9 things you need to understand about German business culture

9 things you need to understand about German business culture

by Adriana Stein
March 1, 2021

You walk outside, and the brisk air meets your cheeks. The smell of fresh schnitzel dances through the air, as you stroll alongside the iconic Berlin Wall admiring the vibrant artwork. While approaching a beer garden, a group of scruffy gentlemen are cheerfully shouting “Prost!” right before downing their gigantic mug of Pilsner. 

Amazing bread, extraordinary architecture, endless heaps of potatoes. Oh, and did I mention Oktoberfest

But after the fun and games are over, Germans take getting down to business seriously, so understanding more about German business values is vital in order to avoid mishaps. 

9 things you need to know about German business culture

1. Learning German helps you understand Germans

In any culture, it’s a respectful notion to learn and understand their language. In Germany, this is no different. 

It’s a prestigious language considering some of the most prominent scholars are German, for example, Albert Einstein, and Eduard Buchner (a chemist who founded the process to make alcohol). 

Not only will you better understand these scholars through unfiltered language barriers, German is spoken widely throughout Europe, so having a basic understanding will allow you to communicate with one hundred million more humans

It’s no secret that learning German is a must to succeed in the workplace however there are other benefits that’ll bleed over into your new lifestyle.

By using everyday slang like “verarschen” (just playing around) or “prima” (someone or something is great!), you’ll be conversing like a German native speaker in no-time! 

2. Being on time means being early

Ordnung muss sein or “there must be order” is a phrase that embodies the German business spirit. Punctuality and order are taken very seriously. In fact, if you’re not 10 minutes early, you’re basically already late. It is a sign of respect to notify someone when running late for a meeting, and in Germany, this standard is held quite high. 

To make a good impression, especially if you’re coming to a job interview, I suggest setting your watch back fifteen minutes, just to be certain you’ll be on time for your business meetings.

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3. Deadlines are serious business

Deadlines are held to a high value in the same manner as punctuality. So if you’re new to working in Germany, make sure to ask questions if you’re unsure about deadlines. Missing one could be a life or death situation in regards to business relationships. And if you know you will miss one, make sure to always give advance notice.

4. Keep things formal, unless they specify otherwise

What may seem appropriate in your country’s business culture may not be in the German culture. You do not want to be that person cracking jokes, and dropping f-bombs because doing so might will absolutely rub someone the wrong way.  

Instead here are some reminders to keep in your back pocket:

  • Use short and firm handshakes for introductions with eye-contact
  • Use titles to address seniority (unless they give you permission for something else)
  • Use the formal you (“Sie”) when addressing pretty much everyone for the first time. Reserve the informal you (“du”) for friends, family, and children. When in doubt, always speak in the formal form unless they specifically say that you can be informal.
  • Dress codes are more conservative, so dress accordingly (on a personal note and as a lover of pajamas like many other Americans, this one has been especially tough. Seriously, always dress your best in Germany when out and about)

5. Big decisions take time (and maybe even small ones)

In my experience, Germans are a lot like my Vater, or dad. Let me explain.

As a kid, when my dad was ready to purchase a new car, it was never an instant swipe of the credit card. Instead, we would bounce back and forth amongst many dealerships, making sure the decision felt just right. 

And Germans more or less follow this same rhythm when it comes to decision-making. They value comfort and consistency so much and they want to do everything right, so they plan things a ton and way in advance. Whether it’s a new BMW or a pencil, decisions will not be taken lightly. But, when a decision is made, it is final. 

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6. Follow the rules and stay organised

Following the rules, and staying organised are appreciated, so going against the grain could cause some serious tension – and actually that’s not just in business, it’s true across many elements of German culture in general. If you want a few concrete examples, check out how to avoid these common mistakes foreigners make in Germany!

7. Respect the company hierarchy

In the UK or US, boss-employee relationships are more fluid than in Germany. Especially in the US, employees express more individual values, thoughts, and ideas, whereas in Germany it could be considered rude to act in this manner with superiors.

With that said, a part of relocating to Germany is fully embracing their way of life – and rightly so, German culture has developed, because Germans want it that way. So however you must adjust yourself to fit into your new lifestyle, think of it as a growth opportunity. Once you accept that things are this way, it becomes a lot easier to live and work here over the long run. If you’re an expat, you left home and came to Germany for a reason, so it is your responsibility to try to get along with German culture.

8. Maintain a healthy work-life balance

Germans love their holidays and consider taking a break to be serious business. In fact, according to Statista, the average German works only 33,4 hours per week. 

While you get accustomed to your new business life in Germany, remember to savour the deliciousness of Kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes) or sip a nice Dunkelweizen in a beer garden.

Wherever life takes you while in Germany, just be sure not to work more than you live – and coming from the US where we work literally 24/7, this is something I seriously appreciate.

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9. Little to no small talk

Germans like to get straight to the nitty-gritty. So don’t be surprised if you go into a business meeting where people say hello and then more or less immediately start the meeting agenda. There may be a sentence or two mumbled about the weather, but as I mentioned above that time is super valuable, small talk can often be seen as a time-waster in German business culture. Here too, I can appreciate this as an American, because it does make conversation a whole lot more honest and straightforward.