How to avoid Surprises in Germany: A Greek’s Guide to the German (Business) Culture

Among the creative minds I have recently invited to share their perspective on Germany is Georgios Mouratidis, a freelance writer, anthropologist and musician who loves art, dogs and learning about new cultures more than anything else in life. Born in Houston, TX and raised in Greece, he is currently living in Sweden, where he will soon complete his second Master’s in Cultural Anthropology:

“When the famous Roman senator and historian Tacitus described Germany in his well-known monograph De Origine et situ Germanorum (or simply “Germania”), in 98AD, he did not use the most flattering words to describe it:

Georgios Mouratidis' Guest Commentary on ANDRA Intercultural Business Facilitation: How To Avoid Surprises in Germany A Greek’s Guide to the German (business) Culture
Georgios overlooking the view of his Greek hometown (Private Photograph)

“Who indeed, in their right mind, would abandon Asia, Africa or Italy, for the land of the Germans, which is filled with mundane landscapes, grey skies and embrace a sad way of life, were it not their homeland?”

With all due respect to the renowned Roman writer, I find that his description of Germany does not do justice to it, at least 2000 years later. While it is true that the weather is not the best and the landscapes (especially in the North) tend to be a little less than inspiring, Germany has managed to steal all the glory of the Roman Empire and is now one of the most powerful economies in the world; an empire of sorts. To answer his initial question, there are many people from all over the world who visit Germany for business or leisure.

Well, mostly business.

During the recent years, the Germans have developed a rather infamous reputation regarding their distant nature and strict adherence to rules. The scary rumors surrounding the German lifestyle are still surprisingly prevalent in the Mediterranean region, in places like Greece, in which I was lucky to grow up. The caricature of the strict German was arguably founded in the ‘60s, when a large part of the Greek population migrated to West Germany in order to work as gastarbeiters. There was a pretty apparent dichotomy between the two cultures: Germans stereotypically perceived Greeks as lazy, loud con artists, while Greeks perceived Germans as cold-hearted snubs. The global financial crisis of 2008 was the final “nail in the coffin” for the relationships between the two countries: the dependence of Greek banks on the stable German economy, became more than evident, fueling a wave of mutual distrust, which of course was founded in the old misconceptions.

Although they are by no means as exaggerated as the media presents them to be, cultural peculiarities in German business etiquette and lifestyle definitely exist and might pose a shock to unsuspecting professionals trying to get acquainted with their German counterparts. Below, I will try to suggest some ways in which business people from the Mediterranean can get accustomed to the German mindset. As an anthropologist, I can assure you: culture is everything: you would be surprised how things that you take for granted are deemed as unacceptable in foreign countries!

Give Space

Being close and personal is not such a big deal in Greece. People do it all the time as a sign of good will and affection. When dealing with German people however, it would be a good idea to leave a generous distance between one another. Respect for personal space will be greatly appreciated and might save you from some awkward situations!

Actions count more than words

Well, that should be a universal rule, but the Germans are especially cautious when something sounds too good to be true. Don’t promise on what you can’t deliver, no matter how pure your intentions are. Unlike doing business in Greece, in Germany, honesty is your most powerful weapon.

Everything has a time and a place

Germans value punctuality and order, but they are not at all as stuck up as Mediterranean people believe them to be. The key to understanding their point of view is to realize that they have a well-defined structure concerning their life aspects. Work is work and personal life is personal life. They do a remarkable job in separating the two spheres!

It’s all about structure

The keyword for German business culture is “delegation”. There is a perfectly well-defined hierarchy, with everyone having very clear responsibilities and expectations. It was their organizational skills such as these that brought their economy to the top and a winning strategy never changes! You should be particularly aware of that since it is significantly different from the Greek way of doing business, which usually involves one person with way too many responsibilities under his belt. Also, although self-confidence is something to be expected, be careful: Germans value knowledgeable people more than impressive go-getters.

Freund und Bekannter

Andra Riemhofer's Bookshelf - Novels and Films are a great tool to learn more about another culture - don't stick to trade literature only...
Novels and Films are a great tool to learn more about another culture–don’t stick to trade literature only…

There is a very broad definition of the word “friend” in Greece. It might be a person whom you know for your whole life, or could just be a person with whom you really hit it off for a couple of months. This is not the case in Germany. There is a very strict difference between freund (=a highly regarded and trusted friend with whom a relationship has been built over the years) and bekannter (=acquaintance). It is deeply rooted in the Greek psyche to call many people as friends, but try not to be overly affectionate with your German business counterparts. You might have the opposite effects.

Read up a little

Germany is one of the most literate countries in the world (with virtually no difference between genders). Chances are that your business partners will be well-educated people with a wealth of interests that may extend to literature and arts. Germany boasts of many luminaries in the fields of literature, arts and science. While nobody expects you to read and understand Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity (unless it’s your specific field), there are some notable writers and art theorists that I would strongly suggest that you read; if anything, to educate yourself!

In terms of literature, apart from the classics, Berthold Brecht is an absolute must. His monumental works The Three Penny Opera, Mother Courage and Her Children, The Good Person of Szechwan and many others are a testament of the fear and poverty that surrounded the pre-war German society. Other personal favorites of mine are the works of Hermann Hesse (mainly Steppenwolf and Siddhartha) and Thomas Mann (Magic Mountain and Death in Venice). Of course, the works of Franz Kafka should not be forgotten. There are many great works of German literature, perhaps worthy of a different article on them!

If you are not the reading type, don’t worry! Germany boasts of a number of prolific directors who created some of the most interesting pieces of European cinematography. Werner Herzog (Nosferatu, Aguirre, The Wrath of God) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Berlin Alexanderplatz) are a great introduction to the German cinema of the sixties and seventies. If you are looking for something more contemporary, then Wolfgang Petersen (who directed the classic 4-hour epic Das Boot and has also been involved in major Hollywood productions) or Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (Lives of Others) might prove to be more your kind of style.

Doing business in Germany is by no means an impossible task. However, a little bit of awareness and tact can get you a long way in the business world of this wonderful country!”

Thank you, Georgios! Wonderful! Very well observed, and although Kafka might not be considered as German by everyone, it is good that you mentioned him. Talking about contemporary films to learn about German culture, I may add some of my favorites (German, with English subtitles): König von Deutschland (about the average German), Sophie Scholl–Die letzten Tage (Sophie Scholl is my personal idol who was killed by the Nazis in 1943) or looking at more recent history like the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989–Good by, Lenin!