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Communicating Effectively with Germans

- It's More Than a Firm Handshake

Understanding Their Perspective Goes a Long Way Towards Building Trust

To communicate effectively with Germans in a professional environment, you first need to understand their perspective. This will help you interpret their motivations, expectations and corresponding behavior. And if you can adapt your communication style and expectations accordingly, you are on your way towards successfully building the mutual long-term trust that Germans seek in all business relationships.

•    Communication style: Germans usually appreciate straightforward and direct speech. They are polite and have a formal way of communicating; they tend to think before speaking and do not like to beat around the bush.  This means that Japanese-style subtle or implicit communication may get lost in the German workplace.  This also means there is little appreciation for the American style of "throwing out an idea" before it is thought through.

•    Non-verbal communication: Do not forget to shake hands firmly with each of your German colleagues when greeting them and when you bid them farewell. Good eye contact is essential. To lighten the formal atmosphere in meetings, feel free to smile, but keep it natural - not forced. Emotions are not usually displayed, and do not be surprised if your German counterparts seem distant at first. Despite outer appearances, they are sensitive too, and will warm up to you once they get to know you.

•    Hierarchy:  Hierarchy is important to Germans, so is showing one’s knowledge of culture and education (Bildung). Make sure you address your German counterparts in the correct manner, using their title and last name. For example: Dr. Müller or Herr Dr.  Müller.  Showing respect for hierarchy does not, however, mean you cannot push back on your boss’ ideas.  Germans generally welcome a discussion with well thought-out, clear opinions, even if they differ.  If you are considerate, show your appreciation for hierarchal differences, and can prove your expertise, your German partners will respect you.

•    Risk taking: Not only do Germans dislike taking risks, but "Risk-takers are not necessarily perceived in a positive way," says Claudia, a German consultant in Brussels. They are cautious and task-oriented; they prefer to focus on processes and results. Because of this, they can be seen to lack flexibility at times, especially when new processes are presented. Germans may have difficulty interpreting other people's intentions, or reading between the lines. Therefore, remain patient as you introduce new ideas, especially if they involve taking risks.

•    Problem solving: Germans are pragmatic, analytical and logical, so they appreciate responses that are factual, precise and truthful. They value efficiency and do not appreciate improvisation, "winging it," or bluffing. They are solution-oriented and like to follow the rules. Come well prepared for your meeting and make sure you directly back up your statements with concrete facts and figures. They will think you are wasting time if you ramble with useless words or personal assumptions about the topic at hand. Transmit your information directly and efficiently, through the use of objective logic and expertise.

•    Time orientation: Germans usually prefer predictability over spontaneity, and have a linear way of perceiving time. They are highly organized and systematic, and prefer to complete one task after another. Pünktlichkeit (punctuality) is also essential, so when you have a meeting with Germans, be sure to arrive on time. Germans are loyal and appreciate long-term relationships. Therefore, if you become friends with Germans, remember to send them birthday emails or cards. Thoughtful acts such as these will help you establish long-term trust.

•    Teamwork and leadership: When working in teams, German employees are looking for strong leadership. They feel most comfortable when the roles are clearly defined and they know who is responsible for which tasks. To enhance cohesiveness within teams, Germans like face-to-face interaction. Therefore, if you are invited to go out for a meal or beer with your German team members, be sure to accept. To be höflich (polite) in German culture, show appreciation for their local cuisine, and take turns paying the bill.

•    Attitudes towards women: Despite the fact that Germany's Chancellor and many high-ranking government officials are female, in many ways, German culture still considers men as the traditional "bread winners." Thus, an attitude of men's superiority over women still lingers, despite an emerging shift towards gender equality among the younger generations. You may want to take this into consideration when negotiating with your German counterparts.

As a reminder, the above information represents general impressions based on experiences working with Germans in a business context and personal interviews.  These general descriptions are intended to help you communicate better with your German counterparts. Nevertheless, as in all cultures, all individuals are unique, with a vast repertoire of personality traits, attitudes and intentions. Please bear this in mind as you interpret this information.  

As an example, Germans living outside Germany for a long time may have completely different attitudes in the workplace. For instance, your business partner who has lived in the United States for five years may prefer to be called "Hans" rather than "Herr Schmidt." Furthermore, due to rapid advances in technology and increased globalization, attitudes and working styles have evolved more rapidly in some regions of Germany than others.  

When working with Germans, do not forget to take into account corporate-culture and generational differences. For example, although Germans tend to prefer strong leadership when working in teams, according to Kaspar, who is married to a German, "The leader is expected to take the lead, but the younger generation of Germans could flourish if you leave them a little more room and, at the same time, coach them."

To conclude, if you make an effort to understand the perspective of your German counterparts, you will communicate more effectively with them in the workplace. By successfully interpreting their motivations, expectations and behavior - and by adapting your communication style accordingly - you have a better chance of establishing mutual trust with Germans, which will help you build a successful, long-term business relationship with them.

by Anne Randerson, Ph.D. © 2012

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