Germany is the largest economy in Europe, with an international spirit that encourages foreign business. As an American working in Germany or trying to build a German network, there are a number of cultural differences to recognize. In some ways, German business culture is more regimented than in the United States, and in others, it is far more accommodating of workers. Both cultures share a strong work ethic and an increasing prominence of women in the workforce.
Germans are known throughout the world for their efficiency, punctuality and systematic work process. As a general rule, Germans are most comfortable with people who are consistent and follow proscribed practices. People are expected to be reliable and it is taken for granted that if someone offers to do something, he or she will meet the deadline. German manners may be construed as quite direct by Americans, but should not be mistaken for rudeness. Getting to the point and speaking about issues plainly can be a great virtue in a business setting as long as one is prepared. Similarly, helping others conform to social mores is part of the sense of community in Germany; it is not intended to cause offense if a German colleague or business contact offers a correction in behavior.
Dress to Impress
While street fashion in Berlin and other major cities can be quite avant-garde, corporate attire tends to be more formal in Germany than in the United States, which has been trending toward business casual for quite some time. Dress conservatively when making a first impression, and then adjust your style for future meetings if necessary.
Consider the Work-Life Balance
As important as work ethic is, Germans enjoy ample time off with a standard 24 days of paid vacation and many national holidays. In fact, Germans work among the fewest number of annual hours of any country, second only to the Dutch. Do not expect to set up many meetings in July and August, because they coincide with the traditional vacation time.
Most Germans learn English in school, and speaking the language is a requirement for almost every corporate job. That is not to say that Germans, like most people, do not appreciate an effort to learn their language and fit into their culture. Learning greetings and a few common phrases can help establish a rapport with German business partners. Most often, Germans will only allow a few minutes for small talk at the beginning of a meeting, preferring to get to the business at hand. Germans have a strong need for personal space, and Americans would do well to take a step farther back than usual and lower their voices when addressing German colleagues and acquaintances. In the office environment, many Germans close their doors while working, but this does not necessarily indicate that they may not be disturbed. Because of the cultural appreciation for compartmentalizing different aspects of one’s life, Germans are not likely to try to form friendships or social relationships with colleagues.
Remember the Details
As in the United States, business cards are widely used and it is expected that new business contacts will exchange them at first meeting. Business gifts are not common practice, and shows of wealth are frowned upon. German companies face tight restrictions on environmental impact, and new business ventures will be given thorough scrutiny on all aspects of proposals. Being able to answer questions and provide as much detail as possible will put German contacts at ease.
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