Business Communication Customs in Germany
Germany is oft referred to as the most important market in the European Union. A vital trading partner for all the nations that are presently active in the German market, Germany presents stiff competition for foreign companies that would like to enter its market in the near future (Graff and Schaupp). Companies that would ultimately gain a competitive edge in the German market are those that would learn the business communication customs of Germany.
In a world where English is considered the international language that almost everybody is expected to know, German business customs require at least some knowledge of the German language. Ninety nine percent of the Germans speak their own language using a number of regional dialects (“Germany”). A large number, if not the majority of businesspersons in Germany are uncomfortable communicating in the English language.
It is not unusual for them to claim that they know only a little bit of English and do not understand it especially when a foreigner speaks fast. This is perhaps the biggest challenge for a foreign business to confront when planning to enter the German market. Foreign businesspersons who have not learned German must speak English very slowly, that is, if they find people who claim to know a little bit of English.
Moreover, German businesspersons do not hesitate in making a foreigner feel foolish for not knowing the German language. Even international companies in Germany would not always accommodate English speakers that do not know the German language (Gelsi). A foreigner describes her employment experience with an international manufacturer in Germany thus:
Knowledge of the German language was a requirement for my position, since the primary task was to assist the Material Control Manager in her daily routine, and her most incumbent task was the exchange of information and communication within Germany.
During these phone or fax exchanges, no English was spoken, so that the person taking the position would have to know German to some degree (Gelsi).
Although Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is the world’s largest retailer, striking “fear into the establishment of every new industry it considers entering,” its business practices have been misunderstood in Germany seeing that the giant simply translated its American writing into German without learning the German language with all its nuances (Shaw and Tait). According to a Business Week report:
To American eyes, the new ethics manual is standard stuff. But when Wal-Mart Stores Inc…distributed the newly translated code to German employees a few weeks ago, it caused a furor. They read a caution against supervisor-employee relationships as a puritanical ban on interoffice romance, while a call to report improper behavior was taken as an invitation to rat on co-workers. “They have to communicate better,” says Ulrich Dalibor, an official at the ver.di service-workers union, which represents German employees of the Bentonville (Arkansas)-based retailer (“Wal-Mart: Struggling in Germany”).
Of course, there are many other business communication customs for Wal-Mart and other foreign entrants in the German market to learn. Germans are often considered stiff-lipped serious by foreign businesspersons (Graff and Gretchen). In actuality, however, Germans are known to place a high value on their privacy. In the German mind, there is always a division between the private and the public life. Consequently, Germans are known to wear a shell of protection in business. Intimacy is not freely expressed, and so it is not unusual for foreign businesspersons to suppose that Germans are cold.
This is not true, however. Although foreign businesspersons must show restraint in their initial contacts with the Germans – sticking to business and avoiding extra friendliness that may appear intrusive to the Germans – after some time the foreign businessperson would realize that Germans are as friendly as everybody else.
Nevertheless, the business communication style accepted in Germany is always straightforward, succinct and absolutely to the point. Emotions and unneeded verbosity are certainly not welcomed in business. Rather, formality and the rule of ‘mind your own business’ would help the foreign businessperson immensely (“Doing Business in Germany”).
Due to its directness, the German business communication style may even be considered confrontational. In spite of this, Germans do not welcome criticism that is directed at people. In business planning as well as discussions, it is common to openly and freely express criticism that is directed at various aspects of the project, business, or problem at hand. All the same, Germans never mean to express disapproval of persons in this manner, although foreign businesspersons that are unaware of the business communication style of the Germans may suppose that the latter are expressing “personal disapproval” thus (“German Culture Overview”).
German businesspersons are used to the telephone for important followup calls. They also use the fax very often. However, they do not discuss vital business decisions over the telephone. What is more, a German executive should never be called up at his or her home without his or her permission.
If permission has been granted, foreign businesspersons must be sure to address the Germans by their full titles. Indeed, Germans are quite attached to the idea of using complete and correct titles, regardless of the difficultly a foreigner may experience in pronouncing German names (“Germans”).
The use of the Internet for communication with public authorities is also quite common in Germany. In fact, one-third of the German people use the Internet to communicate with public authorities through the websites provided by the latter (“One third of Germans use Online Services provided by Public Authorities”). Foreign companies may find this communication custom rather convenient while searching for information about taxes and business legislations in Germany.
Foreign companies that would be interested in establishing their branches in Germany also have to know the business communication styles that are especially relevant to the German workplace. As an example, the German office culture requires the persons of higher rank – that is, persons that hold higher “professional positions in the corporate hierarchy” – to introduce the people that are new to their group (Graff and Schaupp). A trainee must, therefore, be introduced by his or her supervisor to his or her colleagues.
A new executive or employee would similarly be introduced by a senior executive or his or her manager. Moreover, when a new trainee, employee or executive is introduced to the group, it is common courtesy in the German workplace to stand up and walk out from behind the desk to greet the new individual. This action is understood to reduce communication barriers between colleagues, thereby creating an atmosphere of comfort between members of a group (Graff and Schaupp).
Also in the German office culture, it is common to shake hands. However, the initiator of the handshake is usually the colleague who has a higher rank in the corporate hierarchy. He or she has the right to either offer or refuse his or her hand. On the other hand, a foreign businessperson who is introduced to a German group must be the first to extend his or her hand before being introduced to the group. Furthermore, it is part of the German business communication customs to extend one’s hand to the older persons first (Graff and Schaupp).
A foreigner who is prepared to work in the German workplace must additionally be aware of the communication custom in place for meeting with German bosses. Essentially, any individual who knocks at the door of his or her boss must have developed a strategy for communicating his or her needs. There are three kinds of questions that an employee needs to formulate answers to before meeting with his or her boss: (1) How shall I develop a discussion that is constructive and deals with my salary and promotion?; (2) How shall I accept and offer criticism?; and (3) How shall I assertively voice my opinions?
If the employee is not ready with the answers to the above questions, it is very likely for him or her to simply be rebuffed by the German boss (Graff and Schaupp). After all, the German boss has a variety of interests to consider. Besides, he or she is most likely to appear stiff-lipped serious unless the employee has been with the company for a long time.
Time is money for the German businessperson. Hence, foreigners that would like to conduct business in the German market must prepare themselves to strictly talk business. Then again, it is best to learn some German so that straightforward communication is possible and little to no time is wasted.
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Graff, Joachim, and Gretchen Schaupp. Mind Your Manners: Tips for Business Professionals
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“One third of Germans use Online Services provided by Public Authorities.” Mittlestands. 2007.
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