German culture and etiquette

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German culture and etiquette

03/08/2018 Germany 0

What to expect when doing business in Germany

© Eleonore Breukel –

How we look upon and judge the lifestyle and workplace of other cultures depends on how we view the world from our own cultural background.

German Society

The Federal Republic of Germany, die Bundesrepublik Deutschland, consists of 16 States or Bundesländer with 82,5 million inhabitants. The Seat of the Federal Government is in Berlin. Besides the Federal oversight, each of the 16 States or Bundesländer however have strong political and economic systems at a local level.

There are large cultural differences between the States. People in the northern states are influenced by Protestantism and are considered sober with a more serious attitude towards life. The people of the predominantly Catholic south are characterized as talkative and gemütlich (sense of coziness). Differences are even bigger between the people of the rich and industrious West and the people of the East where the state of the economy leaves to be desired.

The German language

German is an Indo-European language. There is a total of 100 million native German speakers in Germany, Austria, parts of Switzerland, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein and Belgium. Germans working in the international arena all speak English.

German business culture.

Germany is a large country with a substantial internal market to serve. Nevertheless, German organizations are strongly represented worldwide. Many countries consider Germany to be an important and trusted business partner. In contrast to other countries large German business are often family companies.

Status and Formality

Today Germany has a very large middle-class and provides equal opportunities for all citizens. Germany used to be a class-based society which was officially eliminated in 1918. However, the acceptance of hierarchy in business and society, the social roles and the importance of social status are still related to the structure and mentality of the old class-based society. The old aristocracy still plays an important role in society and in business. Status is not oriented towards wealth but much more towards family background, education and the acquired position in business.

The first impression

First impressions are important. The respect you show towards others, your choice of words, the way you dress and your table manners, are a testimony of a proper education and good background. With the right attitude, education and background one can build the proper network of Germans.

  • Dress: business attire
  • Show respect for authority, knowledge and age.
  • Have your two hands above the table, at all times. European table manners ask that you hold your knife in the right hand and fork in the left hand unless you are left handed. This is in contrast to the American way where you place your knife on the plate, eat with your fork in your right hand and have your left hand in your lap.
  • Hold your wine glass at the stem when drinking white wine.

Addressing people

Be formal in all your business encounters;

  • Always use the last name of a person until you are invited to use the first name. For example: “Hello Mister Schmidt”
  • Use the proper title of a person “Professor Schultz how are you today?”, Or “Hello Dr. Schmidt”.
  • Even when you meet the same Dr. Schmidt at the tennis court or the supermarket you still address him with his title and last name.

Ordnung, Gründlichtkeit und Pünktlichkeit

Ordnung: From being an agricultural country with peasants and aristocracy Germany became industrialized at the beginning of the 19th century. There were and there still are today, strong leanings towards order, structure and obedience of rules and regulations, both in corporate life, as well as in society. This is not always easy to understand or to cope with for outsiders. Unstructured meetings, projects or presentations as well as the absence of clear instructions make Germans insecure.

  • Present well-structured plans.
  • Give clear instructions to your team members or subordinates.
  • Offer structure and clarity of thought when communicating.

Gründlichkeit and Pünktlichkeit: Gründlichkeit (thoroughness) made the Germans famous for their solid high-quality products. If one does not think of each and every detail before taking action one may encounter unexpected problems along the way. Germans feel the need to oversee the exact outcome of a project or an action beforehand. Once all the details are worked out the project will most likely to be implemented smoothly.

At the same time this Gründlichkeit causes enormous irritation at the international meetings table or when decisions have to be made. Outsiders often feel it delays and obstructs decision-making processes. However, Germans are also very Pünktlich or punctual and avoid surpassing set deadlines.

  • Profit from this thoroughness and see it as a way to prevent problems.
  • Understand that thoroughness keeps your team sharp.
  • Plan enough time beforehand to go through the details.
  • Make sure, that there are well defined time lines with deadlines.
  • Check regularly if anything new has come up.

The double Competence standard in business

One has to realize that within German organizations people are either experts in their field and have in depth professional knowledge, or they have knowledge of general management. Dr. Schmidt may have in-depth knowledge in his field but does not have the power to make decisions. This is often a delicate matter during international meetings. Other Northwest Europeans and in some cases also Americans may have more decision-making power than the Germans at the table. Most Germans first have to call their boss before taking negotiations to a higher level.

  • Study the organogram or structure of the organization.
  • Find out if the person you are to meet with has the authority to make the necessary decisions.
  • Know that titles on business cards may not represent the same position or function as in your own country or organization.
  • Explain to others what your function entails.

Making decisions and leadership

Decisions are made at the top usually after the interested parties have been consulted. Subordinates rarely disobey or openly question decisions or instructions from higher levels authority. Despite this, German corporate structures are relatively flat.

German leaders are hardly ever inspiring and charismatic individuals. German leaders are usually authoritative, which inspires trust. They are goal and profit oriented with a deep concern for the wellbeing of the workforce as well as the environment.

German leaders motivate their people to collectively contribute time, effort and creativity to the innovation of products. They stimulate the personal growth of their employees which contributes to a successful organization.


Meetings are usually formal. People shake hands when entering the meeting room. Punctuality is key. One keeps to the agenda. Meetings are held to discuss matters, to obtain information and various opinions, as well as communicating decisions taken at the top. Decisions are rarely made during meetings. Germans feel the need to discuss all details of a project before taking any actions. Internationally this may lead to protests at the meeting table as this may seem to obstruct taking a project ahead and making decisions at the right time.

  • Stick to the meeting agenda.
  • Offer clarity of thought.
  • Allow plenty of time for questions.
  • Germans enjoy a good discussion.


  • When you present to a German audience make sure that your presentation is structured and consists of bullet point information backed up by detailed information in links.
  • Frequently ask if there are any questions about the topic you present.
  • Detailed information also shows that you are qualified to handle the job. Always mention your sources.
  • Avoid funny animations. Remember, business is a serious matter.

Your international virtual team

Wether you are Brazilian, French, Japanese, Dutch, Indian, English, Chinese, American or any other nationality your German team leader expects from you;

  • Structure, order and obedience to the rules set out by or for the team.
  • Strict time lines. Do not arrive late or surpass deadlines unless communicated well in advance.
  • Openness, transparency and at times pro-activeness.
  • Sharing of information within the team.
  • Loyalty to the team and the team leader.
  • Not to surpass the team leader.
  • Copy the team leader in our emails to others.
  • To be comfortable with receiving instructions of the team leader.
  • To keep the team leader informed of any changes at all times.

© Eleonore Breukel