Expats working in Germany may struggle in the new workplace or feel overwhelmed by a barrage of German regulations. We offer some advice to ease the transition into German business culture.
Expats working in Germany may find themselves struggling to find their feet in the new workplace. German customs such as the mysterious lunchtime greeting mahlzeit can leave foreigners confused, and German companies, with their government-imposed regulations and all-powerful works councils, function by very different rules to their counterparts elsewhere.
Germans are often described by non-Germans as having the following qualities: sensible, reserved, punctual, precise, cold, target-oriented, arrogant, sure of themselves, obedient, disciplined, plan-oriented, authoritative, stiff, unfeeling, direct, bureaucratic, professional, correct, self-assured, petty, highly orderly, strong, humorless, principled, reliable, perfectionist, organized.
This list is made up of stereotypes and/or prejudices that lie in the eye of the beholder and reflect reality to varying degrees. Nevertheless, we can identify specific behaviors through which we can distinguish members of the German culture from those of other cultures.
Behind these stereotypes stand cultural standards which determine the behavior of people within the cultural group. These firmly-anchored values, developed through the ages, are closely-associated with positive feelings for members of the culture. They need no reflection, are taken for granted, and are accepted by all members of the culture as ‘right’.
Cultural standards describe characteristics on an abstract and generalized level. They relate to the elements which are common to a particular nation. An individual German can, of course, significantly diverge from these standards.
However, the majority of Germans adhere to them, which explains the consistent impressions foreign business partners have of Germans.
Understanding German business culture
The most important German cultural standards are:
Focus on the task
The task is the central and dominant issue in all business interactions and also determines the style of communication. The relationship level assumes a more subordinate role in professional life. Germans usually think that operating at the task level should form the basis of all business contacts. The next cultural standard is closely related to this aspect.
Value of structures and rules
In German companies, there are countless rules, regulations, procedures, and processes. German business people prefer contracts and written agreements of all types. The existence of these things and their tight and consistent application, the adherence to them, and the rigid consequences, or even penalties, for not complying with them are in stark contrast to other cultures. On the one hand, this underscores consistency and a high degree of mutual obligation. On the other hand, this principle leaves little room for flexibility and individual determination.
Reliability and avoidance of uncertainty (rule-orientation, internalized focus of control)
Consistency and reliability are seen as especially important German traits. Members of the German culture have a high tendency to avoid uncertainty. They, therefore, develop binding rules and structures in order to foster certainty in dealings with each other.
German punctuality (time-planning)
The approaches described above have a strong impact on the relationship with regard to time. Appointments are precisely planned and it is expected that times that are set are adhered to. Punctuality is a matter of good manners.
Separation of private and public spheres
Germans exercise a strict separation between the various spheres of their life. They clearly vary their behavior with other people depending on the sphere of their life (private or business) in which they have contact with an individual as well as the closeness of the relationship (business partner or friend). This frequently leads to Germans in business or public life being seen by members of other cultures as very remote and cold and even as overtly unfriendly.
Directness of communication
Germans communicate very directly and explicitly. They formulate important statements directly and openly and without ‘window dressing’. They can appear rude and threatening without meaning to or even noticing it. In return, they do not easily recognize and respond to verbal subtleties such as indirect hints, messages ‘between the lines’, and many non-verbal signals. They can therefore often miss the decisive content of an interaction.
Culturally-specific behavior can be explained on the basis of cultural standards. This can aid in understanding what would otherwise be irritating, unusual, and strange events. This knowledge is therefore an important basis for constructive cooperation between members of different cultures.