Business communication

Germany-flag-140The following section focuses on the communication aspects of business practice and outlines practical points that you should consider and use when making contact with a German counterpart.

In business and in the workplace, on the domestic front and in our social lives, we all stand to benefit from more effective communication skills. Every country has its own way of saying things. The important thing is what lies behind people’s words. Communicating across cultures begins with the basic understanding that one size does not fit all. Simply because you practice certain cultural habits or patterns does not mean the rest of the world does as well. Failing to recognise and adapt to this cultural diversity can mean the difference between success and failure.

The main criterion for effective communication is to understand the culture of the country. Culture provides a framework for acceptable behaviour and the differences in ideals need to be recognised, valued and appreciated before any real communication can take place. Gestures and styles of conversation may vary between your country and Germany. Topics and gestures you may deem normal and acceptable could possibly be viewed as taboo here. Such errors in communication may have a serious impact on the success of the negotiation process. While Germany is an extremely culturally aware nation, they also have expectations when it comes to others understanding their culture as an independent country – so preparation is a must if you are to build a positive image from the beginning of negotiations.

To become successful as a cross-cultural communicator in Germany:

  • Remember that while your own culture provides an acceptable framework for behaviour and belief, your preferences and behaviours are culturally based and not necessarily the “correct” or only ones.
  • Become sensitive to a range of verbal and non-verbal behaviour.
  • Have an open mind to other views and ways of doing things.
  • Remember there are no universal gestures

The following section will provide you with information on both verbal and non-verbal communication issues in Germany. It focuses on the initial stage of contact as an important factor examined together with the application of communication skills in business practice in Germany.

The general business practices discussed will apply to the majority of everyday business dealings and situations. However, it is crucial to bear in mind that the recommendations outlined are indicators of best practice and one should include distinctive local customs, habits and traditions when doing business in Germany.

For further information, please see below:

Face-to-face communication

First impressions are very important to Germans, and may impact upon the outcome of your business relationship with your German counterpart. There are a number of verbal and non-verbal communication issues you should consider when doing business with a German.

Non-verbal Communication

  • Generous personal distance is found between speakers in a conversation. At least an arm’s length between two speakers is generally expected.
  • Eye contact is expected and respected. Uninterrupted eye contact can be awkward for those not used to such etiquette; however, eye contact demonstrates attention and interest in a conversation. Avoiding eye contact may be interpreted as conveying the opposite message while in Germany.
  • Direct eye contact is especially true when toasting. (Say “Prost!” when toasting with beer and “Zum wohl!” when toasting with wine).
  • An extended middle finger is an obscene gesture, as is pointing the index finger at one’s temple especially while driving.
  • German behaviour in public is generally reserved and formal. Thus, waving and shouting at a person who is far away may attract negative attention.
  • Germans enjoy quietness and privacy. They may thus often close their doors but will be happy to receive you if you knock on the door. A closed door does not necessarily mean that the person cannot be disturbed.
  • In a meeting context, an exchange of business cards usually takes place. Cards do not necessarily have to be printed in German. Having a good supply of cards is advisable. Any title above a bachelor’s level should be included on your card.
  • Germans show their appreciation of a presentation at the end of a business meeting by rapping their knuckles against the table top

Verbal Communication

  • Do not call people at home after 10 p.m. unless you have asked them first if it is all right to do so.
  • Do not expect to reach anyone in the office after 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and after 4 p.m. on Fridays.
  • When answering the phone in Germany, it is common to identify yourself by  your last name.
  • World War II and the Holocaust may be uncomfortable topics for some Germans, particularly elderly individuals. If such matters come up in conversation try to speak sensitively and / or neutrally if you do not want to risk causing offence. It may be prudent to avoid initiating such a discussion unless you are confident your company would be amenable to it.
  • Germans are at the same time reserved and direct. They take their time to warm towards you while speaking their mind immediately. Do not be offended! It is not meant to be a personal assault.
  • In general conversation, Germans are very straightforward and often use only a few polite, chatty phrases. Typically, they get to the point rather quickly and expect to have results at the end of a meeting.

Noting and making use of these examples is recommended when doing business in Germany.

Language Matters

German is the official and most spoken language in Germany and also in Austria. It is the native tongue of more than 100 million people. It is also one of the four official languages of Switzerland (along with French, Italian, and Romansh). German is also spoken in dialect form throughout Luxembourg and by much of the population of the regions of eastern France formerly known as Alsace and Lorraine, and in a small area of Belgium. It is further spoken in the north-Italian border regions of Tirol and Ticino (formerly parts of Austria), and in isolated communities widely scattered throughout Eastern Europe, notably in Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania (Transylvania), and Russia (Volga region). Outside Europe, dialect German continues to be spoken in large emigrant communities in southern Brazil, South Africa, Australia, and the United States. Around every tenth book that is published worldwide is written in German.

Minority languages in Germany include Sorbian, Danish, Romany, and Frisian. Turkish, Kurdish, Polish, the Balkan languages, and Russian are the most spoken languages of immigrants.

Furthermore, a lot of Germans speak different dialects. The variation among the German dialects is considerable, with only the neighbouring dialects being mutually intelligible. Low German, most Upper German and High Franconian dialects, and even some Central German dialects when spoken in their purest form, are not intelligible to people who only know standard German.

Within the European Union, German is the language with the most native speakers. As a foreign language, German is the third most taught worldwide. It is also the second most used language on the Internet. In addition, for more than 30 years, nearly everyone in Germany has been taught at least one foreign language (primarily English) at school. Thus, more than half of the population is able to speak at least one foreign language and 1/3 is able to communicate in at least two languages other than their own. However, one should not overestimate their capabilities. Once it comes to specific business, legal or technical terms outside of their particular area of expertise, misunderstandings are common. They may think they perfectly understand their counterpart and vice versa, when in fact both sides are entirely missing the other side’s point. To avoid disputes, one should elaborate rather than rely on the other side’s understanding of specific terms. Most business people in Germany have a very good command of English. Nevertheless, it is recommended to make the first contacts in writing in German – providing your German is good enough.

Business Relationships

Germans value order, privacy and punctuality. They are prudent, hardworking and industrious. Germans respect perfectionism in all areas of business and private life, and in their approach to work they tend to focus on achieving the task at hand. This, coupled with their well-defined structures, implies that interpersonal relationships play a secondary role in business dealings. There is a strict separation between private life and work in Germany and therefore it takes time to forge more personal relationships. Business relationships with Germans are often based on mutual advantage, with the overall task as the central focus. The attention paid to targets to be achieved is evidenced, for example, in the precision of timetables, meeting planning and achievement of milestones. Close adherence to time schedules is also considered vital.

Following the established protocol is critical to building and maintaining business relationships in Germany. As a group, Germans are suspicious of hyperbole, promises that sound too good to be true, or displays of emotion. Communication is very formal and Germans tend to be direct, almost to the point of bluntness. German businesspeople do not operate an open-door policy. People often work with their office door closed and counterparts are expected to knock and wait to be invited in before entering.

German business culture has a well-defined and strictly observed, vertically structured hierarchy, with closely defined responsibilities and distinctions between roles and departments. Management style has a reputation for being relatively risk-averse. Professional rank and status in Germany is generally based on an individual’s achievement and expertise in a given field. Academic titles and backgrounds are important, conveying an individual’s expertise and thorough knowledge of their particular area of work. Germans display great deference to people in authority, so it is imperative that they understand your level relative to their own. In Germany, there is a sense of community and social conscience and a strong desire for belonging. To admit inadequacy – even in jest – is incomprehensible.

Expect a great deal of written communication, both to back up decisions and to maintain a record of decisions and discussions. Even if you have a friendly or casual relationship with colleagues, you should remember that on-the-job correspondence means that an e-mail is a business letter, in which salutations and greetings should not be forgotten.

As stated previously, in Germany, it is generally customary to state your surname when you answer the phone. In accordance with corporate identity trends, the customary way to answer a phone at a German company is to state the name of the company, the name of the person answering the phone, and a greeting.

Making contact

The Germans in general are typically conservative as far as physical gesturing is concerned. Unlike in France, men never kiss men, and public displays of affection are not common, particularly in a business environment. Public gestures of affection tend to be reserved for close family and friends. Germans will usually smile at strangers (in a shop for example) to be polite, but don’t be offended if they don’t – this is just part of a generally reserved culture.

Germans value and keep a larger personal space around them than do inhabitants of other European countries. However, it is not unusual that when queuing to pay at a shop, Germans will stand very close to the person in front of them.

Courtesies such as handshaking and politeness go a long way, to create a good image to your German counterpart. In business situations, shake hands both at the beginning and the end of a meeting. People who have worked together for years still shake hands each morning as if it were the first time they had met. Additionally, a handshake may be accompanied with a slight bow. Reciprocating the nod is a good way to make a good impression, as failure to respond with this nod/bow (especially to a superior) may get you off to a bad start. Be sure to look directly into the person’s eyes while shaking hands. When being introduced to a woman, wait to see if she extends her hand.

Germans tend to make eye contact often, so try to maintain it when it is made with you. This is a sign of attentiveness, so don’t be quick to assume it is a threatening gesture. As this is just part of the culture it is not uncommon for eye contact to be made on the street as well, again with no aggression intended. Expressive use of the hands is minimal in most conversations. Do not use exaggerated or indirect communication styles during business meetings with your German counterparts. It creates an impression of insincerity and dishonesty.

As business people tend to be formal and conservative, business relationships are formal, orderly and professional. Keep the hierarchy in mind and always address your message to the appropriate person in the organisation.

Personal titles

Titles are very important to Germans. Do your best to address people by their full, correct title, no matter how extraordinarily long that title may seem to foreigners. This is also true when addressing a letter.

First names are reserved for family members and close friends. In German business culture, it is not uncommon for colleagues who have worked together for years not to call each other by their first names. Until you know otherwise, or have developed a personal relationship, it is very important to refer to your German colleague with his or her title (respectively, Herr and Frau for Mr. and Mrs.) plus the last name (do not use the first name until you have established a friendship). If someone is introduced to you with an additional title (e.g., Dr.), use it. This is a formal culture until people get to know each other.

  • Mr. = Herr (i.e. Herr Muller)
  • Mrs. (or Ms.) = Frau (i.e. Frau Muller)
  • Dr. (male) = Herr Doctor (i.e. Herr Doctor Muller)
  • Dr. (female) = Frau Doctor (i.e. Frau Doctor Muller)

If speaking German to your counterparts, use the formal version of you (“Sie”), unless someone specifically invites you to use the informal “Du” form. It is usually best to let your German counterpart take the initiative of proposing the informal form of address (this implies readiness to develop a personal relationship).

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