A single-digit, even-numbered List of Bullshit Advice on How to do Business with Germans

Having recently stumbled on and become inspired by the at least 3 lists advertising the 10 top pieces of advice on How to do Business in India, I am trying to imagine, what kind of simplified stuff people around the world might say about Germany. Please find ANDRA’s top-list of bullshit advice on How to do Business with Germans.

  1. Germans take their duties and their lives seriously. Do not laugh in their presence during negotiations. You will lose the deal. Your negotiation partner will arrange for basement-breaks in between. The basement is the allotted space for laughter.

No worries, there is a great deal of humour, even in business situations. It’s maybe just different from what you think is funny. Generally speaking, using humour can be a pitfall, when doing business internationally (which is, why many Germans don’t dare). Please always be aware that what your compatriots might be laughing about, might not reveal itself fully to foreigners around the table.*) In the worst case you will offend them. To get out of an awkward situation, at least in Germany, you can always say: “Oops – sorry, just kidding”! You might even earn a smile saying it.

  1. When you present your business card, expect Germans not to give a flying fuck how you do it.
Statistically every German has a Gartenzwerg. This is mine. No kidding!
Statistically every German has a Gartenzwerg. This is mine. No kidding!

Basically that’s true. Don’t feel offended if your (potential) business partner does not even care to present any. Although Germans are known to be great planners, business cards are the most popular forgotten item when it comes to getting ready for a meeting. You will have seen Germans carefully receiving your card with both hands, admiring front and back for some time and maybe even bowing? Those might be the ones who have undergone intercultural training on How to do Business in China or Japan. Considering that for many Germans the equation reads: China = Asia = India = Indonesia etc., this behaviour kind of starts making sense—at least for them. Bottom-line: I guess it never harms not to instantly put the cards in your trousers pocket.

You might argue that you have seen me in a meeting very carefully sorting the cards received in a 90 degree angle to the left side of the conference table (from my perspective), parallel to the cookie-tray, again resorting them, when a new person enters the room and hands over his or her card? No, this has nothing to do with my German engineering mind or some kind of Business-Feng-Shui. Don’t blame me, I just have the worst memory when it comes to names, but I can recall the seating-order of a meeting even after donkey’s years (no kidding, try me!). So arranging the cards in alignment to the meeting-set-up helps me not to mix up you guys. Gotcha!

Football is quite a safe topic when it comes to small-talk.
Football is quite a safe topic when it comes to small-talk.

My advice for you as a foreigner: If Germans introduce themselves with their first name, although they are addressed as e.g. “Dr. Breidenstein” by their colleagues, just go for the first name and don’t worry. If you are addressed as “Ms. Smith”, try to remember to refer to your counterpart as “Dr. [Doctor] Breidenstein”. If you are from Holland and able to understand some German, don’t laugh when colleagues address each other with “Sie”—this can be a necessary formality based on corporate culture, hierarchy and/or the personal relationship between them. Also it would not hurt to look out for the other stuff you can find on the cards: The “Dipl.-Ing.”s are the engineering guys, those people with a “(FH)” are generally speaking those who have experienced a more pragmatic and down-to-earth education, whereas the “Magister” might very much enjoy to discuss on a very theoretical level. Might! Your chance to do some small-talk and evaluate the character constellation is not so big, since normally the meeting would start after just a few standard questions and remarks on travel-logistics and the weather.

  1. Germans are always punctual and trains are always on time. So you can pack a great number of meetings in one day, and plan your logistics based on the train schedule of Deutsche Bundesbahn (DB).
DB Ticket Automat
Keep distance!

Nope! First of all, I am always surprised where the train-myth does come from. Please listen carefully and repeat after me: “I strongly distrust DB, but I can trust that–be there a delay–I will only be told at short notice. I can always ask the locals who share their frustration standing on the platform, but they won’t be able to tell me what’s happening either, because in order to find employment with DB you have to be vocally challenged, because it must not happen, that what is happening, what is not even transparent to the DB themselves, might become obvious to the commuting community.” Got it? No? Good, this is the kind of confusion and frustration you most probably will experience.

Also I strongly recommend you put in a time buffer for buying a ticket at the totally over-engineered vending-machines. This is always a good chance to meet locals. If you are lucky, you find one who either is super-smart or has been involved in the construction of those monsters. Most people buy their tickets online or own a season-ticket, and would also have no clue how to purchase a ticket. The same applies for public transportation in almost any German city. Rumor has it that this is the only reason cab-drivers can still survive.

  1. Germans love rules and regulations. If they walk from A to B, do not be surprised to see them wait for green lights at a crossing, even in the middle of the night, even when there is no car, no sound of a car or anything that would ever stop you.
No time for rules?
No time for rules?

Well, concerning the traffic-lights: True and not true. True, because there is a rule that you must not be a bad role model for the children, who still have to learn all the rules. Meaning when there is a child at the intersection at midnight, it totally makes sense not to walk. So if you are here as an Au-Pair, just returning from a party, don’t be surprised if the guy on the street asks you if you are a minor. Maybe he’s not trying to make a move on you but rather wants to know if he can cross the street with a clear conscience.

In a business context: Yes, there are rules and regulations, better take them for granted and try to suppress the desire to find an admiringly smart way how to build a bypass.

  1. Does the phrase “don’t mention the war” mean anything to you? – Those Brits got it all wrong. Do mention the war, always and every time; guilt trip your business partner. He’ll give you a better deal.

Good one, but better follow the “don’t mention”-part. Just as no smart business partner would try to make small-talk based on sensitive political issues, asking stupid questions about religion or commenting on how you guys suppress women. Also pointing out how Hitler must be admired for his leadership-skills is not really a smart move, trust me!

  1. When inviting Germans for business-lunch (forget about dinner, because that would interfere with private quality time), make sure plenty of beer and meat is served.
Only during Oktoberfest women drink from glasses the size of waste-paper baskets.
Only during Oktoberfest women drink from glasses the size of waste-paper baskets. Not appropriate for business lunch!

Lunch might in many cases definitely be a better idea to start with than dinner, but still that depends on the specific situation, deal, and seniority of the managers. Talking about alcohol for lunch you definitely don’t have to order drinks. You may offer to share a bottle of white wine, but don’t be surprised if nobody goes for it. You might get some extra-brownie-points if you can arrange for bubble-water, but still there are Germans for whom “sparkling” feels as torturous as it might for you. Please keep in mind that a) also amongst autochthone Germans you would find a growing number of vegetarians and b) Germany has become an immigrant country (as they say, at least), so you should not rely on the Christian tradition of sharing Water, Wine and Schweinswürstel (pork sausages).

  1. Germans are uncomfortable with silence. Lean back, let them talk while you just stare. They’ll talk themselves out of a good deal soon.

Definitely there is some truth in that, and maybe the growing imports from Finland are related to this phenomenon. Carpe diem! Make the most of the day, stick to your agenda and goals, be efficient, you shall be proud you can articulate yourself eloquently and make use of this blessing. This stuff is deeply ingrained in our brains.

  1. If any businessman from Bielefeld suggests setting up a joint venture with you, don’t fall for the trap. It is a conspiracy. As most people know: Bielefeld does not exist.

Will take care of that one. Google maps might be part of the scam.

You share my perspective that shallow advice that is supposed to help people doing business internationally might do more harm than good? You need solid advice how to gain foot in the German market? Maybe even somebody, who will help you get started, to acquire pilot projects, describe the learning-curve together with you? Please do get in touch with me…

*) Editor’s note: This article is supposed to be funny.

More about ANDRA

Big thank you for Dr. Silke Järvenpää for her perspective and advice on the above discussed topics.

4 thoughts

  1. Oops—do not confuse Fachhochschule (FH) with Volkshochschule (LOL!). At least not when looking at the business cards presented to you (if so, please refer to # 2). And always try to remember: “The Germans take their humour very seriously. It’s not a joking matter” (From Xenophobe’s Guide to the GERMANS)

  2. My input about making jokes with Germans (who the hell asked me?!). It’s a lost battle to begin with, and for a very simple reason. Whatever makes the average German laugh isn’t what makes people of other cultures laugh, and vice versa. Often do they find illogical situations hilarious. Confuse the Fachhochschule with the Volkshochschule and they would crack open, on the floor, tears bursting, and all you can do is look at them with an empty look and wonder whether you said anything funny. Be sarcastic with them and you’ll be the one getting the empty looks.

  3. I find this post hilariously true. However, after quite some expating time in Germany I can safely say that many things can be attributed to Deutsche Bahn – punctuality is most definitely NOT one of those things.

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