Understanding Germans: Top 12 tips on business etiquette

Germans have a certain reputation for being formal, punctual, direct, methodical and governed by rules. True, or stereotypical? Both, really. While a person from conservative but quirky Bavaria will, of course, come across as different from someone from hipster Berlin or an individual from formal Frankfurt, it’s true to say that Germans generally share a set of common cultural values. Here are 12 ways to make a good impression:

  1. Punctuality is critical. If you are running late, you will need a very sound excuse as lateness suggests that your time is more important than the other person’s. Cancelling at the last minute is an even greater crime, as Germans tend to have busy calendars and like to schedule meetings and even phone calls a long way in advance.
  2. Workplaces are relatively formal. Use the ‘Sie’ form of address until invited to use the familiar ‘du’ form. In some offices, people who have worked together for years still address each other as ‘Herr’ or ‘Frau’. This does not apply everywhere; in a tech startup run by millennials, for example, everybody is likely to be on first name terms.
  3. Dress smartly and conservatively but judge the dress code by the culture of the company you are visiting. A bank in Frankfurt is likely to be far more formal than a design company in edgy Berlin.
  4. Germans on a whole are highly risk-averse, which is one reason society and business are governed by sets of rules, some of them unwritten. There is a preference to leave nothing to chance. This is positive in that goals can be met efficiently, but negative in that it leaves little room for flexibility or creativity.
  5. You will make a good impression by coming across as an expert in your subject, who has thoroughly researched the German market and can answer detailed technical questions. Meaningful facts and figures are essential in any presentation or proposal.
  6. Germans are direct and explicit communicators, to the extent that visitors can feel surprised or even insulted by a seemingly offhand remark. Thus they do not tend to read between the lines very well so you, too, should say what you mean in order to communicate effectively.
  7. Skip the small talk. After exchanging pleasantries, Germans like to get down to business. Private life is kept separate from work so do not ask detailed questions. Respect people’s time, too. Never turn up unannounced and never call a colleague at home, unless it’s a dire emergency.
  8. Keep your distance. A firm handshake on meeting and saying goodbye is expected but clapping someone on the shoulder or grabbing their arm for emphasis during a conversation may cause them to shrink away.
  9. Germans like to focus on two objectives: product quality and service. Customer satisfaction is very important. German workplace teams have often been described as a group of individual experts working towards a common goal; the process and completion of the task are more important than individual egos.
  10. Qualities of a good manager include assertiveness, technical ability, analytical expertise and an aptitude for leadership. Academic qualifications are admired, so if you went to a top university or have a PhD, there is no harm in making this known.
  11. Don’t play games in negotiations. Germans will be upfront in telling you want they want and you should do the same. Decisions are made based on facts, past performance and future projections, not emotional issues. Clarity, honesty and respect are valued. Say what you mean and stick to your word.
  12. Always be prepared. There is a dislike of ambiguity, uncertainty, and unquantifiable risk and certainly of the British tendency to ‘wing it’.  Proposals are expected to be fact-based, detailed, logical, and realistic.

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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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