These tips on German business etiquette are not intended to stereotype German people or insist that all German businesspeople and companies operate in exactly the same way. Rather, the tips serve as a guide, providing you with greater cultural awareness and understanding of German cultural norms when it comes to doing business. Remember to always respect the culture, values and traditions of your prospective partners.
Greet Germans with a formal handshake both upon meeting them as well as when you leave. Call them by their title (Herr/Frau), followed by a professional title if appropriate (such as Doktor) and finally their last name. For example, Frau Doktor Weber.
If you speak German, be sure to use the appropriate form of address – although in English, we only have one form of the word “you”, in German there is more than one – Sie is a respectful way of talking to strangers, acquaintances, business colleagues and seniors, whereas Du is for more intimate relationships. If you are unsure where you stand with somebody, use Sie until told to do otherwise.
Although in some cultures it is common and even polite to chat and find out a little more about your business colleagues on greeting them, for example by enquiring about their families, personal lives and hobbies, in Germany home and work life tends to be kept more separate and personal questions may be seen as inappropriate or intrusive.
Planning your business meeting:
Punctuality is very important in Germany, and you should ring ahead to apologise and present your excuses if you are even going to be five or ten minutes late. It is wise to make an appointment, usually one or two weeks in advance, for your meeting. Don’t expect to be able to discuss serious business on an ad hoc basis. Dropping into an office unannounced will not be appreciated.
Meetings will usually have a strict agenda, as well as a start and finish time. There will usually be a strong focus on the task at hand, along with a strong structure and adherence to rules, regulations and procedure. During the meeting, expect those participating to be forthright (even blunt, to certain cultures). Germans tend to mean what they say and expect you to do so as well. They are not as good as some cultures at reading between the lines because in their normal business dealings with one another they do not need to.
The meeting may progress at a slower pace than you are used to. In German business dealings, it is common practice to be thorough and analytical and there is an emphasis on doing things properly.
In Germany, the preferred style of negotiation is analytical and fact-based. Be prepared with professional presentations that have graphs, empirical information and statistics to back up what you are trying to say.
The decision-making process may be slower in Germany, and you should not expect your German business partners to make spontaneous decisions based on gut instinct. If you are seen to become frustrated, ruffled or in a hurry to close a deal, this can be perceived as a lack of professionalism. Avoid hard-sell or high-pressure techniques, as it can actually be counterproductive. German businesspeople can also be put off by hyperbole and exaggerated claims. Any decision made will usually be made by a senior manager in a top-down approach.
Business Meals and Social Occasions:
Arrive on time to business meals and social events. The importance that Germans place on punctuality extends to these too. If you are invited to somebody’s house to dine, then it can be nice to take a small gift of wine, flowers or sweets. If you are out at a restaurant, wait for your host to indicate where you should sit, and wait for them to say Guten Appetit before you start eating. It is impolite to eat as soon as you receive your plate if this hasn’t been said or if other guests are still waiting for their meal.
If there is something that you don’t want, say so. As previously mentioned, Germans tend to be forthright and will not be offended if you say that you are full or do not want something. On the other hand, it is considered polite to try what is offered and it could cause offence if you refuse without giving a good reason.
Germans conduct business formally and so conservative attire, for both men and women, is appropriate. If in doubt, err on the side of caution and wear conservative business suits (both men and women) in dark colours.
Don’t let it happen to you!
A Spanish businesswoman is looking to export to Germany and has come over for a business trip. She has an appointment with a potential business partner at 2pm. She arrives at 2.15pm and proceeds to greet her hosts, and then the meeting starts. She asks about their families and home life, hobbies and other social niceties to start building a more personal relationship with them. However, they don’t seem to be very forthcoming, and she leaves with the impression that something has gone distinctly wrong, as the German businesspeople weren’t very friendly.
Had the Spanish woman known more about German culture and business etiquette, she would have understood that punctuality is more important in German business than in Spain and that Germans typically keep their work and home life separate and might not appreciate, although intended as friendly chitchat, questions about their families and personal lives. Here at Lingua Translations we provide cross-cultural training to ensure that you are completely aware of the business customs and practices of your target country to avoid any embarrassing mishaps. Contact us now to find out more!