Don’t worry if some German businesspeople seem slightly aloof, correct and rather blunt at the same time. Hierarchy, directness, and a certain measure of separation between work and private life are essential values in German business culture.
The first obstacle is finding the correct form of address. The German language strictly distinguishes between two ways of talking to others:
However, the same advice we have given for business wear applies here, too: Rules differ from company to company; it’s always recommended to be a bit formal at first and then gradually follow the example set by others.
Germans are often straightforward and assertive in a business setting, but they may not make too much small talk. They don’t appreciate unnecessary levity in important discussions, and they might avoid mentioning intimate details from their private lives.
If you’d like to break the ice, they will probably like chatting about international travel, sports in Germany (especially football/soccer), business issues, or hobbies such as going to the movies or hiking and outdoor activities. You should avoid potentially controversial topics like religion in Germany and political debates. Allusions to the country’s Nazi past and its role in the World Wars are taboo – even in joking.
Greet your business partners and German co-workers with a firm handshake, a brief nod, and a polite smile, but respect their need for physical distance and personal space. Germans do not make many sweeping movements, emphatic gestures, or overly enthusiastic displays of emotion; they can get confused or even irritated if you do.
In the previous paragraphs, we have already touched upon the qualities distinctive of making business in Germany. Here is a brief overview of what you will encounter in German business etiquette:
All in all, you can rely on the German tendency to be interested in long-term relationships. Once they have made a commitment, they will try to develop a mutually beneficial relationship based on trust.
While many Germans won’t shed their general reserve too quickly, you may at times be invited for business occasions in a more casual setting, especially over food and drinks.
The most common occasion is business lunch at a restaurant. Meeting over breakfast, brunch, or dinner is slightly less usual, although you may get invited to after-work drinks. A business lunch normally takes place between noon and 3 pm, and the mood is warmer and more relaxed than during your typical meeting.
This is an excellent opportunity to get to know your German contacts a little better. If you have received an official invite, your host will insist on paying the bill. Don’t start eating before your hosts have wished you Guten Appetit! (‘Enjoy your meal!’). Also wait and see if they would like to make a toast. It’s considered rude to avoid tipping.
Even in the context of friendly business situations, gift-giving is often inappropriate. Everything that might oblige the recipient is either taboo or downright illegal.
However, when negotiations have been successfully concluded or if you have become friends with a German business contact, a small present (e.g. a souvenir from your home country, some chocolates for the office staff, flowers for a helpful assistant, etc.) might be acceptable. Employees in government institutions are strictly forbidden to accept anything, though.
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