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German Business Culture

International business relationships and starting a job abroad are two of the biggest expat challenges. Before entering German business culture, many may expect certain clichés: rude and arrogant or bureaucratic and dull. In fact, Germany’s business world is far more appealing. Navigate it safely with our tips!
Formality, seniority, and hierarchy can still be important values in German business culture.

Arranging a Meeting

To start your working relationship with a company in Germany, you have to arrange an appointment first. Since German business etiquette does not approve much of spontaneity, remember to plan ahead.

Arrange the time and date of your meeting about two weeks before it’s supposed to take place. The holiday seasons around Christmas and Easter, as well as August (popular among Germans for their summer vacation), are not a good time for important negotiations or for a work-related trip to Germany.

Please note that German business culture favors the European convention for writing dates and numbers. Correspondence is often rather formal, and you should use the correct title and form of address.

  • Use formal greetings and titles and the polite kind of address (Sie).
  • Make sure your subject line is easy to understand and to the point.
  • Include a signature with your job position, contact information, and e-mail.
  • Don’t send any unsolicited e-mail attachments.

If you prefer direct communication to written correspondence, just make a phone call. In Germany, always start by saying your own name before asking to speak to another person.

The receptionist is more likely to redirect you to management if you clearly state the reason for your call and refer to any initial contact between your company and your partners in Germany. In international companies, receptionists and office assistants usually speak English, but this may not always be the case.

The predominant language in Germany’s office world is, obviously, German. Most upper-level executives or younger Germans with international experience speak English with near-fluency, though.

However, older Germans in particular may be uncomfortable with using an international lingua franca in their native country. Germany’s younger generation, on the other hand, will not mind conducting a meeting in English or another foreign language. Check which option your contacts prefer and if you need an interpreter or translator.

Dress Code

When you prepare for a meeting, you’ll want to make sure that you meet the dress code in German offices. Erring on the conservative side, especially in finance or insurance, is a useful rule of thumb.

  • Men wear a dark suit with a white or light-blue shirt and a tasteful tie.
  • Women go for a pantsuit or a blazer/skirt combination in black, navy, or beige, with a simple blouse or elegant shirt. Tight or revealing clothing is frowned upon. Don’t forget the pantyhose!
  • Both genders should avoid ostentatious jewelry, as well as visible tattoos or piercings (a pair of earrings for women excepted).
  • Choose neat, clean clothing and well-polished, sturdy shoes. Women wear closed pumps with lower heels in black, dark blue, brown, or beige.

This dress code doesn’t apply to German business etiquette as a whole, though. Lots of blue-collar workers wear a work uniform anyway.

White-collar employees at a lower hierarchical level or back office assistants without customer contact often dress less formally. In many start-ups, IT companies, or advertising agencies, casual or trendy clothing is perfectly acceptable. Just have a look at what everybody else is wearing, and choose your own clothes accordingly.

Meetings 101

Apart from adhering to the dress code, you should arrive well-prepared. If you need any special office equipment, for instance for a presentation, you should enquire for it well before the meeting.

The preferred venue for a formal meeting is a conference room. If you are invited to a German office, there are some cultural particularities to take into account: "open-door policies" are not common everywhere.

Privacy is highly respected. Do not barge into an individual office for informal interaction unless you know the other person really well. Rather knock on a closed door and wait until asked to enter, or ask the office assistant for access to executive staff.

Most meetings take place during office hours in Germany, i.e. between 8 am or 9 am and 5 pm or 6 pm, although employees have some flexibility in scheduling and structuring their work day. Please also note that while local culture places an emphasis on hard work, Germans often prefer to keep the evening free from business commitments.

Furthermore, in accordance with all stereotypes about Germany, punctuality is essential. It’s better to be five to ten minutes early than to keep your contacts waiting.

 

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