How to Talk to Germans

How Culture Matters: Let’s (not just) Cut the Small Talk

For your first meeting with Germans, intercultural coach Andrew ­MacKichan would advise: “Be on time, be smart, be prepared, and be clear about your goals. Shake hands firmly, look them in the eyes, and cut the small talk.” In my opinion, if you follow MacKichan’s advice, you have indeed heeded the most important aspects to make a good start. Senior Project Manager Hasan Syed would add that it “is important not to make humorous comments and opinionated statements. Unlike in London, this is not appreciated.” “Germans enjoy humor,” he continues, but in his experience, “it takes time to develop the trust to start using it. Do not be over confident, regardless of context, and most importantly, be humble and genuine.” While it is recommendable to (quickly) get to the point, it doesn’t mean that you skip the small talk entirely. When you meet someone at a fair, a good opening question is “How has the fair been so far?” When you welcome someone at your office, a simple “I hope you had a good trip?” might trigger a brief informal opening conversation, during which you can get a glimpse of your counterpart’s personality and give him or her the chance to warm up to you. Still, if people ask you how your trip was, try to keep it short. Maybe, if the meeting goes well, more pleasantries can be exchanged when the task at hand (to discuss what is on the agenda) has been completed.

Nevertheless, when people from diverse backgrounds meet, things often seem to work out somehow anyway, don’t they? For instance, it is fascinating how people from different countries, but with the same professional background, can communicate “sufficiently,” even if they hardly speak any English (or maybe Spanish as another lingua franca). Ever since I worked for a Chinese electronics company and observed German engineers, equipped with very rudimentary English skills, discussing printed circuit boards with my client (who was not exactly fluent either), I have called that “getting along with PCB-English.” The focus on “business” and the ability to exchange thoughts easily lead to the conclusion that culture hardly matters; far from it!

Very often, in doing business (or trying to do business), the impact of culture is tremendously underestimated. To successfully deal with ­Germans (or people from other cultures in general), one needs to internalize a lot more than just a few common habits or dos and don’ts. It is advisable to consciously reflect on one’s own habits, values, and beliefs, and try to set what one feels in contrast to what has been learned about “the Other.” How else could you be aware that what you perceive as “normal” or “standard procedure” can cause great irritation, and finally, spoil the deal? A German-speaking Scandinavian businessperson addressing his or her visitor from Germany with (the rather informal) “Du” might wonder why the latter suddenly seems a bit tense. Someone who sends an e-mail addressing his or her prospective German sales lead with “Hi” should not necessarily expect a response. On the other hand, a German might wonder why his or her Japanese client doesn’t reply to the brief request addressed to “Dear Yuki!” If you have skipped Chapter 4, I suggest you catch up on what you have missed.

Some things that may be considered polite where you come from may not be considered so in Germany. For example, in some cultures, people may refuse to accept what is offered to them, like tea/coffee, drinks, gifts, help, and so on, but if insisted upon, they may accept them. In Germany, people are used to take things very straightforwardly, so if you initially say “no” to something being offered (e.g., a cup of tea), it would very likely be understood as a “no.” This could require some readjustment in the thought process. However, if you are lucky, your German host might have made some effort to learn about your (culture’s) way of doing things and would still insist on you have something to drink. Which reminds me of how I felt slightly puzzled when, during a visit to Dubai, my Emirati client, after my initial “no,” did not insist on serving me tea, which I would have really loved to try.

Looking at “over-adjustment,” MacKichan observed something similar during a workshop, with British and German participants, that focused on their intercultural team working; “the Germans were acting like stereotypical Brits (going off-piste, telling jokes, lack of focus) and the Brits like stereotypical Germans (goal focused, time obsessed).” ­MacKichan told me how this continued until one of the British participants noticed what was going on, and this became a great learning point.

But yes, Germans usually want a conversation to be very focused; their expectation would be that the person they are talking to should concentrate on them only. So, when you have important matters to discuss, always try to have a one-on-one conversation. The “more the merrier” approach that you might want to follow during trade shows or conferences, by inviting more parties to mix and mingle, might make Germans shy away. A German’s perception could be that he or she is not important to you (why else would you be talking to others?); a German might even consider the behavior disrespectful (although the tolerance level for distractions is usually higher at trade fairs).

However, when you picture “the” (archetype) German, please do not imagine only a white male person. In Germany, there are people with all kinds of backgrounds. Somebody who hands you a business card with the name Abdullah on it might be the grandson of a Turkish immigrant, born and bred in a small town in hinterland Bavaria, and be “more papist than the Pope” when it comes to straightforwardness and task orientation.

Although women are still not equally represented in top leading positions, chances are high that the woman you are talking to has the power to give or deny a “Go ahead!” If, as a man, you are used to mainly doing business with men, take care not to offend (German) women by leaving them out of the conversation and / or spoiling the deal by ignoring them entirely. Even if it makes you feel uneasy, try to look them in the eye and offer/accept a firm handshake. The golden rule “Ladies first” does not apply in a business context; I would advise that you (try to) start with greeting the highest-ranking person—for example, the managing director—and then proceed to those below him or her in rank. If there are just too many people in the room to straightforwardly proceed to the most important person (according to hierarchy), or in case you find it difficult to figure out the rank order, start with the person standing closest to you and do greet all one by one (e.g., going sequentially from left to right). You can still pay the most senior person more attention when shaking his or her hand.

Giving some thought to the extent to which (different) hierarchical structures might play a role for you and your counterpart, in a project team, for instance, is advisable: No matter how hierarchical your business partner’s company is structured (within Germany that will also vary, depending on the company size and maturity in the market, for example), your German counterpart may easily get annoyed if even little demands in day-to-day business were channeled through his or her superior.

The way people from all over the world think about (if at all) or conceive of time can vary greatly, and this is another major source of misunderstandings and frustration (Schugk 2004, p. 149). A Pakistani buyer who expects his or her German supplier to drop everything when paying a surprise visit might easily feel dumbstruck when told that “unfortunately, now is not a good time.” For some, approaching project steps in a sequential fashion, completing one task after another, doing one thing at a time, and sticking to the schedule are very important matters; such understanding is typically called a linear time concept. Germans overall (unconsciously) very much subscribe to that concept, and to a greater or lesser extent, so do people from Switzerland, Japan, or the United States, for example. For many others, like people living in Russia, Mexico, China, Saudi Arabia, and India, the focus is more on adaptability and flexibility, and they approach project steps in a (more) fluid manner; many things are dealt with at once, and interruptions are accepted (Meyer 2015, p. 39).

How we perceive time can play an important role in business, and one should reflect upon what is (generally) more important for themselves and their business partners: to concentrate on the task at hand (a behavior correlating with a linear time concept), or to establish and maintain a good relationship (subscribing to the overall idea that time is flexible). For a German, “maintaining a good relationship” could, however, very often spell out as: always deliver on time and don’t forget to send along a bottle of wine with the annual Christmas card (more on the topic will be explained in Chapter 7).

For establishing and preserving a good relationship, you must keep your promises and let people know when there is a problem. If you have grown up in an environment where people are reluctant to give somebody bad news, listen carefully: Over here, if something goes wrong, went wrong, or is about to go wrong, you need to push the panic button (Achtung!) and tell your German contact. You realize that you won’t be able to ship the samples as promised? Tell your contact, so they can adapt their planning accordingly. You won’t be able to place your order right now, since your boss objects? Tell me, so I don’t hold back the stock for you any longer. Also, if you messed up (no matter whether you are personally responsible, or your supplier has goofed up), give Germans the certainty that you understand that they are in trouble now; very often, an apology will be expected. If you do not feel comfortable saying “sorry, that was clearly my fault”—whether for cultural or legal reasons—at least acknowledge the difficulty your contact must be in, and tell them in detail what you will do to ensure the problem gets solved. If they do not want to listen to the details, don’t press too hard. But, a “simple” (as we would perceive it) “we still can fix it!” most certainly won’t do the job.

For Germans, processes need to be crystal-clear; even if you are still at a very early stage in discussing business opportunities, be ready to answer questions concerning the remote future. As Sylvia Schroll-Machl points out in her book, Doing Business with Germans: Their Perception, Our Perception, Germans, being perfectionists, appreciate great attention to detail:

[I]t is characteristic that Germans make exact and detailed plans, minimize possible sources of errors beforehand, are well prepared for meetings and negotiations […]. In order to reach [their] goals of perfection, it is important not to make approximations but to follow the guidelines and norms exactly. (Schroll-Machl 2008, pp. 78–79)

One could also say that Germans lack flexibility. “Don’t worry! We’ll see!” is definitely not what your buyer is eager to hear. Schroll-Machl suggests that you should be aware that Germans are not “directing their obsession with rules and norms against you personally, or trying to be patronising. They are just being ‘professional,’ as they see it.” One could be comforted by the fact that Germans act the same way toward each other as well (ibid. p. 85).

What irritates me is when a new business contact (simply) tells me that he or she has an extensive network, and that he or she would be happy to suggest a mutually beneficial business relationship. I want to know: “What is your occupation? What exactly are you doing? What is it you expect from me? How can we work together—do you have a (business) plan?” By the way, be careful about suggesting a “joint venture” to the German you just met. We are likely to understand it as a “Joint Venture (JV)”—a construct with full-fledged legal and financial implications. It is better to suggest cooperation instead.

Be Aware: Things (that) Could Get Lost in Translation

Even if the Germans you are talking to speak English at some advanced level, be aware that there is still plenty of room for linguistic misunderstandings; here are some (initial) examples of what can go wrong (I will be digging deeper into the subject in Chapter 6).

First of all, you should keep in mind that if people are not fluent in English (or any language), very often, they would translate anything said in a foreign tongue word by word. Because Germans also tend to take everything said literally, a friendly “Hi! How are you doing?” can really disconcert some. The “Hi” can easily be perceived as too informal (am I your buddy?!), and some Germans might feel that they should seriously answer a question about their well-being. We ask the same question (“Wie geht’s?”), but only when we already know somebody and then we have all the possible answers at hand (Germans would very often say “Geht so. Viel Arbeit”—“I am okay. Lots of work to do”). I would suggest that you instead say “good morning,” “good afternoon,” or simply “hello.”

A German living and working in the United Kingdom observed how, sometimes, Germans just translate their slogans (word for word) and expect the British to understand them. He said to me, “This does not always work; for example, when labeling rucksacks (Rucksäcke) as ‘body bags’ (Leichensäcke).” One of my German course participants told me how, during an international conference, he felt slightly embarrassed when he realized that he was not supposed to have “a date” with his potential client, but “an appointment.” He had just translated “Verabredung,” a term you can use for a romantic meeting or business luncheon. A retired claims manager mentioned a potential pitfall that can happen in his former field of work, especially when English is not the mother tongue of both parties: “In the insurance industry,” he explained to me, “‘recoveries’ can mean loss mitigation by claims management actions as well as pure collection of funds.” I have no idea what the first one means, but it sounds like it could cost you dearly if you mixed up the terms!

Realizing that you are talking at cross-purposes with one another (although you’re both using the same words) is still one of the greatest challenges in (intercultural) communication for me. A Finnish client once wanted me to assess whether his company’s service would also sell in Germany. When he and his colleagues explained their business model in detail, I told them that, based on my gut feeling and (at the time still) very cursory knowledge of the market in question, I believed that a certain aspect of their business model could be a deal-breaker because, I said, “Germans think more long term.” All three gentlemen looked puzzled and explained that my point was not valid because “Finns also think very long term.” It was only some weeks later, when I presented the results of my research, that it turned out that when I was thinking “12–24 months,” my client’s association with “long-term” was three months!

Let me give you another example: I was explaining to one of my prospects how Germans tend to be very risk-averse, and how we “have lots of insurance policies.” “So do we; Allianz is very big in India,” my contact from Pune replied. What followed was a back and forth involving him trying to convince me that Indians tend to put as much emphasis on insurance as Germans do (my world was shaken!), and my firm conviction to the contrary. Only when I gave an example, telling my prospective client that, among many other policies, most probably 99 percent of Germans have Haftpflichtversicherung (liability insurance), and that if I accidentally smashed his TV set, the insurance would pay for it, he gave in, admitting that he had never heard of such a (weird) thing. When talking about insurance, he had thought of “life insurance.”

Fons Trompenaars, a Dutch organizational theorist, management consultant, and author in the field of cross-cultural communication, and his colleague Charles Hampden-Turner highlight that

[i]n every culture in the world such phenomena as authority, bureaucracy, creativity, good fellowship, verification, and accountability are experienced in different ways. That we use the same words to describe them tends to make us unaware that our cultural biases and our accustomed conduct may not be appropriate, or shared. (Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner 2012, p. 4)

Giving examples and asking questions can be a good strategy to ­narrow-down potential misunderstandings. “When you talk about bureaucratic hurdles, what exactly can we expect and how do you suggest we handle the matter?” I would, for instance, ask, trying to find out whether we (just) need to set aside plenty of time (whatever plenty of time means…), are required to talk to a grumpy official in a worn out fleece pullover who has hopefully already had his or her coffee, must not forget to pull a token number from the machine in the waiting room … or something else entirely.

I think it has already been established that, when you ask a German for his or her opinion, you should be prepared for their brutally honest opinion and a lengthy discussion about it, and that we like to state our opinions, even if not asked for it. Germans are used to voicing their viewpoints freely, without caring about someone losing his or her face. A ­German, for example, might frankly tell you how he or she finds it hilarious, if not moronic, how “you guys from the U.S.” constantly talk in (what we perceive as) superlatives. If, in Germany, someone is happy with our work, it would never occur to him or her to tell us that we did an “awesome” job. “Awesome” for us sounds like “super-duper, ultra-mega good.” In fact, as long as you don’t hear a complaint, you can generally assume your boss or client is happy with the work result. “Not scolded is praise enough” (nicht geschimpft ist gelobt genug) is the overall philosophy. Of course, what some might not consider is that, “in the United States, everyone is a winner and is praised all the time,” as a German native in charge of winning clients from the North American market told me. “Not so much in Germany,” she said. Feedback in Germany is traditionally very direct. While somewhere else, negative feedback might be embedded (or hidden) in a positive frame (“A was pretty good, but B …”), Germans tend to focus on the core message (“B was not good enough”).

Manoj Barve, who knows very well how Germans (overall) tick, suggests that, when you praise a German, “compliment him or her but also balance it by saying ‘but.’ Everybody likes compliments but, if you don’t have some reservations, it will make them suspicious!” That is so true! I remember how, some years ago, about two weeks into my new job, my boss casually said to me in the coffee kitchen, “I really liked how you introduced yourself and your area of responsibility in the meeting this morning.” My immediate thought was, “Oh my God, what did I do wrong?” But Michaela just smiled, and after pouring her coffee, left. And that was it! She was really an exceptional manager.

The most amusing episode UK management Consultant Sue De’Ath remembers while working with Germans was when, as an introduction to a workshop, she asked the participants to think of two truths and one lie. “The literal nature of the language and mind meant the response was either obvious or they could not state a lie,” she said.

Yes, you can have great fun when working with Germans. However, I would still recommend avoiding making humorous statements. I do not subscribe to the idea that Germans are entirely devoid of humor, but what we perceive as funny is sometimes just very different from what you would find refreshing: “Two types of jokes are to my eyes very German,” I was once told by a French lady who is married to a German; “Practical jokes, at the cost of someone, and the use of sarcasm and calling it irony,” she explained. “If I react negatively to the joke, the most common reaction is being told that I have no humor.”

So, don’t mention the war and don’t try to be funny! You don’t find my remark funny? Q.E.D (quod erat demonstrandum, which was to be proven).

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