I have thought long and hard about how to summarize all that I’ve learned in my years of living, working and doing business with Germans. If somebody stopped my on the street, outside of a workshop setting, and just asked for some quick advice, what would I tell them?
On the one hand, I am not a big fan of generalizations. They often do more harm than good, as they lead to prejudice and stereotypes, and close our mind to the reality of the unique person across the table. But on the other hand, I do love concision. Decision-making can rarely afford to pore over tomes of literature. So here are three suggestions that have made it to the top of my list of things to keep in mind and apply when doing business with Germans.
1. Be thorough
Germans are renowned the world over for their thoroughness and organisation. Thoroughness and organisation have won them the World Cup. Thoroughness and organisation lead the way in many workplaces across Germany. And it’s thoroughness and organisation that make the future more predictable and easier to cope with. I think it’s safe to say that Germans are not big on spontaneity, which they (often rightly so) equate with a hectic pace of living. They prefer predictability.
A focus on procedure, obeying the rules and respecting social norms is their system of anxiety reduction. It’s best if you don’t challenge it. Come well prepared, think about every possible aspect, have relevant documents ready to present, consider potential consequences (both intended and unintended), and put as much as possible in writing. Germany is a formal culture, meetings are usually wrapped up with some kind of written document (minutes, agreement, conclusions, evaluation) that both sides receive so that the same info is shared and understood by both (low-context culture).
So do your homework and think longer term than you might be used to. Don’t be daunted by their apparent rigidity, it’s possible that deep down inside you have failed to address or clarify some aspect they consider important. Use meta-communication and address it in a factual, calm and respectful manner.
Which brings us to No.2:
2. Keep it factual
Germans love privacy and separate their work and personal lives. Don’t try to get intimate too soon. Depending on the context, even questions about the family or children can be perceived by German counterparts as irritating and not really relevant. Although they do use small talk, it will never be as personal as in some Latin or southern cultures. They usually prefer to get to the point without too many convolutions. Following a clear structure is important.
Avoid great outbursts of emotion, they do not belong in a business setting and the Germans won’t know what to do about them. Such outbursts will only rattle and insult the Germans’ sense of factual reasoning and they might also cost you their trust, since you don’t exhibit enough self-control. Keep the discussion factual and do not attack the person, in fact, try to separate the person from the problem. Don’t get upset if the Germans don’t show much interest in your person, they are probably just discreet.
They are however eager for concrete details related to the matter at hand. The German will want to know as much as possible (technical, legal, practical information) on the subject before reaching a decision. Be ready with a lot of clear factual information. Important decisions are rarely reached on the spot.
Germany is a linear-active or mono-chronic culture, which basically means things are done one at a time, one after the other. Wait your turn and let them finish the sentence/argument/previous customer before interrupting.
3. Plan ahead.
Germans like to plan and act for the long term. They appreciate this in others. They are uncomfortable with ambiguity. “Langsam aber sicher” (slow but safe) is still part of the German way of thinking. Planning ahead can save you and them the embarrassment of making a mistake and many financial losses. Once you have started down a certain path, stay the course, don’t change your mind every 5 minutes. Be patient, if necessary back your request for gradual amendments with strong facts. Pursue things carefully and consistently.
Don’t get upset if things take a bit longer, it’s probably those procedures and thorough meetings again. Keep this in mind and allow more time. Germans are not going to turn things on their head at the snap of a finger. Don’t expect quick fixes from them, Germans believe quick fixes are low quality and therefore undesirable.
For your part, be always on time. As a rational being you are expected to take into account (and factor into your plan) things like rush-hour traffic, finding your way in a new neighborhood, etc. Don’t blame external circumstances which you could have foreseen.
I hope this is einigermaßen useful. What has been your experience with German culture?