Business communication

Austrain business culture guideThe following sections focus on the communication aspects of business practice and outline practical points that you should consider when making contact with an Austrian counterpart. Basic communication customs will be summarised, and an outline of working and business practices in Austria will be highlighted.

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. 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. Failing to recognise and adapt to local customs 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 conversation may vary from your country and 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 Austria is an extremely culturally aware nation, the Austrians  have expectations when it comes to 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 Austria:

  • Remember that while your own culture provides an acceptable framework for behaviour and belief, your preferences and behaviours are culturally based and they are not necessarily the “correct” or the only ones.
  • Become sensitive to a range of verbal and nonverbal behaviour in Austria. Remember the Austrians are conservative and formal people and this may be different from your own cultural approach.
  • Keep an open mind to other views and ways of doing things, particularly when doing business in Austria.
  • Remember there are no universal gestures.

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

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Face-to-face communication

First impressions are very important to Austrians, and may impact the outcome of your business relationship with them. There are a number of verbal and non-verbal communication issues you should consider when doing business with an Austrian:

Non-verbal communication

  • Although Austrians prefer third-party introductions, they do not need a personal relationship in order to do business.
  • 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 the opposite while being in Austria.
  • Austrian behaviour in public is generally reserved and formal. Thus, waving and shouting at a person who is far away may attract negative attention.
  • Austrians enjoy quiet and privacy.
  • Business cards are exchanged without formal ritual in Austria. Have one side of your card translated into German. Although not a business necessity, it demonstrates attention to detail.
  • Include any advanced academic degrees or honours on your business card.
  • If your company has been in business for a long time, include the founding date on your card as it demonstrates stability.

Verbal Communication

  • Do not expect to reach anyone in the office after 5 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays and after 4 p.m. on Fridays.
  • When answering the phone in Austria, it is normal to identify yourself with your last name.
  • Always use the formal word for you: “Sie” unless invited to use the informal “du”.
  • Address people by their academic title and surname.
  • Austrians are suspicious of hyperbole, promises that sound too good to be true, or displays of emotion.
  • Communication is formal and follows strict rules of protocol.
  • Austrians are at the same time reserved and direct. They take their time to warm to you while speaking their mind immediately. This should not be seen as a personal assault – it is simply indicative of their desire to move the discussion along.
  • There is little joking or small talk in the office as Austrians are serious and focused on accomplishing their business objectives/goals.
  • Try to avoid intrusive questions about personal matters, for example family life, as Austrians tend to be quite private about such things. Use your companion’s conversation as an example of what is acceptable.
  • World War II and the Holocaust may be uncomfortable topics for some Austrians, particularly elder 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.

Language Matters

Austria is the only country other than Germany where the official language is German, and approximately 98% of the population speaks German or a dialect of it. Austrian German sounds “softer” than that of Germany, and German speakers can easily discern the difference. Austria’s Slavic minority, located mostly in the south and the east, speak Slovenian and Croatian as their first language. English is now taught in all schools as a second or third language.

Slovene is an official language in the southern province of Carinthia. Other minority languages include Croatian (0.5%) and Hungarian (0.1%). All three languages are taught alongside German in some bilingual schools. Another minority language is Slovak.

As political and economic issues become increasingly international in scope, there is a growing need for Europeans to be competent in foreign languages. Knowledge of German can be an asset to a career in business or international affairs, particularly in Austria. The businessperson who can do business with a foreign customer in his or her own language will have an edge. Large and small companies alike are recognising this as the global market becomes more competitive.

Business Relationships

Austrians, not unlike the Germans, value order, privacy and punctuality. Austrians are generally conservative people and are prudent and moderate in their behaviour. They 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. Austrians tend to be quite regimental and compartmental in the way they organise their business relationships. There is a strict separation between private life and work and therefore it takes time to forge more personal relationships.

Following an established protocol is critical to building and maintaining business relationships in Austria. Communication is very formal and Austrians tend to be direct. Third-party introductions are strongly recommended in Austria, as they illustrate an image of trust in business. They will go on however to develop personal relationships with the people with whom they conduct business, once this trust has been established.

It is important to engage your Austrian counterparts in lively and philosophical debate, and to take time before discussing personal topics. This will contribute significantly to  establishing sound relationships with your Austrian connections. Building a relationship requires demonstrating a sincere interest in the country and the people, so it is imperative to know the history, culture and identity of Austria.

Austrian business culture has a well-defined and strictly observed, vertically structured hierarchy, with closely defined responsibilities and distinctions between roles and departments. One’s place in the hierarchy is generally based on an individual’s achievement and expertise in a given field. Academic titles and backgrounds are important, conveying expertise and a thorough knowledge of a particular area of work. It is crucial that you show proper respect and deference to those who have attained positions of importance, and that you show courtesy and respect at all times to all other counterparts. In Austria, there is a strong sense of community and social conscience and a strong desire for belonging.

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. Austrians extend social invitations in advance of the event, and the more formal the occasion the greater the time between the invitation and the event itself, so that they can be certain that their guests do not have a prior engagement.

In Austria, it is generally customary to state your name when you answer the phone. In accordance with corporate identity trends, the customary way to answer a phone at an Austrian company is to state the name of the company, the name of the person answering the phone, and a greeting.

Making contact

The Austrians 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 uncommon, particularly in the business environment. Public gestures of affection tend to be reserved for close family and friends.

Common courtesy such as handshakes and politeness go a long way, when creating a good image for your Austrian counterpart. In business situations, shake hands at both 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 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 before offering yours.

Austrians tend to make eye contact often, so try to maintain it when it is made with you. Austrians view eye contact as a sign of trust, sincerity and attentiveness, so do not 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 Austrian counterparts. It creates an impression of insincerity and dishonesty.

As business people tend to be formal and conservative, business relationships are proper, 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 Austrians. 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. The most common titles in Austria are Doktor, Magister and Diplom.

First names are reserved for family members and close friends. Until you are informed otherwise, or have developed a personal relationship, it is very important to refer to your Austrian colleague with his or her title (respectively, Herr and Frau for Mr. and Mrs.), plus the last name (do not use a contact’s 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 Müller)
  • Mrs. (or Ms.) = Frau (i.e. Frau Müller)
  • Dr. (male) = Herr Doctor (i.e. Herr Doctor Müller)
  • Dr. (female) = Frau Doctor (i.e. Frau Doctor Müller)

Other titles expected in Austria are as follows:

  • Universitätsprofessor: – indicates that the person is a tenured professor at an Austrian University.
  • Doktor – a university doctorate degree. Dr. indicates that the person has earned an Austrian doctorate in two subjects.
  • Magister – a university Master of Arts Degree.
  • Diplom Ingenieur – a university degree in engineering.
  • Ingenieur– a degree in technical/engineering subjects earned at a non-university institution.
  • Kommerzialrat – an honorary title for achievements in commerce bestowed by a government organisation.

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 Austrian counterpart take the initiative of proposing the informal form of address (this implies readiness to develop a personal relationship).

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