by Leah Sherman Kish, Professional Business English Trainer
While working in Germany I noticed that many of my students seemed to know exactly where they will be and what they will be doing in a year or more. As a person who grew up in Israel, where things tend to happen very rapidly and people never plan anything too far ahead since no one really knows what tomorrow will bring, I was quite astonished to learn that all my students had planned their vacations in great detail and were able to tell the class that in 6 months from now they will be lying on the beach in Mauritius, where they would get to by plane with the plane tickets they had purchased 2 months before even starting the English course. Little did I know back then, it wasn’t just a bunch of over planners who happened miraculously to all end up in my class but indeed, that this is the way Germans think and operate in their daily lives as well as on the Job.
So, how does this affect the German Business culture?.
1. Planning ahead – Germans are often perceived as masters of planning. This culture values thinking ahead and knowing what they will be doing at a certain time on any given day. Every Business procedure is examined and thought through extremely thoroughly, as each aspect and step of a project will be analyzed in great detail. Structure, obtained through laws, rules, and regulations, is what holds the German system together. These traits are highly valued and are in the core of every business procedure. The German business culture, therefore, will usually have a low amount of flexibility and spontaneity and will tend to follow guidelines even when this may slow down the process significantly. For this reason, getting used to working with German counterparts or in a German company can take time and requires a lot of patience as well as good abilities to deal with frustration as the amount of rules, regulations and bureaucratic processes can be agonizing to people who aren’t familiar with the way things are done here. Having said that, let’s not forget that however slow and detailed the process is, Germans are well known for being efficient, goal oriented and practical people who will get the job done and mostly at the highest quality.
2. Punctuality – Business culture in Germany, as in most countries, takes the form of the German culture itself. This central European country is vast, economically stable and has a lot to offer. However, If you are on your way to a business meeting, make sure the beautiful scenery doesn’t interfere with your time plan as punctuality is one of the most important values you can find here. Germans take punctuality for business meetings and social occasions seriously. Tardiness can be interpreted as plain rudeness and you may end up offending your counterparts. If you can’t help being delayed, make sure to call, explain yourself, apologize and give a time estimation as to when you think you will arrive.
3. Communication style – Communicating across cultures is always a challenge as there is more than one way to get a message across and the German way is quite unique. When starting any Business interaction you will find formality and politeness to be the norm. Your dress code should always be respectful of the culture even if you aren’t accustomed to wearing suits and ties. Remember to keep personal distance between speakers in a conversation. Germans are not used to manly pats on the back, hugs or friendly shoves as part of a Business interaction. A smile accompanied by a nice firm handshake will do, usually both at the beginning and end of a meeting. However, Germans are also extremely direct and straightforward and will tell you exactly what they think of something, to a point of pure bluntness. This combination of directness and politeness is a very charming German trait and quite extraordinary! Do not mistakenly take this as an insult, it’s just a different style of communication. As Germans are generally reserved people, try to refrain from being to intimate or emotional in your gestures or when bringing subjects to the conversation, at least at first.
4. Hierarchy within companies – Germans are accustomed to a strict vertical hierarchy and do not communicate freely or openly with the executives higher in rank as communication is usually vertical. Subordinates rarely contradict or criticize the boss publicly. Decisions tend to be made at the top end of the chain by a small group of people who hold most of the power. For international organizations doing business in Germany, this hierarchical structure can cause a bit of frustration since it will affect negotiations and meetings, making the way to action painstakingly slow. Even though this may lead to a certain amount of distrust, anger or even seeing the process as being deliberately delayed, in reality your German counterparts are just checking every detail carefully and are waiting for decisions to be made by their boss.
5. Meetings – Meetings often include going into considerable detail. There is a formal set of procedures for meeting and this is usually followed by working with well planned agendas. In most cases an agenda will circulate by Email some time before the meeting takes place in order to give you time to read it and plan for it. Meetings aren’t usually considered to be a platform for open discussions, rather a form of getting together in order to achieve decisive outcomes and results. Keep in mind that here too, you should be aware of the a well-defined and strictly observed hierarchy as each person has a set of clear responsibilities and a distinction between roles and departments. Before attending a meeting, make sure you can provide solid facts and examples to back up proposals, as your German counterparts usually relate and prefer analytical thinking and rational explanations.
To conclude, working with German can be a highly productive and fascinating process. It is an opportunity for you to get to know a different way of thinking and operating. Being prepared for the cultural differences will help you adjust. And remember – there’s nothing like a pint of superb German beer to break the ice….PROST !