During the research phase for this article, I asked a high-ranking bank manager how she would define German Business Culture in a nutshell, and she promptly stated: “Be honest, be friendly. Tell me something of interest, be clear about what the goal of the conversation is – and you’re in.”

There is nothing wrong with pleasantries and niceties, but it should be clear why an introduction is happening and where the conversation is heading. In Germany, any attempt of schmoozing might be frowned upon, if not immediately raise suspicion. www.expatrio.com sums up these aspects of German Business Culture as follows: “Business is taken seriously and German values such as fairness, loyalty, punctuality, professionalism, and reliability should be reciprocated.”

The Ultimate Guide to German Business Culture

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German Business Culture – The Gift Trap

A clear no-no and probably most frequent faux-pas in German Business Culture concerns presents, as my real-life source informs me. Much as in the rest of Europe, this has lately become such a hot iron due to legal issues, that the upper limit for a company gift is – and yes you are reading this right – a whopping € 10. This quirky rule can bring a dilemma to the office: May HR provide brand cookies at the mingling? According to my source, the solution often is the ‘Bahlsen’ family package, as it provides variety within strict financial limits. But please do not consider bringing the cookies yourself, even if they are handmade by your associate’s grandmother.

Likewise, in case you thought of presenting your new business partner with a fancy fountain pen or anything engraved above the € 10 value, please refrain. It will present not a gift but a problem to your counterpart, as they may experience an unpleasant moment having to decline your thoughtful souvenir. It will have dawned on you by now, that gifts are not a good idea, with one exception: Ethics and social responsibility are highly regarded in German Business Culture. That way, a charity donation in your client’s name e. g. around Christmas time might be something to consider.

The Ultimate Guide to German Business Culture

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German Business Culture – The Dress Code

While in some corners of the world, sneakers and a loose shirt may suffice for an effort, do consider inspecting your wardrobe before embarking on a business trip to Germany. In times of start-up culture, things may in general have gone towards the casual side. However, it is always better to make sure you know the dress code of the company you are visiting (if unsure, drop an Email to HR and ask for the style guide). In the majority of workplaces, German Business Culture asks for a formal dress code: Men generally wear a suit and tie, whilst women wear trousers or a skirt and blouse, sometimes topped with a blazer. In the capital’s media firms, PR agencies and tech start-ups, you may find that people dress informally for work. This however should not be considered a given in an introductory meeting on your first day, nor is it the norm in other cities. Casually professional is your safest bet in Berlin, while I would still advise you to make upfront inquiries in case you will meet officials or managers from the middle to higher level. As for Frankfurt or Hamburg – count on your suit and temperate colours.

The Ultimate Guide to German Business Culture

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German Business Culture – The Meeting

Not being punctual in Germany shows disinterest and discourtesy to anyone who dragged themselves out of bed, even after a long night of negotiations. Make punctuality a priority, and turn up with plenty of time to look for the room in which you are expected. Please remember, communication in meetings and indeed anywhere else during a business event is formal and employees speak to each other politely but efficiently, as my source pointed out above. Some of the first name culture may have leaked into the German mind, especially in the start-up world, however – if unsure, better stick to the formal title and the surname. Don’t leave before the meeting or workshop has officially ended: German work ethics mean turning up on time and completing your day’s work. Fair conditions are the reward.

The Ultimate Guide to German Business Culture

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German Business Culture – The Handshake

With the pandemic being over, the good old handshake is back in the game. It is performed with the right hand, while the left needs to be outside of your pocket (!). This rule may have its limits for, say, Asian business partners, who prefer no direct physical contact, but it does make a difference in Germany. During the handshake, be sure to make eye contact. The whole ritual is trust-building and I still deemed the most polite way to greet each other in the German business world.

Kisses on the cheek however are a not the thing in German Business Culture, even if you are French and charming. It is fair to say that even at informal gatherings, the handshake is common as a greeting, especially between genders. Personal physical space should also be granted – it is a courtesy in Germany to keep a polite distance from your counterpart while talking to them. Italian and French visitors may find this custom awkward if not a little off-putting, while British business travelers may be more used to it. The handshake by the way is firm and rather strong than weak, which is German body language for: You can trust me to be honest.

German Business Culture – Negotiation Matters

All negotiations should be performed in a fair, open and transparent manner. Statements should be backed up with data and fair prices should be offered or requested respectively. To Germans, any form of bluffing or bargaining will be considered dishonest and may end the deal immediately and in the negative.

Are you here to offer a product to the German market? Whatever your pitch, please know that the quality of the product should be immediately obvious. German sales strategies are strongly product-oriented, built on the confidence that a good product will sell, and that quality speaks for itself. Also, Germans place a high premium on customer satisfaction by paying close attention to their customer’s needs. That way, the best pitch will be to demonstrate your product features and production processes transparently, instead of dwelling too much on a marketing story. Indeed, casually quoting Steve Jobs with “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”, might come across as a tad dishonest in Germany.

It may at this point not surprise you that in contemporary German Business Culture, any whiff of bullying is much frowned upon, even if packaged as a negotiation skill. Not only due to the much-improved gender balance over the past decade, German Business Culture today nourishes a nuanced and human-centered approach while skipping on pushy or domineering practices and attitudes.

German Business Culture – Business and Social Worlds

In Germany, work and social life are clearly separate worlds. The ‘after-work drink’ at the Pub is not common here. Instead, everyone works their full hours and then drives home or elsewhere to start their social part of the day. There is usually no leaking of one world into the other, and a business lunch or dinner will be exactly what the term indicates. Handshake and punctuality by the way are as important in German social life as in the business world, Berlin being the notorious exception to the rule of course. But even in the easy-going capital, your first approach to all encounters, business or otherwise, should be honest, transparent and straightforward. Your experience will be the better for it.

The Ultimate Guide to German Business Culture

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