How to Maintain (Cordial) Business Relationships

What the Average German Understands by “Good” Relationship

When you work with Germans, you can assume that, basically, you won’t hear much from them unless there is (additional) work to discuss, details to be checked, or there is a problem. Don’t expect us to give you a casual call from time to time to just check how things (or you) are. Even as vendors, if we follow the same approach that we would apply in Germany, we take care to have a conversational gambit at hand when we call—like a special offer, unique occasion, or some order deadline that we would like to remind you of.

When you don’t hear from us, don’t perceive it as a lack of interest or carte blanche to postpone delivery of whatever is scheduled to be done; it’s just that we simply are not inclined to maintain close personal contact, and we assume that things are going well, unless informed otherwise.

However, and especially when the business relationship is still young, it can be a good idea to (proactively) send regular updates on the status of a project or delivery. When you receive a request, make sure to reply to it swiftly. When you cannot instantly come up with a satisfying answer, acknowledge receipt and tell the sender by when you will get back to him or her with a response. Expect that your German client would rather write an e-mail; it’s up to you to take the opportunity to pick up the phone and build a (more) personal rapport.

Germans like their business partners to be “zuverlässig” (reliable) and things to be predictable. Keep your side of the bargain, and don’t make compromises on quality and delivery times. Do not try renegotiating when you have committed to something. If you are buying from Germans, let them do their job (there is generally no need to constantly follow-up with them either), and if you are not happy with their work, tell them so frankly. Say “yes” when you mean “yes,” and “no” when you mean “no.”

Develop your relationship(s) step-by-step; be reliable and precise even with the smallest of things, always. Do one thing at a time, and acknowledge that Germans, overall, plan over a comparably long horizon and include more contingencies in plans. Do not challenge Germans by, what they might perceive as, painting castles in the air or suggesting high-risk adventures.

Don’t take our bluntness to heart (I apologize for that!), and gently help us understand that sometimes, there is more than just one way (read: our way). Answer all our “what if” questions to our full satisfaction, highlight your expertise, and finally, win us over by delivering consistently on set objectives; demand the same from us.

I do not subscribe to the idea that, in the business world, you cannot build and maintain cordial relationships with Germans, or even become friends. On the contrary, but it’s better not to come too close, too quickly. And, don’t maneuver a German into a situation in which he or she might feel compromised.

Do not expect us to give you special treatment or a “better” price just because we went to a football match together. Don’t expect us to bend company regulations and compliance rules just because we stood together on the beer benches and sang binge drinking songs at the ­Oktoberfest. And, even though we most probably love gifts and surprises as much as everyone else, take care that your present does not exceed the limit allowed by (our) compliance regulations. A German might (in any case) tend to perceive a present more valuable than a bottle of standard, good-quality wine as attempted bribery and would refrain from endowing you for the same reasons. So, when we visit you, forgive us for coming with empty hands.

Varied Interpretations of the Term “Hospitality”

Why would I talk about hospitality only at the end of the book when, maybe for you, socializing is essential for trust-building in the initial stages of a business relationship? Because, for Germans, “spending time together” typically comes only after a deal has been closed. We would (read: might) buy you a meal on having signed a contract. Inviting our top clients for lunch from time to time comes under “Beziehungspflege” (translated word for word as “relationship maintenance” or “relationship cultivation”); rarely would one spend an entire day with a client or supplier, unless invited for a business roadshow or “Tag der offenen Tür” (open house).

When I, for the first time, came across the term “hospitality” (in English), I confused it with the word “hostility.” Whoever explained the difference to me must have been an Indian, because it was there that I first heard (of) the term, and ever since, the expression “hospitality” for me is connected with a concept that goes far beyond what is commonly understood by the German word “Gastfreundschaft.”

In a radio report about “Deutsche Gastfreundschaft,” a correspondent from Iran summarized his experience, saying that in Germany, “‘­beschränkt sich Gastfreundschaft auf ein Glas Wasser aus der Leitung und, wenn es hochkommt, einen Kaffee’” (“hospitality is limited to a glass of water from the tap, and if you are lucky, a cup of coffee”) (Wilke 2017). Having once visited a colleague near Nuremberg, he narrates, he had to sleep on an ancient couch. Next to him slept the dog, who at least had a pillow. “‘Im Iran hätte ich als Gast das beste Bett bekommen und der Gastgeber hätte auf diesem altersschwachen Sofa gelegen’” (“in Iran, as a guest, I would have had the best bed, and the host would have slept on this age-worn sofa”). Having in mind what is common practice in his home country, what he experienced could, by some, indeed be perceived as “hostility.”

An interviewee from Hungary, on a scale of 1 to 10, would give us a five on the subject of hospitality, while a Mexican correspondent points out that “Die Deutschen sind aber eher auf den zweiten Blick ­gastfreundlich. Wenn sie einen einladen und bewirten, dann ist das ganz ernst gemeint. Daraus entstehen richtige Freundschaften, die auch ein Leben halten” (“Germans are usually hospitable (only) at second sight. When they invite and entertain you, they are sincere in their pursuit of a meaningful relationship. The result is real friendships that last a lifetime”) (ibid. 2017).

One of my Chinese clients once told me how he, whenever he is in Munich for a bi-annual fair, is invited to one of his clients’ homes for dinner. To my ears, that sounded like the ultimate honor, like when you are granted a knighthood. Either they were sourcing the most critical components from him, I thought, or they must really like this guy.

Germans are rather protective of their private lives and think twice before they invite someone to their homes. When traveling through Morocco a few years ago, and while facing some difficulties in finding accommodation at short notice, I ended up spending one night on the sofa of a young lady I had just met on the bus; even during my student days, it most likely would never have occurred to me to offer a place to stay to someone I didn’t know.

When I traveled to Bangalore in 2001, for what I remember was the 45th anniversary of the Indo-German Chamber of Commerce, one of my Indian friends arranged for my accommodation: I slept in the children’s room at his cousin’s place. The daughter of the house slept with the mother, while the father, whom I only met the next morning, had to move to the living room. When I last visited Delhi, I took the opportunity to also meet a potential business contact, whom I had only been in e-mail contact with before; not only was I invited to his house, he also suggested that I bring along any friends or relatives I would feel (more) comfortable with. He informed me upfront that there would be only vegetarian food and asked about food preferences so that his wife could arrange for my favorite dishes. As he knows Germans, I was offered chilled beer that I could enjoy while I was gently forced to unpack a very generous welcome present. After dinner, the entire family hopped into the car to jointly drive me back to my place. If you think “so what?,” be prepared for the discovery that Germans are somewhat different.

Not only are we hesitant to give people access to our private homes, we are also not overly generous with gifts, and so on when invited to visit others. I know a lady from France who moved to Germany some 20 years ago; “In my first years ,” she told me, “I was single, and I cultivated several friendships to have a social life and exchange with people.” She often invited people to dinner at her house. At that time, she did not have much money, while her friends mostly had better jobs, or as couples, had two incomes. “It happened very often that some persons always came with empty hands, something you would never do in France,” she complained to me. Recently, she was invited for an informal dinner (bread, cheese, and red wine), and again, she was surprised to see what the other guests brought—one person came empty-handed and another with a very small homemade item, while my friend brought a basket full of food and wine to share. Most probably, I would also not have brought more than a bottle of wine, and maybe a gift-wrapped paperback novel. Basically, people had been invited, hadn’t they?

Osman Bayazit Genc from Istanbul points out that an “Einladung” does “not mean the same as in our culture, so sometimes I have to ask what the invitation covers.” That could indeed be a good idea; better ask what exactly is planned, and what you can/are supposed to bring. The “average” German would appreciate you inquiring.

When you invite us, assume that we will show up “pünktlich” (if not up to 10 minutes early). Andreas Hauser told me how, in Brazil, some Germans arrived at a party at the mentioned starting time, only there was no party because the hosts were still out grocery shopping!

Lukas Schmitz, a German who works in Mumbai, shared the following episode with me: Last year, he flew to Germany to spend Christmas with his family. On the final leg of the journey, when flying from Munich to Hamburg, he sat next to an Indian who had been living and working in Germany for two years. They started to talk, and the Indian gentleman casually said that he found it a pity that he had to be in ­Germany now. Schmitz was surprised and asked: “Why is that? Christmas is the best time of the year; everything is white and ­Christmassy-decorated.” His seat neighbor agreed, but explained that, because Germans celebrate Christmas only with the closest family circle and rarely even invite friends to celebrate with them, he was about to spend the next three or four days at home, alone in his apartment, with no idea how to keep himself busy. Schmitz found this statement very interesting and true, reflecting great cultural differences, especially when you compare ­Germany with India. “When I think about how, in India, Diwali is celebrated,” he wrote, “and nobody needs to be alone because everyone is invited to many festivities, I could understand my seat neighbor’s sad vibes; it was an unfortunate thing because, for us, Christmas is actually the feast of love.”

What’s my point? Firstly, please don’t feel disappointed, upset, or even offended if you, when traveling to Germany, are not welcomed as warmly as you would assume is polite or decent, by your own standards. When a German suggests that you visit a restaurant together in the evening (after Feierabend), that is generally a very good sign.

Secondly, if you are hosting Germans, take care not to tax them with your (understanding of) hospitality. For example, try to give them some space; do not feel that you must entertain them from early morning until late evening. We are generally not used to that much attention and interaction, and it can make us feel uneasy. You may offer us a place to sleep at your house, but don’t be surprised if we would rather stay at a hotel. When taking care of lodging, assume that your guest will prefer a quiet place over a hotel that is located in the most happening part of town. When making a reservation, insist on a non-smoker room (unless explicitly requested otherwise), and in case you prepare a bed for the night in your house, turn down the air conditioning a bit—a German might easily freeze at what you consider a “pleasant” temperature (the same applies to meeting rooms).

When spending more than just one afternoon together, from time to time, I suggest you ask your visitors whether they would like to take some rest (read: enjoy some privacy). Don’t chauffeur your visitor through the country for hours; no matter how much we might love cars, we tend to have a much lower tolerance level for prolonged sitting. Always tell your guests what’s next; instead of “we’ll pick you up after lunch,” better tell them “we’ll give you a call from the reception at around three in the afternoon.”

Help them understand how you like to spend your evenings when you invite them home for dinner. One of my Indian aunties (may God rest her soul), for example, told me, “In India, first we drink, then we eat, and then we fall into our beds.” That was the most valuable intel for me. Tell your guest, so Frau Vogt doesn’t have to fear that there will be no food, and before Dr. Sittel concludes he has joined a group of alcoholics. In Germany, the “hard stuff” like whisky is served only after dinner, and then, it may turn out that the visitors sit there forever. Tell Frau Krumm if, in contrast, the dinner guests would usually leave quite abruptly; otherwise, she might think that something has just gone terribly wrong!

Don’t attempt persistently talking your guest into tasting this and that, or having one more helping. Usually, a German would finish his or her plate, and if still hungry, would ask for, or rather, not decline another helping. No need to insist! If we would like to have some tea, we would generally simply say “yes, please” if offered some, or reply “only if it’s no inconvenience to you.”

You will most likely sense when your guest is somewhat familiar with your culture’s habits; if your visitor has memorized some dos and don’ts (of how to “normally” behave in your country), it may otherwise become tricky if you strictly follow my advice. However, no matter how much the person knows about the etiquette in your country, please don’t “force” your guest to, for instance, taste chicken feet, bull penis, or dried squid. Some foods simply don’t appeal to our taste buds or are taboo for other reasons, and while you might feel sad or offended when we decline, your guest might feel like throwing up when only thinking about the offer.

Germans tend to consume less sugar than people in many other places, so don’t be surprised if the dessert remains untouched. Generally, it is always a good idea to (also) offer something light and vegetarian; not too much fast food, if possible. Unpack the food (like chutneys or ­sandwiches) before serving it and choose china plates over plastic dishes. Irrespective of the jetlag your guest may experience, consider that a ­German might feel hungry before your “normal” mealtimes. We are not used to eating after 8 o’clock in the evening, for instance.

It is certainly up to you if you want to ditch someone over declining your dinner invitation, because, for example, he or she would argue that, unfortunately, he or she has already checked in for the return flight to Düsseldorf. However, keep in mind that your potential business partner typically would have flown to Moscow only to “talk shop,” planning only the time needed to travel to your office and back. Herr Lamprecht might not have a clue that he is not only missing a very good opportunity, but also offending you. And, think twice before jumping to (the wrong) conclusion when Frau Memminger declines your very generous surprise gift.

Speaking of presents, there are some items you should (also) be careful with. Some years ago, an Indian gentleman gifted me red roses as a welcome present, when he came to pick me up from my hotel room (don’t do that either!) in Chandigarh. I felt very confused and uncomfortable because, in Germany, only someone in love with you would gift you that particular flower. You can bring flowers when invited to a dinner party in Germany, but better tell the florist what the purpose of the gift is and who the recipient is; there are flowers for love, for funerals, and so on. Also, it would be better not to present a bouquet with (the unlucky number of) 13 flowers. Typically, a bottle of wine, chocolates, or a fruit basket are good options. If you bring something from your country, that will also be appreciated. Some small decorative item, like a pen holder for the office or a wall calendar, for example, is also an appropriate gift. Consider the gift wrapping carefully; I am not talking only about how you wrap the paper (Germans are rather negligent in this department), but about the paper itself. It is better to choose a rather simple, not too glittery, paper, for ecological reasons and considering taste preferences. Take care that the paper does not smell intensely of print color or carry traces of naphthalene. Don’t gift us something with a Swastika on it because, for us, the symbol relates to the (unpleasant memory of the) Nazi Hakenkreuz.

Compliment your hosts for their good taste in furniture and home decor, show interest in the books that are displayed on the shelf (but “please don’t touch!”), and tell them how much you like the food; but be careful with complimenting the lady of the house for anything that (for you) might be typically “women’s business.” It is advisable to generally be careful with paying compliments to German women, especially during business meetings: Pointing out that it is a pleasure to talk to such an attractive lady will easily give the woman you are addressing the idea that you are unprofessional, immature, afraid of women, or just stupid. Once, a potential client told me over dinner, when I put down my specs to enjoy my steaming soup, “Without glasses, you are beautiful!” Even if you are utterly surprised by the previously hidden beauty of your prospective business partner, just swallow it. Yes, some flirting, if appropriate, might not harm, even in a business situation, but don’t forget if you are talking to a person from another background/culture, chances are high that he or she is not familiar with “your” savoir-faire. But, it is still a good idea to hold the door for women (and men, too!) or help the other person with her (or his) coat—you wouldn’t see that very often, but if some gentleman struggles, you can help.

When you are having lunch or dinner is a better time to exchange more non-business-related thoughts than during the “typical German” two-minute-or-so small talk. Germans like to hear compliments about “Made in Germany,” but at the same time, as individuals, often prefer being considered “not a typical German” (that is regarded as a compliment). Your knowledge of German history will surely be appreciated, but pointing out how Hitler must be admired for his leadership skills is really not a smart move, trust me! If you want to flatter your companion, better talk about Germany as a great football nation or the beautiful places you have visited/heard of.

Germans like to have a “meaningful conversation,” although German resident Neil Deane from Liverpool writes in his book, Modern Germany, that “the German might regard what we call an argument … as a meaningful discussion” (Deane 2014). Please don’t feel offended when people tell you how much they condemn any deficiencies observed in your homeland, which one can easily point a finger at from afar. Poverty, child labor, pollution, narrow-minded political leaders, one-child policy … you name it. Or—heaven forbid!—arranged marriage. I am not saying that you should not contradict or contribute your perspective, but sometimes, in my humble opinion, it’s better to just try to change the subject. Ask what their plans are for the next holiday, or inquire whether the Sunday evening crime-serial Tatort is worth watching.

The aforementioned are normally “safe” questions; people would not feel offended or awkward to respond. Never ask a woman why she’s not married (heaven forbid!), or why people don’t have children. Depending on where you come from, asking questions about one’s marital status, existence of children, digestion, or salary might be part of getting to know another person; most Germans would perceive these questions as far too personal.

You may show a photo or two of your family, but leave it at that. No need to show a picture of your daughter at her graduation, on her last birthday, the one before that, at the Diwali party, Christmas party, on holiday in Goa, holiday in Thailand … yawn!

When invited to a German home, it might be a bit tricky for you to figure out when your hosts expect you to leave; I suggest that, after dessert and coffee, which is maybe served along with a digestif (cognac or schnapps, which you don’t need to accept), you inquire about until when a taxi (or train or bus) will be available, so you can be told what would be the best option to choose (including timing).

I think now, it’s time for me to call it a day, too. At this point, I have nothing more to add, except for wishing you well with your future (­business) encounters with Germans.

All the best!


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