There are no hard-and-fast rules of business etiquette in Germany, but being aware of some of the unique aspects of German business culture can have a huge impact on how you’re perceived by your international colleagues. And when pitching potential clients or partners, an understanding of German office protocol and business trends can set you apart from your competitors.
Whether you’re traveling to Germany for work, are already doing business there, or are thinking about expanding into the market, it’s helpful to be respectful of cultural habits and customs. Workplaces are becoming increasingly global, and while you’re unlikely to cause offense as long as you’re polite, small misunderstandings among employees can hinder good cross-border work.
Here we answer some common questions about business etiquette in Germany. These answers will serve as a jumping-off point, ensuring you start your regional negotiations on the right foot.
1. How should you greet a German business person?
When working internationally, it’s important to establish effective communication between employees, and this all starts with how you introduce yourself. Brush up on your basic German phrases and greet people with a short, firm handshake and your best “guten tag.”
Business cards can be exchanged at the first meeting if that’s your style, though it isn’t always expected. In German business culture, business cards are typically dispensed to share contact details only when they’re needed.
2. What about day-to-day communication?
In email and in person, men and women should be addressed by their surnames preceded by the title herr or frau, at least until you get to know them better. Similarly, the formal pronoun sie is the most polite way of addressing superiors and people you’re not familiar with. In more laidback workplaces, however, and especially in younger or international companies, the pronoun du and first names will be used from the outset. If you’re unsure about what’s appropriate, listen to how your German colleagues address you and respond in kind.
Don’t worry too much about fumbling the pronunciation of certain German words. Your respect for the country’s language and culture will be appreciated regardless of how well you speak. You can find a more comprehensive guide to everyday etiquette at deutschland.de, which will help you to navigate evenings out with clients and getting around the country.
3. What should you wear to a business meeting in Germany?
Style of dress will vary between industries and cities, but generally speaking, German business attire tends to be a little more professional than most. A formal outfit isn’t expected in every workplace, but it’s best to leave the chinos and sneakers in the closet and slip into something a little sharper to avoid coming across as overly casual, especially in a first meeting.
Men and women will dress more conservatively in a traditional office setting in Germany, even during warmer weather, so a modern, well-fitting suit in a dark color with a white shirt or blouse is a safe bet. Pair your outfit with smart black or brown shoes. Loose-fitting, sloppy, or creased clothing will likely raise a few eyebrows in even the more casual workspaces.
Of course, every workspace is different. If you’re conducting business in Germany, take some sartorial cues from the locals and adjust your outfit as you become more familiar with the vibe of your office and industry. Always err on the side of professionalism to begin with, but like anywhere else in the world, what’s appropriate in the financial sector will look too formal at a tech startup.
4. How do Germans negotiate?
German professionals are well-known for being focused and direct. To uninformed colleagues, this can sometimes be misconstrued as abrupt, but don’t be intimidated. Everyone conducts themselves differently in negotiations, but many Germans prefer to keep their personal and professional worlds separate and may skip small talk and get straight to the matter at hand. Be firm and factual when making your points, try to avoid making too many jokes or chatting idly about the weather, and have a precise agenda in hand before entering into a business discussion.
It’s good business protocol in Germany to stick to the agenda and avoid spontaneously introducing new information or ideas during a meeting. Once a consensus is reached, a debrief and minutes will be shared, and any actionable points will be addressed on an agreed schedule. Attention to detail like this is an important aspect of negotiating in Germany, so make sure you’ve done your research and are thoroughly prepared for questions.
Doing business in Germany is a win-win
With the largest economy in Europe and a thriving startup culture, Germany is a highly desirable place to do business. Getting to know local customs and culture will go a long way toward getting your foot in the door with German clients and partners, and help you to seal the deal.
If you’re considering expanding into Germany or setting up a satellite office of any size, explore WeWork’s fully equipped, amenity-rich, and stylish workspaces in Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, and Munich; another is scheduled to open in Dusseldorf. Our coworking spaces and hot desks are also ideal for meetings or temporary workspaces while traveling for business in Germany.
Steve Hogarty is a writer and journalist based in London. He is the travel editor of City AM newspaper and the deputy editor of City AM Magazine, where his work focuses on technology, travel, and entertainment.