dr Dover,”. If the greeting is lacking, it is considered sheer rudeness. Obviously, after the initial email in a chain of correspondence it is not necessary to write a greeting every time. Titles and surnames also tend to be used much more than in other cultures, which indicates respect for the contact partner. There is a clearer divide between formal and informal business relationships.

    Finally: a question for all readers: Do you think this practice is changing, becoming more similar to the Anglo-Saxon model? Can you write to colleagues you don’t know using their first names?

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