The Cultural Commandments: Germany

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Germany is a relatively new country, not being unified until 1871, after the Franco-Prussian war. It is still characterized by decentralisation and compartmentalisation. The 16 states (Länder) have considerable autonomy and different lifestyles. München (Bavaria), Stuttgart, Köln, Hamburg and Frankfurt stand out as powerful regional centres. The capital was moved from Bonn to Berlin after re-unification in 1990.

The basic characteristics of traditional German business culture are a monochronic attitude toward the use of time; a strong belief that Germans are honest, straightforward negotiators and a tendency to be blunt and disagree openly rather than going for diplomacy.

1. Be thorough…then check everything again

Grϋndlichkeit (thoroughness) is a core German virtue. You should show a mastery of facts, figures, and every last detail. Fill out the background and context at great length. Repeat. Check understanding. Go through all potential problems and eventualities openly, and demonstrate how you will solve them. Then ensure that everyone has clear instructions what to do next. The same thoroughness applies to quality.

2. Be direct and honest

The old joke goes that a Frenchman and a German are about to be guillotined. The brave Frenchman elects to lie on his back. Miraculously the blade stops an inch from his neck. Under the rules, he is free. The German – not wishing to appear less brave – also lies on his back, staring skywards. Just as the signal is given he cries ‘Stop! Halt!……………….There is something wrong with the mechanism…’

Germans tend to insist on the scientific truth, however painful, and trust each other to tell it with no taboos. ‘Hmm….interesting idea’, which Brits readily interpret as ‘Forget it!’ really does mean an interesting idea in Germany. Beware!

3. Don’t make it sound too simple

Life isn’t simple, is it?  So why pretend otherwise? To German ears, simple messages are not complete. After all, synthetic German grammar is complex and a weighty tool for (fair) negotiation. Don’t worry that they will nod off listening to you. They are used to waiting for the verb at the end of the sentence.

4. Be sufficiently formal

In meetings with Americans and Brits, Germans may follow suit and use first name terms. But as soon as you leave the room they are likely to revert to ‘Herr Dr.’ and ‘Frau Professor.’ Earning titles and authority takes time, energy and application. Showing respect for social and professional hierarchies and communication paths will gain points. Don’t forget to shake hands a lot, and never shout across crowded rooms.

5. Be serious

The world is constructed more for suffering than pleasure, so why be light-hearted and flippant at work? Over a few beers afterwards you can share a few jokes. If you don’t understand theirs you could always contact the German Institute of Humour (no joke) for an explanation. They take their humour seriously.

6. Respect privacy

German managers tend to keep the doors of their large offices closed. Many German companies are still private. Locks are secure, and security systems second to none. Remember that working life and private life are strictly separate. Do not intrude on leisure time.

7. Be on time

Germans are the most punctual of all peoples. Lateness is seen as a sign of unreliability. ‘Arriving late’ may mean a delay of only two or three minutes. In professional life observe schedules, action plans and delivery dates.

8. Know your duty

Duty or Pflicht is a must. You should be a good, un-troublesome citizen. Unlike many British, French and American people, Germans have no desire to be eccentric. They try to conform and not make mistakes. For instance, it is your duty not to drop litter. If you do, you will be told about it.

9. Prepare for some soul-searching

The French Enlightenment gave the world rationalism, but Germany countered in the nineteenth century with a deep journey into the soul, which continues today. Germans long for deep friendships and heartfelt discussions about life’s problems and enigmas. Give them time – the investment is worthwhile.

10. Be organised

Two Englishmen, meeting on the street may say ‘Hello’ and exchange brief words on the weather. Two Germans are likely to ask ‘Alles in Ordnung?’ (Is everything in order?). They can then go their separate ways relieved that things are as they should be. Follow the rules, be organised, do the expected. Ordnung is not just a word, but a world view. It does not, however, apply to German queues, which appear to arrange themselves along more Darwinian principles.

Note: this is an edited version of an article which originally appeared in The Diplomat.

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3 Responses

  1. Ulf Haga says:

    Dear Richard (Sehr geehrter Herr Dr. Lewis),
    Thank You for you article, there is nothing that I would change in it. However working with Germans, I would like to add two things:
    1. Estimation
    The word probably does not exist in the German vocabulary. Here in Scandinavia and Finland we used to give our best estimation when we do not have the precise answer available. We seldom get that from our German friends.
    2. Black box
    In our eyes the German organisations with their hierarchy are like black boxes. There are a lot of complicated routines and methods inside, unknown to us outsiders. After a time that feel like it would take years, your simple question will be answered in the greatest detail. Sadely, it is often then too late.
    We will put a copy of your article on our bulletin board
    Kind Regards,
    Ulf Haga
    Managing Director
    Hentec Oy Ab

  2. Marion says:

    Thank you very much
    As my father was born in Germany, and since I was influenced by some of the characteristics mentioned in this post, it all made quite good sense to me.
    Thank you
    Marion Burgheimer
    Inetcultural trainer

  3. Anne Collins says:

    This is a good guide for anyone new in the German business scene. It is certainly true for most Germans, even though a lot of them would say “Oh, then I’m not typically German”.
    Having lived in Germany for 22 years, I have experienced that in discussions, Germans often get stuck on one particular detail of the topic at hand, especially if they disagree and I notice myself coming back to the overall theme in my answers to ensure we don’t get side-tracked.
    A comment on “time”, Germans don’t really mind if one is late, but you have to let them know that you’ll be late.
    Thanks for the comments.
    Anne Collins
    Language trainer in Frankfurt am Main

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