Business Travel Tips for Germany

Business colleagues in meeting in Germany
••• Don't make cultural mistakes when traveling to Germany. altrendo images/Stockbyte/Getty Images

These days, business happens around the world. While business travelers are definitely heading to new business hot spots like China and Asia, some of the traditional business centers, such as Germany, are still going strong. If you're heading to Germany to do business, it's more important than ever to make sure you understand how to do business in Germany before you get there and to make sure you understand any potential cultural differences.

That's why I took the time to interview an expert in the area of cultural differences, Ms. Gayle Cotton. Ms. Cotton, President of Circles of Excellence, Inc., literally wrote the book on navigating cultural differences: Say Anything to Anyone, Anywhere: 5 Keys To Successful Cross-Cultural Communication. She's a recognized authority on cross-cultural communication.

What Tips Do You Have for Business Travelers Heading to Germany?

  • Germans often enjoy discussing politics and you'll find that they are very frank. Don't get involved in the political discussion unless you are well-informed.
  • Giving compliments is not part of German business protocol and usually causes only embarrassment or discomfort.
  • Refrain from using the standard U.S. conversation opener, "How are you?" which may be considered superficial.
  • Too much smiling and public gestures of affection are frowned upon, especially in the business culture. These displays are reserved for family and close friends.
  • Firm, brief handshakes at the time of arrival and departure are standard.
  • Eye contact during the introduction is serious, direct, and should be maintained as long as the person is addressing you.
  • In accordance with German business protocol, the eldest or highest ranking person enters the room first.
  • Germans tend to be intensely analytical thinkers. Objective facts are the basis for truth in German business culture and feelings are irrelevant, especially in negotiations.
  • There is a tendency among German businesspeople to be unreceptive to new ideas and concepts until well researched.
  • In business, Germans do not freely share information among the various levels of the same organization. However, the younger generation is becoming more open.
  • Flexibility and spontaneity are not prominent traits in German business culture. Concepts such as "brainstorming", "risk-taking", or challenging rules and authority are not necessarily considered desirable.
  • Generally, German businesspeople are reluctant to do something differently unless the reason is not only extremely convincing but also proven.
  • Business meetings are treated as serious occasions. Humor and jokes are reserved for socializing.
  • It's important that you bring a carefully planned, logically organized proposal to a meeting.
  • When you are preparing promotional or presentation material, be aware that German businesspeople are usually unimpressed by glitzy advertising, illustrations, and memorable slogans.
  • Brochures aimed at the German market should be serious in tone, go into lengthy detail, and make claims that can be proven.
  • Germans can be very sensitive to criticism themselves, so you should do everything you can to avoid embarrassing them, even unintentionally.
  • While Germans generally prefer to maintain an air of formality, they can become very emotional if their sense of order and routine becomes challenged.
  • Germans, generally, are very private people. Never discuss personal matters during business negotiations. It's important, however, to develop a comradeship with your associates, especially if you'll have to deal with them for a long time.

Any Tips on Gestures?

  • The "O.K." sign (formed by having the tip of the thumb meet the tip of the forefinger) should be avoided.
  • It’s also best to keep your hands out of your pockets and avoid chewing gum.

What Is Important to Know about the Decision Making Process?

  • Decision-making in German business culture is slow, protracted, and every detail relating to your proposal will be painstakingly examined.
  • Although you're likely to deal with a variety of people during the initial negotiations, only those at the top of the management hierarchy will make, and even be informed about, the final decision.
  • German businesspeople will present logical and often substantial arguments to support their position.
  • German businesspeople will not make concessions easily. They will, however, look for common ground and this is your best route to making progress when negotiations reach an impasse.
  • Contracts are taken very seriously in German business culture. Everything agreed to in writing is virtually guaranteed.

What Types of Topics Are Appropriate (or Inappropriate) for Conversation?

  • "Small talk" is not part of the culture in Germany. Conversation focuses on matters of substance and genuine interest. There is little use for superficial inquiries or observations.
  • Refrain from interrupting others. Allow each speaker to make his or her point before responding.

What Are Some Good Suggestions for Topics of Conversation?

  • Sports, particularly soccer, cycling, skiing, tennis, and hiking
  • Any topic related to travel
  • Beer is always a good topic of conversation. Germany produces some of the finest beers in the world, and seasoned drinkers enjoy comparing and contrasting the qualities of the various brews available.
  • Food and the distinct German Cuisine, as well as German wines. Many of the white wines, like Riesling from Alsace, are famous worldwide.
  • Architecture, the progressive German cities, scenery, nature, and the picturesque homes in the countryside.

    What Are Some Topics of Conversation to Avoid?

    • Anything related to World War II or the Holocaust.
    • Personal questions until the relationship is better established.
    • Work and family life are usually kept separate, so stick to the business at hand.
    • Current events and politics, unless you really know what you're talking about as it relates on a global basis.
    • Germany is a very proud culture, so avoid criticism of anything pertaining to Germany or the German people.