Germany is currently in a foul mood. Foreigners might argue that we always are, but now, even I notice. I am observing a decisive rift in our society, and while I intend to brief you on what makes the “typical German” tick, the nation, or more precisely those dominating the public discourse, seem to be suffering from a full-fledged identity crisis. What is going on in my home country these days goes beyond the common practice of soul-searching and collective navel-gazing, and woe betide anyone who does not have a clear opinion on the matter! Ambiguity tolerance is, for sure, not a German virtue (Şenocak 2011, p. 98), and maybe that is a good starting point to discuss what, respectively who, is German.
There are voices of third-generation immigrants who are tired of having to articulate whether they would identify themselves as German(s) or Turks, for example; ever since politicians, talk shows, and comedians have zeroed in on the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the antithesis of an enlightened Europe, some of those whose grandparents came to Germany as so-called “Gastarbeiter” (guest workers) during the “Wirtschaftswunder” (economic miracle) in the 1960s have been voicing their frustration about the subtle or open discrimination they, as individuals or a group, have been facing throughout their lives. They let off steam on YouTube, etcetera, and the echo is loud and nasty; not exactly civilized, well-mannered, or—one could also say—cultured.
Is it high time we define some behavior rules and write them down? Germans are fond of rules and are very much in favor of putting things in writing. Former Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière wasn’t the first and will not be the last to publicly argue in favor of a catalog of dos and don’ts labeled “Deutsche Leitkultur” (German guiding or leading culture), something those living in Germany, according to his world view, shall identify with. “We are an open society. We show our face. We are not burka!,” he wrote in a guest editorial for the popular (one could also say populist) Sunday newspaper Bild am Sonntag in April 2017 (Huggler 2017). De Maizière argued that there was an indigenous dominant culture in Germany that should be protected. By compelling people to shake hands? Seriously? I cannot help but conclude that his remarks were rather to entrench inequalities and marginalize many of those who just recently arrived in Germany from an eastern or southern direction. “There is something beyond our language, constitution, and respect for fundamental rights that binds us in our hearts, that makes us different, and distinguishes us from others,” he wrote (ibid.).
Only one year later, in early 2018, the freshly appointed Bavarian Minister President Markus Söder managed to make his point about the worthiness of (or the need for) the protection of Western Christian civilization (while being ridiculed by many people in and outside his dominion), enforcing that “‘als sichtbares Bekenntnis zu den Grundwerten der Rechts- und Gesellschaftsordnung in Bayern und Deutschland’” (ZEIT ONLINE 2018) (as a visible commitment to the fundamental values of the legal and social order in Bavaria and Germany), a cross shall be visibly hung at the entrance of every public building in the state (there are 16 federal states in Germany; Bavaria is in the south and commonly known for BMW and the Oktoberfest). The local head of the Catholic Church, Archbishop of Munich and Freising, Cardinal Marx, condemned this interpretation (one could also say hijacking) of the symbol (Drobinski and Wetzel 2018). What is going on, and where did all this come from?
When I ask people in Germany what years they vividly remember, then, according to their age, or depending on how long they have lived in Germany, almost all of them mention 1989, when the wall came down, followed by the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990. Many also fondly recall 2006, when Germany hosted the FIFA World Cup and when, after a long period of national self-denial, for the very first time, people confidently hoisted the German flag. That had, at least in a non-official context, been quite a taboo after the Nazi regime and Second World War. The official slogan “Die Welt zu Gast bei Freunden” (literally: the world as a guest with friends, or maybe more precisely: the world is hosted by friends) was translated for the English-speaking world as “A time to make friends.” I remember those four weeks as an ongoing party during which Germans painted their faces in the national colors black, red, and gold, with many of them wearing matching wigs, plastic flower-chains, goggles, t-shirts, and we do not need to know what else (most probably white socks), and embraced whoever happened to be within arm’s reach whenever the German national team scored. Which must have happened quite a lot considering that we (notice the “we”!) managed—to at least—win third place. But let’s not talk about the (lost) World Cup; rather, let me indulge in reminiscences of that German “Sommermärchen” (Summer Fairy Tale), in which a long-divided people were quite unbiasedly celebrating their national identity. That was a new thing! A phenomenon that was also observed with growing anguish from some peripheries of society.
Maybe this newfound spirit of unity helped (many) people cope with the impacts of the world financial crises of 2008 triggered by the bankruptcy of the U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers that severely affected the (current) world export champion Germany only two years later. Companies were doing their utmost not to lay-off their skilled labor force. Shorter hours at reduced wages were the reality for many workers and employees for many months. Some companies used the “free time” for trainings to upskill their workforce. The government invested in expanding the transport infrastructure, granted tax reductions, and launched a program called “Abwrackprämie” to make people buy new cars even though the economy was down; if you sacrificed your still-good-enough-but-slightly-outdated vehicle to the scrap metal press, your new car was subsidized by 2,500 euros from specially allocated government funds. The economy slowly picked up speed and the former “sick man of Europe” quickly became the class winner of the European Union. The success came at a price though, and I am not talking about how our popularity suffered when the former German Minister of Finance, Wolfgang Schäuble, insisted on introducing severe cost-cutting programs to be implemented by some of our less fortunate European neighbors.
One major reason for Germany’s success was the flexibilization of the labor market, already in progress, although it had the undesirable side-effect of shoving more and more people into precarious working and living conditions. Along with the so-called Hartz IV reforms (2005), which meant steep cuts, especially for the long-term unemployed, many nowadays see the highly held principle of a social market economy, Soziale Marktwirtschaft, go down the drain. Also known as Rhine Capitalism, the Adenauer administration after the Second World War had introduced an economic principle that was meant to combine a free market capitalist economic system with social policies. Starting with the baby boomer generation, people born and brought up in (West) Germany were raised to believe in the superiority of a fair competition welfare state. Until a few years ago, there was no need for low-paid workers to accept two or three jobs to make ends meet, and if you were given notice (dismissal protection has always made this difficult for employers in Germany), a densely woven net of social security was there to rescue you. Looking at these instruments of social policy, what is currently offered might not be exactly what many people from the former German Democratic Republic would have hoped for when they lost their jobs during the reunification process—often overnight. In the eastern parts of the now united Germany, the State had taken care of full employment, even when it was not exactly cultivating an environment of highly productive working conditions. A growing number of people nowadays feel left behind, and ever since Chancellor Merkel in August 2015 (this is yet another year to remember) opened the borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees and said to the people “Wir schaffen das” (we can do it), the country seems to be divided into more than just two camps.
How is all this going to affect you as an international business person?
Firstly, if you think of Germany as a rather rich nation (ready to buy your products), be aware that, while the economy prospers, the gap between the rich and poor has been widening remarkably over the past few decades. I am going to dig deeper into matters of population, economy, spending power, and regional differences in Chapter 1 (where to locate Germany on the world map) and Chapter 3 (economy).
Secondly, depending on where you are coming from, how closely you follow the news on Germany in your home country, and perhaps in accordance with the perspectives offered by the news channels you follow, you might feel slightly uncertain about the kinds of people you are going to deal with. When you come to Germany to meet your business contacts or clients, you might talk to some of the many men and women who embrace diversity and multiculturalism and subscribe to the idea of an open society, very often, even volunteering to help refugees learn German, find their way through the jungle of German bureaucracy, or find a place to live when they are finally granted a permit of residence. And, you should not assume that these are solely retired people with plenty of time at their disposal! You might also meet people with a rather liberal state of mind, but who would argue that the current influx of immigrants is just too high for our society (how that society is defined, and who belongs to it, is under review) to handle. You might feel tension in these discussions and a perceived need for them to take a stand. You could be surprised to meet children of former immigrant generations who are clearly trying to distance themselves from the people who are currently seeking asylum because, for them, the current issues mean that their own cultural heritages and identities are (yet again) a topic of public concern. And, even if you were not to talk to some of those who find themselves represented by conservative and right-wing parties and organizations, you will most probably hear a lot about “culture,” and what makes “the German” German. And, this is the kind of discourse I do not want to contribute to.
Rather, I intend to help you understand what makes people in Germany tick (Chapter 4), and explain how the past has shaped their minds (Chapter 2). Please do not skip these chapters because, only if you have understood certain concepts, values, and ideas presented therein, you will be able to better understand what I outline in the following chapters.
In Chapter 5, I will explain in more general terms how to fruitfully communicate with Germans and what pitfalls could lie before you that are best avoided. In Chapter 6, I will introduce typical business encounters such as attending trade shows, delivering presentations, and negotiating with Germans, and—using many examples—I will equip you with hands-on advice that you can use to develop strategies that will make you (even more) successful.
The book closes with some helpful tips on how to maintain (cordial) business relationships with your German business partners (Chapter 7).
A few words on the perspective from which the book is written. It is somewhat average in terms of who you most likely (statistically) would be dealing with: I was born in the 1970s, and after completing school at the age of 18 years, I first opted for a Duale Berufsausbildung (Dual Vocational Education and Training), becoming a Management Assistant in Publishing. A few years later, I studied business administration, and this is when I, for the first time, went abroad and had the opportunity to realize that what people in Germany (or at least members of the mainstream society) consider as “normal” does not apply everywhere else, at least not in India. I did survive the culture shock, and the interest in digging deeper into the topic of (inter-)cultural differences eventually led me to enroll in a master’s program in Intercultural Communications and Cooperation a few years later. I am now assisting foreign (i.e., non-German) companies in developing business in Germany and help them avoid or overcome the pitfalls one typically could or would fall into when dealing with Germans for the very first time.