German Business Etiquette
"Sprichst du Deutsch?“ If you don’t speak German, business etiquette is still something you can master with a little foreknowledge. The following tips for doing business in Germany will help your business dealings go smoothly. Nonetheless, it’s always good to prepare yourself with an interpreter and a healthy appetite for schnitzel.
Being German: Manners Are a Matter of Character
Germans are renowned for running like clockwork. They take things seriously. Humor during business is not considered appropriate. They value precision, hard work, structure, and rules. They plan ahead and play by common guidelines. This means that high-risk, uncensored, spontaneous, cagey, or unpredictable behavior is not looked at favorably.
The German character may seem inflexible to Americans. For the Germans, these pragmatic, rule-abiding behaviors are considered courteous. It is actually the way Germans set reasonable, transparent expectations.
German Business Attire
Conservative business attire for both men and women is best in Germany. Business suits or ensembles, including skirts and blouses, are normal. Choose dark or medium colors. Avoid garish or flashy accessories.
Details matter in German business attire. Be sure your shoes are clean and polished. Keep hair, nails, and presentation detail-oriented and well-groomed.
German Business Etiquette and Communication
Honest and direct. Communication is something the Germans do without a lot of fluff, indirectness, or irony. So, you’ll be able to communicate without too many missteps.
Stay formal when addressing others. Use peoples‘ title and last name until given explicit permission to do otherwise. In Germany, men are addressed as Herr (pronounced Air) instead of Mr. Women are addressed at Frau (pronounced frow) instead of Ms. or Mrs.
For example, George Washington would be Herr Washington. Lady Gaga would be Frau Gaga.
Business cards are not given away as freely in Germany. Getting one is permission to have personal contact.
In-person communication in Germany:
- Shake hands to say hello and goodbye—to everyone. Keep it firm and brief.
- Use a person’s title and last name.
- Don’t be touchy.
- Be mindful of personal space.
- Maintain eye contact.
- Speak simply and to the point.
- Avoid small talk or personal topics.
- Be honest and avoid hard pitches.
- Show respect to all people, regardless of rank.
Rather than applauding—say after a presentation—Germans will rap their knuckles on the table gently.
Keep it at Arm‘s Length
Personal space is commonplace in Germany. Keep an arm’s length between you and others in business and social settings. Touching is considered very intimate and reserved for close friends and family.
Personal space also counts for conversation. Stay away from personal questions or being invasive. Also, unless expressly asked to, do not call business associates at home or after hours.
Even the buses run on time in Germany, so blaming transportation—or anything for that matter—will not excuse lateness. The Germans are rarely more than a couple minutes late. And, usually, they are actually at least five minutes early. Always be on time. Agendas and schedules are strict in Germany. If you are late, apologize without making up excuses. You’ve committed a faux pas. Doubling down on impoliteness will not help.
Do not cancel! Planning a meeting ahead of time is important. Following through is even more critical.
Business Meetings and Negotiations in Germany
Things come from the top—and they tend to be correct to the smallest detail. Business in Germany is hierarchical. Do not expect decisions to be made instantaneously or at the conclusion of a meeting. Germans will want to dot all the I’s, cross all the t’s, and go through all the proper channels first.
Quality is crucial in Germany. Business negotiations and agreements will also depend on high-quality—down to the details. It’s important to be very thorough in all work product, contracts, and deals. Nothing will be agreed to until all details are in place. Nothing will change once those details are agreed upon. So, it’s better to take time (while punctually meeting deadlines) than to go forward haphazardly.
Waving Won’t Get You Anywhere
Waving your hand side-to-side means no in Germany. Instead, you can rake your fingers out and in with your palm down to call someone over.
Proper Manners Means Proper Gifts
It is appropriate to give a small gift at initial business meetings. Small gifts include souvenirs from your country. Gifts with your company logo are also appropriate.
Unlike many Asian countries, business gifts will be opened immediately. Be sure to have nice wrapping paper.
German Dining Etiquette
Entertaining, especially over a meal, means you are taking the business matters at hand seriously. So you will likely have a dining occasion. Formality is still expected.
Regardless of the business, whoever makes the dinner or lunch invitation will pay the entire bill. Do not offer to pay whole or part of the bill. It will be seen as rude, regardless of intent.
Continental Dining Manners
When dining with Germans, be especially mindful of proper manners. They eat continentally—with the fork in the left hand (tines down) and knife in the right hand throughout. Do not pass the fork back and forth between hands. Don’t set down your knife to use the fork alone. When taking a break in eating, cross your utensils on your plate with the tines down and points at 12 o’clock.
If you rise from the table prior to the meal ending, leave the napkin on your chair. If you finish, your utensils are put parallel across your plate with tines and point between 10 o’clock and 11 o’clock. Your napkin can then go to the left of your setting.
- Wait for the host before eating or drinking.
- Maintain eye contact before and after toasts.
- Never use your fingers—even for fries.
- Place your napkin on your lap.
- Expect longer, more leisurely meals. Rushing service will be rude.
- The host pays for the bill.
- Service charges are included in the bill, however, you can include an extra 10% to the server if the service was particularly good. Hand this extra 10% directly to the server.