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Business Etiquette and Values in Germany
Meet and Greet
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:
- Use du and a person’s given name for family members, friends, and children. In a business setting, the polite way of making conversation is the wiser choice.
- Use Sie for strangers, very casual acquaintances, business partners, your bosses, your elders, and other people you treat with respect. Address these people with Herr (Mr) or Frau (Ms), their title and their family name (e.g. Frau Doktor Meier).
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:
- Formality and a certain lack of flexibility: This does not only mean arriving on time for a meeting, greeting everyone politely, and sticking to the agenda. Germans are also hierarchical in their decision-making. Business negotiations, contracts, and joint projects are approved by management, and it may take your contacts some time to get back to you.
- Professionalism: Titles, references, diplomas, and certificates are taken seriously. A person with academic credentials, good qualifications, and professional skills commands a lot of respect. Logical, convincing reasons for moving forward with your business cooperation are usually preferred to "putting on a good show".
- Work ethic: Projects may initially proceed at a slower pace since many Germans tend to be thorough, detail-oriented, averse to risks, and keen on producing good results. The emphasis on punctuality, though, ensures that most schedules and deadlines are kept.
- Bluntness is not automatically rudeness. Germans simply want to get straight to the point, with a directness that can make foreigners uncomfortable: Don’t expect your German business contacts to be particularly subtle or to refrain from honest criticism, and don’t be offended by overly assertive behavior. The latter is a way of emphasizing their position.
- Fairness and loyalty: When a German business partner tells you they will think about an offer, they usually mean exactly what they say. They don’t like to be pressured after such an open answer, and you will achieve more if you give them time. And when business negotiations reach a deadlock, lots of Germans want to come up with a compromise in the interest of both parties. Taking complete advantage of one side would seem fundamentally unfair to them.
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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