By Ludmila (Mila) Rusakova Golovine
The country of Germany is essentially the same size as the state of Montana, yet it boasts the fourth largest economy in the world. Most would think that this situation would be due to geography, but in truth, Germany has few natural resources. What would explain this seemingly paradoxical situation? The people themselves would be the only logical conclusion. Germans are business people. They take their work seriously and do their utmost to make it more efficient. Most would believe that German culture is just like American culture. While it is true that the foundation of American culture is derived from Anglo-Saxon Germanic roots, there are still subtle differences of which one must be cognizant if one wishes to do business with Germans.
One of the prevailing stereotypes about Germans is that they are extremely serious and lack a sense of humor. It is true that Germans will maintain a very businesslike demeanor even in their private lives. Usually they never talk to someone they do not already know. Nevertheless, once they come to know the other person they will generally open more and become more personable. So if your German counterpart seems like he/she is not friendly, do not take it personal. Once you have demonstrated that you are an honest and respectful person, your German counterpart will become more open and you will feel more comfortable.
Strict punctuality is another stereotype assigned to Germans. This aspect is actually based in truth, especially in a business setting. Quite simply, Germans expect everyone to be on time, including themselves. Due to the fact that German business schedules are highly structured and efficient, timeliness is crucial. Germans view tardiness as unprofessional. Therefore, if you are late for your meeting, you will probably leave a bad impression. Furthermore, you may set back your counterpart’s schedule and cause them to be late for their subsequent meetings that day, thereby making them look unprofessional. Please keep these warnings in mind when meeting with German businesspeople. It is always better to be early and wait than to be late and appear disorganized.
As previously stated, Germans may seem reserved in their interactions. This behavior also manifests itself in a different way in business, namely, avoidance of risk. Americans can sometimes have a risk-taker mentality or we can on instinct. Germans eschew such inclinations. Consequently, if you a business deal that is not based on solid facts, statistics, and concrete plans, chances are your German counterparts will walk away very quickly. Enthusiasm is excellent but in the German mentality there is no substitute for conclusions drawn from empirical evidence and logical calculation.
There are a number of aspects of German business practice, which can aid in your negotiations. Since German business schedules are very organized and punctual, all meetings must be planned and approved at least 2-3 weeks in advance. It is advisable to have an agenda for the meeting and ensure that it is followed in an efficient manner. This is not to say that the meeting should be rushed. Your counterparts will most likely want to take their time to review the proposals and consider them in detail. There is very little room for small talk or relationship building. Germans are “all-business.” Therefore, after a brief introduction, please proceed as to the presentation material as quickly as possible.
As a rule of thumb, it is always preferable to research your business counterpart. This is especially true when dealing with Germans. Rest assured that they have researched you. Demonstrating that you know about their company will leave them with the impression that you are professional and diligent. They will also see that you are serious about dealing with them since you made the extra effort to do the background research.
In terms of communication, Germans are very formal in business. Brief, firm handshakes are the normal way of greeting. When speaking with your German counterparts, be sure and use the correct addresses; “Herr” followed by the surname for men and “Frau” followed by the surname for women. Titles are important as well. If someone is a doctor, for instance, they must be addressed as such to show proper respect is given. Upon the initial encounter, the most senior German representative must be greeted first before any others. It is also advisable to learn several German phrases so you can impress your counterparts. While it is true that most German businesspeople speak English very well, it should not be wholly expected. Determine before the meeting if an actual interpreter will be necessary.
Although German business culture is fairly similar to American business culture, one must not be lulled into a false sense of security. There are subtle differences between the two and these differences must be researched and understood before any meaningful business venture is attempted. However, through proper preparation and cultural sensitivity it is certainly possible to do business and succeed with the Germans.