Finnbar’s Quick Tips to Navigating the murky Waters of German Etiquette

Wicklow, Ireland on German Business Culture
Finnbar Howell (Private Photograph)

Always curious about how people from other parts of the world perceive Germany, I have recently started to invite creative minds from different countries to share their perspective:

Please meet Finnbar Howell, who was the first to contribute. Finnbar is from Wicklow, Ireland. He’s currently completing a Masters in Creative Writing from UCD and was recently short-listed for the Maeve Binchy Award.

“Of course there is a vast amount to learn about Germany, Germans and what makes them tick. There’re entire postgraduate courses on German culture and their relations to English speaking countries. Suffice to say, we can’t cover it all in a thousand words, but here are a few tips.

As an Irishman, humour is always where I’m going to start. We Irish have similarities with the Germans–our native languages sound guttural and are sometimes laughed at by foreigners, there’s a high consumption rate of beer in both countries and we often get stereotyped by the foods we eat. That’s about where it ends.

Our senses of humour, for example, are very different. But that’s not to say Germans don’t have one. Often their jokes tend to be intellectual or just based more closely on their own interests. Get to know them a little, be friendly and light-hearted instead of trying to crack them up.

Vorsicht (Attention)! Germans at work
Vorsicht (Attention)! Germans at work

On the subject of stereotypes, avoid them, as I would say for all cultures. That’s not to say that they’re not based in fact, many are. A few years ago I lived in a shared house for college and we had a group of Germans come to stay; friends of one of the residents. I woke up the next day to find that, not only had they cleaned up and made breakfast, but also found a toolbox and fixed the door to our bathroom. I found this hilarious, but when I made the typical punctuality-and-efficiency joke, they just rolled their eyes. Best case scenario, it’s not really entertaining, worst case they are annoyed that you judge them on the stereotype. Probably best to avoid it.

On the subject of jokes to avoid, the invasion of Poland doesn’t go down very well. It’s heavily taught in their school system and most Germans have an acute awareness of their recent history. Not a good idea to rub it in their faces.

German food is fantastic–both the traditional, which does tend to be heavy on the sausage, schnitzel etc., and the adopted; German chefs have risen wonderfully to the challenge of cuisine from other nations. The best Kebabs I’ve ever had are found in Kreuzberg, Berlin, though you may only wish to take more liberally minded clients as it’s different to the traditional feel of most of Germany.

Sweet & Spicy–This is how Bavaria is… or eats! (Develey Advertisement)

One possible issue is that you may be unsure what to order; if you’d like to avoid this in professional company, go out alone the night before, or look up some traditional German dishes to cook at home (many of which are dead simple). If you don’t fancy that, ask someone in your party for advice on their favourite dish. As long as you’re polite they’ll more than likely be happy to give you advice.

Sunday is a quiet day. I found this to be especially true in rural Germany. While in the cities, life simply goes on (though you may still find people who don’t wish to be disturbed on Sundays), countryside or suburban Germans will often take offense to being bothered. I don’t mean a conversation, you should of course always be polite, but using your lawnmower or trying to arrange a meeting might lead to a sharp telling off. In parts of Germany this is considered to be as rude as asking about someone’s income (which is quite a serious taboo).

Germans like to work hard. When they have a task in front of them they will focus on it, and expect you to do the same. Undoubtedly they sometimes fall into the same traps as the rest of us–trawling Wikipedia or checking Facebook–but they expect you to keep this outside of your working time. This is reflective of the more laissez faire approach typical in German workplaces.  In Ireland, many jobs that I have worked are strictly 9–5, hour-for-lunch. But, as a result of focusing on the task at hand, many Germans take longer lunches, and more flexible working days. They also tend to have, statistically, fewer issues balancing work and home life than the rest of Europe, taking their work home with them less.

No one wants to show up to their first meeting in a suit and tie to find the rest of the company in casual wear, but of course the opposite can make you far more self-conscious. Business attire in Germany varies greatly in different fields and, sometimes, from city to city. No one will laugh at you if you politely inquire beforehand as to the dress. A simple “I’ve always worn a suit and tie to meetings, is the custom the same here?” will always suffice.

If you have a working relationship with a German in a more senior position than you, you will earn brownie points by addressing them formally and politely. They may not acknowledge it, or dress you down for neglecting to do so, but it is the norm in most offices. Of course if it is a business contact of equal standing, you’re probably better to follow their lead. Always shake hands, too, after all, what could that possibly cost you?

Germans, of course, are not a unity. There are little alliances and enmities, culturally and otherwise, between different parts of the country as there are anywhere. As a foreigner, you won’t be expected to know the ins-and-outs of these at all. Take this scenario for example:  you’re learning German, you’ve had lovely conversations in German with polite people who appreciate the effort you’re making with their language, and then suddenly you meet someone. It’s clearly German their speaking, except that, well you can’t understand a bloody word of it. You’re probably just met someone with a strong accent. I personally have great difficulty understanding people from the southeast region of Bavaria.

Germans are an educated, capable people, and are very easy to get along with, as long as you make the effort, keep an open mind and learn from your interactions.”

Thank you, Finnbar, for sharing your thoughts. I did enjoy learning about your perspective and hope to meet you when you are in Germany (South Germany…) next time.