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Doing Business in Germany

Business Etiquette germanyDoing business abroad brings people face to face with different cultures and practices. Prior to travelling to another country it is the norm not to consider factors such as differences in meeting etiquette, negotiation styles and business protocol. However, it is precisely these areas one should be addressing before doing business abroad if the success of the trip is to be given a better chance.

A lack of cross cultural understanding leads those doing business abroad to form stereotypes. Common terms used to describe Germany include humourless, aggressive, distant, stubborn and obsessed with details.


There are elements of truth within each, yet all emanate from our own cultural programming. For example, in the UK it is acceptable to swap jokes and have informal chats at work. When a Britain is doing business in Germany it is therefore likely that they will interpret the strict formality as dull and humourless. On the other hand, a German doing business in the UK may interpret working practices in the UK as unprofessional and unproductive.

This guide to doing business in Germany is intended to highlight some important key areas that one may encounter in Germany.

Organisation

Germans are often uneasy with uncertainty, ambiguity and unquantifiable risk. This has become manifest in both social and business spheres. Socially, Germans lean towards conservatism and conformism.

When doing business in Germany it is possible to notice a heavy emphasis on careful planning, consideration, consultation and consensus. This has developed an appreciation for detail, facts and statistics. Organisation is a means of negating uncertainty and averting risk.

Aversion to Risk

The emphasis on conformity combined with a fear of the unknown makes Germans very apprehensive about risk. Security is guaranteed through risk analysis.
 
This is achieved through careful deliberation and scrutiny based upon factual evidence as opposed to intuition or 'gut-feeling'. Written documentation is seen as the safest and most objective medium for analysis. A painstaking review of details ensures all relevant information has been taken into consideration.

Communication

Germans value their privacy. Mentally there is a divide between public and private life. As a result, Germans wear a protective shell when doing business. Since intimacy is not freely given, this may be interpreted as coldness. However, this is not the case. After a period of time walls and barriers eventually fall allowing for more intimate relationships to develop.

Communication styles in Germany may be perceived as direct, short and to the point. Formality dictates that emotions and unnecessary content do not have a place in conversation. 

Doing Business - Meeting & Greeting

Firm, brief handshakes are the norm when doing business in Germany. When several people are being introduced take turns to greet each other rather than reaching over someone else's hands.  Avoid shaking hands with one hand in your pocket. When women enter a room it is considered polite for men to stand.

German etiquette requires you to address someone using Herr (Mr.) or Frau (Mrs/Ms) followed by their surname. Only family members and friends use first names. Professional titles should also be used for doctors, academics, etc. Try and establish professional titles prior to any meeting.

Doing Business - Punctuality

When doing business in Germany, remember that punctuality is a serious issue. Business people work hard and are under a lot of pressure. Germans typically plan their time very carefully. It is considered bad etiquette to be late or early as it shows disrespect for peoples' time.

Doing Business - Humour

A common misconception is that the German sense of professionalism and strict protocol when doing business leaves no room for humour. An element of this true in that jokes are not commonplace. Yet Germans, just as much as anyone else, like to laugh and as long as it is appropriate, tasteful and in context then humour is acceptable.

Doing Business - Meetings and Negotiations

Germans plan ahead. Therefore, ensure you book meetings at least 2-3 weeks in advance. This is also applicable if you wish to have lengthy telephone conversations. Meetings are usually held between 11-1 p.m. and 3-5 p.m. Avoid Friday afternoons, the holiday months of July, August and December and any regional festivals.

Meetings are functional, formal and usually stick to a set agenda including start and finish times. The phrase 'let's get down to business' is definitely appropriate for German business meetings as small talk and relationship building are not priorities.

When entering a room the most senior of you should enter first. The most senior German counterpart should be greeted initially before any others present. Wait to be told where to sit. Treat the whole process with great formality.

The Germans will analyse proposals thoroughly. Ensure the information you provide is in written format and presented scientifically. Logical conclusions based on empirical evidence will only normally carry any weight. Remember decisions will not be made on your sales technique or charm but on concrete facts that demonstrate a sound opportunity with minimal risk.

Decisions are made slowly and methodically. Do not try to rush proceedings or apply pressure. If anything, enquire as to areas in which you may be able to furnish them with additional or more specific information.  Try and back-up information with insight from personal experience or professional qualifications. Once a decision has been reached minds are very rarely changed.

Doing Business in Germany

Germany is an important trade partner for many countries in the world. Learning how to do business in Germany and understanding its culture, business practices, business etiquette and protocol will only enhance the skills of international business people and lead to greater cross cultural success.

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