Germany is valued around the world for its precision engineering, especially in the auto industry. At the same time, for many cultures, working in Germany can be challenging because of the direct communication style and high need for detailed information.  Understanding German business protocol is the first step toward success in Germany.

German Worldview

Individual Orientation
Self-reliance; responsible for conduct of own life; independence

Balanced Competition
Brings out best in individual; challenges to produce best possible outcome, yet a strong sense of collaboration persists

Task Orientation
Scheduling, punctuality emphasized; time is a commodity not to be wasted

Democratic ideal;  large middle class; long tradition of “Mitbestimmung” (employee co-determination), but respect for organizational hierarchy

Need for Certainty
Stability desired, less tolerance for risk.  Managerial guidance appreciated and expected.  Comfort with structure.

Strict application of formal rules without much attention to context

Exact Time
Focus on accomplishing tasks “one at a time” and sequentially.  Strong analytical orientation.

Cultural Assumptions

  • Desire for stability and caution toward change
  • Value of academic accomplishments and formal knowledge
  • Respect for authority and formality
  • Punctuality (reflects reliability and discipline)
  • Strong distinction between public space (formal at work) and private space (informal with family and friends)
  • Healthy balance between work and leisure time
  • Thoroughness in decision making (analytical, theoretical, deductive)
  • Strong sense of order
  • Detail orientation; tendency toward perfectionism
  • Emphasis on procedures
  • Honesty (may be perceived as overly critical and blunt)
  • Social responsibility

Values in Tension

  • Legacy of former communist East (GDR) and capitalist West Germany (FRG)
  • Germany (FRG)
  • Formality among older generation (use of “Sie”) vs. informality of the younger generation (use of “Du”)
  • Strong sense of order and discipline vs. crowding and pushing when standing in line
  • Lack of mobility vs. open employment market across the European Union (EU)
  • Sophisticated language indicative of social status vs. increasingly pervasive use of “D-English” (use of Anglicisms)
  • Traditional Christian culture vs. increase of religious diversity entering mainstream society, particularly Islam

German Communication Style

Low Context
Little attention is given to non-verbal cues & body language.

Emotions are discredited as unprofessional; in a business context, trust and credibility are developed through suppression of emotions; tendency to be more emotionally expressive with family and friends, particularly in southern Germany.

Comfort in knowing the rules; protocol important; sensitivity to position and age.


Guidelines for Communicating with the Germans

  • Germans tend to make a strict distinction between work and social life; therefore expect little “small talk” in a business context.
  • Greetings are formal and tend to include academic titles (“Guten Morgen, Frau Doktor Faust”).
  • Few hallway conversations; once you have greeted a person in the morning, there is no need to say “hello” when passing in the hallway.
  • Germans tend to say their last name when answering the phone; e.g., “Miller!”
  • There is a strong preference for a direct communication style.  People may say,  “you are wrong”.
  • In a business context, maintaining good relationships is second to getting the facts straight.
  • Business interactions tend to be unemotional and fact-driven. However, in conflict situations, Germans often defend their position strongly and loudly (independent of job level).
  • Germans tend to think and argue deductively, using theoretical knowledge to build an argument. “It has worked in the past” will not buy you much credibility.
  • Germans are very detail-oriented and tend to ask a lot of subject-related questions.
  • Based on their detail-orientation, they tend to talk at great length.
  • Based on their fact-orientation, they may appear confrontational and overly critical.
  • Criticism is viewed as a sign of forthrightness and honesty.
  • Praise is rarely given, and when it is given, it is understated, e.g. “gut” (good) rather than “fantastic.”

Non-Verbal Dynamics

A polite nod accompanied by a firm handshake is a common greeting, both in a business as well as social context; eye contact is made and held during a face-to-face conversation.

Hugs and embraces are common in a social context; the occasional pat on the back (from the older superior to the younger subordinate) may be seen in a work environment.  In general, not a high touch culture.

In public, space is less of a physical concept: people bump into each other in the street and push others when queuing; it is more a concept of the mind.  People tend not to smile in public with people they don’t know.

Business Practices

PROBLEM SOLVING Direct; individualized; principled; fact-oriented; no face-saving concerns or need for harmony.
MOTIVATING PEOPLE More responsibility; moving up in the company; time off (as monetary rewards are taxed at a very high rate)
APPRAISING PERFORMANCE Performance and target-based; subject expertise important; in public/government institutions, length of service is one aspect of performance appraisal.
PERFORMANCE EXPECTATIONS Focus on individual; very task-oriented; “Hoechstleistung” (to give your best) is expected and nothing less; depending on the position and the nature of the organization, working overtime might be expected.
NEGOTIATING, PERSUADING No decisions are made until all parties involved are heard; negotiations are fact and subject matter based.
DECISION MAKING PROCESS Consensus-finding; thorough decision-making phase is followed by swift implementation phase.
PARTICIPATION IN MEETINGS Meetings are only scheduled when necessary; punctuality important; agenda is followed; lengthy discussions of agenda items possible (expression of need for thoroughness).
Respect for authority; yet open and even confrontational discussions between subordinate and superior are accepted if they are fact-based and related to the subject-expertise of the subordinate.
HIRING Jobs are changed infrequently (long-term thinking); labor laws support job stability and make it difficult to dismiss people. This, in turn, may make employers (particularly of smaller companies) very cautious and selective when hiring people.
CUSTOMER RELATIONS Development of long-term relationships; trust is created based on high-quality and reliability of services and products; quality may override price considerations.