Business meeting etiquette

Germany-flag-140Meetings come in all shapes and sizes, and are more important than ever in business today. There are everyday office meetings, board meetings, and seminars. Meetings can now be conducted in a plethora of ways: face-to-face, by teleconference, video-conference, or online via the Internet. Meetings are a common feature of corporate life in Germany.

The contents of the meeting and the appropriate negotiation strategies should take into account the cultural habits and customs of the country. The appropriate steps should be taken in preparing an agenda and it is advisable to circulate agendas in advance to ensure everyone is prepared. Ensure that the facilities that you require for the business meeting are available and ready to use. Presentations should be well prepared, comprehensive, clear, well written, and informative and should be presented in a formal, rational, professional manner – appealing always to the intellect of business people in Germany.

The following sections deal with the various stages of a business meeting and examine the issues of cultural sensitivity in this area.

For further information please visit:

Importance of Business Meeting

Meetings are taken seriously in Germany and may go into considerable detail. Business meetings follow a formal procedure. German managers work from precise and detailed agendas, which are usually followed rigorously; moreover, meetings always aim for decisive outcomes and results, rather than providing a forum for open and general discussion. The formality of a meeting may make it difficult for an outsider to assess how things are going, but a lengthy examination of a proposal will indicate serious intent.

In German business dealings, it is important to provide solid facts and examples to back up proposals, given the German preference for analytical thinking and rational explanations. Do not use exaggerated or indirect communication styles during business meetings with your German counterparts as this will be viewed with suspicion. German business culture has a well-defined and strictly observed hierarchy, with clear responsibilities and distinctions between roles and departments. In formal German business meetings, it is customary for the highest-ranking person to enter the room first. However, in more informal business situations this is less important. Contacts are vital to a business’s success in Germany. Use a bank, German representative or the “Industrie- und Handelskammer” (Chamber of Industry and Commerce) whenever possible.

Business Meeting planning

When setting up a meeting with your German counterparts, there are a number of matters to consider in order to ensure the most advantageous outcome from your negotiations. Think about the following before your process begins:

  • Appointments in Germany are mandatory and meetings in German companies are generally scheduled well in advance.
  • It is advisable that you make appointments a few weeks beforehand by telephone or fax. Allow up to four weeks to make appointments if using the mail. Brief preliminary meetings may sometimes be arranged at short notice.
  • Try to avoid business meetings in the months of July and August or around the times of national holidays
  • The planning process is often very time consuming. However, once this is over, a project will move very quickly and deadlines are expected to be honoured.
  • Letters should be addressed to the lead person in the functional area, including the person’s name as well as their proper business title. Rank is very important in German business. Never set up a meeting for a lower ranked company employee to meet with a higher ranked person.
  • If you write to schedule an appointment, the letter should be written in German.
  • Expeditious handling of correspondence is mandatory. Telephone calls and faxes should be returned promptly.
  • Although German is the preferred business language, most upper level managers are quite capable of carrying on a conversation in English.
  • Punctuality is taken extremely seriously. If you expect to be delayed, telephone immediately and offer an explanation. It is extremely rude to cancel a meeting at the last minute and it could jeopardise your business relationship.
  • Meetings are generally formal and initial meetings are used for the parties to get to know each other. They allow your German colleagues to determine if you are trustworthy.
  • Participants must arrive punctually and dress up rather than down for the occasion.

As with most European countries, meetings etiquette in Germany relies on professionalism, good business sense and formality. Bearing the above in mind, together with a positive attitude will ensure good results.

Negotiation process

When entering into business negotiations with German business people, there are a number of important points that you should be aware of in order to ensure a positive outcome from negotiations.

  • Germans are competitive, ambitious and hard bargainers.
  • In German business, a person’s word and handshake are considered his/her bond. If a verbal agreement is made in a business meeting, it is generally considered binding.
  • Business negotiations tend to be analytical and factual. A well-researched speech with lots of graphs, empirical arguments, and statistics is usually preferred. A direct, matter-of-fact approach will be most appreciated.
  • Business is hierarchical. Decision-making takes place at the highest levels of the company i.e. top down. It is not appropriate to bypass an associate of equal ranking by consulting with his or her superior, even if negotiations take a long time.
  • Deference is given to authority. Subordinates rarely contradict or criticise the boss publicly.
  • Decision-making is often a slow and detailed process. Do not expect significant conclusions to be reached based on spontaneous or unstructured results. Every aspect of the deal you propose will be pored over by many executives. Do not anticipate being able to speed up this process.
  • As such, decision making during negotiations is slower than in some other European countries. An impatient businessperson will be unlikely to garner the same respect as a patient, reasonably spoken individual. If Germans feel rushed to complete a business deal, they may perceive this as a lack of commitment and professionalism.
  • You must be patient and not appear ruffled or irritated by the strict adherence to protocol. Germans are detail- oriented and want to understand every innuendo before coming to an agreement.
  • Germans have an aversion to divergent opinions, but will negotiate and debate an issue fervently.
  • Avoid confrontational behaviour or high-pressure tactics. It can be counterproductive. Avoid contradictory statements, such as following a compliment with a complaint; the inconsistency may cause a German to reject your statements outright.
  • Jokes, anecdotes, a “hard sell” approach (which may entail insulting a competitor), or spontaneous presentations are generally considered inappropriate. Slang language and colloquialisms should be kept to a minimum or better yet, not used at all.
  • Decisions are often debated informally and are generally made before meetings with compliance rather than consensus expected in the meeting.
  • Final decisions are translated into rigorous, comprehensive action steps that you can expect will be carried out to the letter.
  • Once a decision is made, it will not be changed.

Your attention to detail will not go unnoticed by  your German counterparts and will highlight your genuine willingness and enthusiasm to do business with them.

Meeting protocol

When greeting people in Germany, particularly in business meetings, it is imperative that you always use formality. The following are points of importance when greeting Germans:

  • Germans are still quite formal and like their hierarchies. Therefore, titles and last names are commonly used when not knowing a person and in business relationships.
  • A man should be addressed as Herr (Mr.) and woman with Frau (Mrs.). In business settings it is good to use the honorific plus the professional designation. In more casual situations where the last name is unknown, titles alone (Herr and Frau) can be used.
  • Germans offer a firm, but brief, handshake as a greeting. The handshake is often accompanied by saying “Guten Tag” (Good Day). Sometimes “Hallo” (Hello) is used; in the South, people say “Grüss Gott.” It is customary for people to also shake hands upon departing from one another. In some German offices shaking hands is part of the daily ritual, so do not be surprised if a round of handshaking precedes a day’s work.
  • When meeting a business contact for the first time exchange business cards.
  • Although sincere smiles are welcomed, and people tend to be polite and hospitable to one another, physical and emotional expressions may be kept to a minimum upon initial introductions. Eye contact is generally expected during the course of the introduction and conversation.
  • Germans are known for being direct, frank, and truthful about how they feel; superficial, small talk is rarely welcomed. During a conversation, visitors are often expected to express their opinions on topics such as the arts and international events; however, they should be discreet when political issues come up.
  • When close friends greet each other, it is common to kiss both the left and right cheeks. However, this is considered inappropriate in a business setting.
  • Germans are not always going to come up and introduce themselves to strangers, especially if they know that you don’t speak their language. Not all Germans speak English and even if they do they might be not comfortable using it. Even if you don’t know very much German, most of them will appreciate you learning their language.

How to run a business meeting

The efficient administering of a meeting is vital to negotiations with German counterparts. It illustrates your competence, motivation and dedication to making a deal and also highlights your professionalism. The following are points to consider when running a meeting in Germany:

  • The primary purpose of a first meeting is to get to know one another and to evaluate the person, to gain trust, and check the chemistry.
  • Germans usually discuss business after a few minutes of general discussion.
  • Meetings adhere to strict agendas, including start and end times.
  • Send company profiles, personal profiles, etc., to German colleagues before your visit to establish credibility.
  • Arrive at meetings well prepared. Avoid hard-sell tactics or surprises.
  • Written or spoken presentations should be specific, factual, technical and realistic.
  • Make sure your printed material is available in both English and German.
  • Reports, briefings and presentations should be backed up by facts, figures, tables and charts.
  • Germans abhor hype and exaggeration. Be sure you can back up your claims with lots of data. Case studies and examples are highly regarded.
  • Germans are not comfortable handling the unexpected. Plans are cautious with fall back positions, contingency plans, and comprehensive action steps – carried out to the letter.
  • Maintain direct eye contact while speaking.
  • Although English may be spoken, it is a good idea to hire an interpreter so as to avoid any misunderstandings.
  • Remain silent if the floor has not been given to you or if you are not prepared to make an informed contribution.
  • At the end of a meeting, some Germans signal their approval by rapping their knuckles on the table top.

Follow up letter after meeting with client

Once a meeting has concluded with German counterparts, then normal post-meeting procedures should apply. Germans produce massive written communications to elaborate on and confirm discussions. Always prepare and distribute minutes, information etc. within 24 hours of the meeting.

Quick action on this reinforces the importance of meeting with the Germans and also reduces errors of memory. Follow up on any delegated decisions. See that all members understand and carry out their actions and responsibilities to the best of their ability. Place unfinished business on the agenda for the next meeting. A number of days after the meeting, your German colleagues will appreciate a follow up phone call. The personal touch and effort is important in business practice in Germany.

Contracts are strictly followed in Germany. Under German law, if an agreement is reached on the phone and one party shortly thereafter confirms the contents, as being their understanding in a confirmation letter, the other party has to object without undue delay or the contents of the confirmation letter will form the basis of the agreement. In cross-border transactions this only applies if the foreign partner writes the confirmation letter and the German partner does not object, unless the law in the foreign partner’s home country has a similar rule.

Many German businesses put their general business conditions, in German, on the back of orders, invoices and so on. Under certain circumstances those business conditions can also become part of the agreement if not properly objected to. In these cases, the fact that the recipient was not even able to read those business conditions due to a lack of knowledge of the German language is no defence. It is therefore advisable to always object to the other side’s general business conditions as a safeguard.

As German businesspeople are very formal, socialising after meetings will not occur until firm working relationships have been established. While a degree of formality will continue to exist in the business relationship, an effort to build an understanding of the German language and culture will improve relationships significantly.

Business meals

In history, Germany has included territories and people from its neighbouring countries of France, Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, and Russia. As such, the regional variances in German cuisine often reflect this. As such, there is no German food per se, but a range of German foods, which may exhibit certain similar qualities. The following are issues to remember when eating out in Germany:

  • Outdoor eating is very popular in Germany, and it is not unusual or indeed unacceptable to find someone’s dog laying underneath their table.
  • In restaurants, service is generally included and an extra 5% would be regarded as a reasonable tip. Give the tip to the waiter or waitress with the money for the meal rather than leaving it on the table.
  • With the influx of foreign workers after World War II, many foreign dishes have been adopted into German cuisine — Italian dishes like spaghetti and pizza have become a staple of the German cuisine. Turkish immigrants have had a considerable influence— Döner kebab is Germany’s favourite fast food. Chinese and Greek foods are widely available and popular. Indian, Thai and other Asian cuisines are also gaining popularity.

Beer and wine are part of a normal dinner and alcoholic drinks are usually offered to guests. Schnapps is a popular drink at the end of meals. Not drinking, however, is completely accepted. Do not insist on alcoholic drinks if a person has rejected your initial offer therefore, and do not order for them. A German who rejects a drink is not just being shy or polite but does not want to drink. For some cultures it is uncommon to see teenagers order a beer at restaurants and pubs. Remember that the legal drinking age in Germany is 16 for beer and wine and 18 for spirits.

Coffee is also very common, not only for breakfast, but also to accompany a piece of cake in the afternoon, and is very strong. Tea is more common in the Northwest.

Attitudes to business meals

Business entertaining usually takes place in restaurants. The Germans enjoy linking gastronomic pleasures with interesting conversation about potential business. Actual business, however, is not supposed to be conducted during lunch or dinner. Sharing a meal is intended to help establish a personal acquaintance, and is a time to enjoy good food, wine and discussion.

Restaurant Etiquette

There is an etiquette you are expected to follow, when dining out in Germany. The following highlights the most important elements of restaurant etiquette:

  • Do not begin eating until the host starts or someone says “Guten Appetit” (have a nice meal).
  • Do not rest your elbows on the table.
  • Do not put your left hand in your lap when you eat. In fact both hands must be visible at all times.
  • Indicate you have finished eating by laying your knife and fork parallel across the right side of your plate, with the fork over the knife.
  • The most common toast with wine is “Zum Wohl!” and with beer is “Prost” (good health).

For further information, please see below:

Business Meeting tips

The following are some useful tips to remember when travelling to or working in Germany:

  • Lower your voice a little and behave graciously and you will enjoy a warm response from the people of Germany.
  • Germans value their privacy and personal space immensely. Do not ask personal questions related to occupation, salary, age, family or children even if you have a well-established friendship.
  • Germans are more formal and punctual than most of the rest of the world. They have prescribed roles and seldom step out of line.
  • A man or younger person should always walk to the left side of a lady.
  • Traditional good manners call for the man to walk in front of a woman when entering a public place. This is a symbol of protection and of the man leading the woman. A man should open the door for a woman and allow her to walk into the building, at which time the woman will stop and wait for the man. The man should then proceed to lead the woman to her destination. If going into a restaurant, the man may relinquish his leadership role to the waiter.
  • Always greet women first in Germany.
  • Do not be offended if someone corrects your behaviour (i.e. taking jacket off in restaurant, parking in wrong spot, etc.). Policing each other is seen as a social duty.
  • Compliment carefully and sparingly – it may embarrass rather than please.
  • Do not lose your temper publicly. This is viewed as uncouth and a sign of weakness.
  • Stand up when an older or higher ranked person enters the room to greet him/her.
  • You should not shout or be too loud and don’t put your feet on furniture or chew gum in public.
  • Traditionally, there has been little acceptance of women in high positions of responsibility and power in business. Women, especially foreign women, must establish their position and ability immediately in order to be taken seriously when conducting business successfully in Germany.

Do you want to learn more about business culture in Germany?