I have spent years to study and practice how to communicate and cooperate effectively with people from other cultures. As a matter of fact, the probability that my counterparts from abroad have not taken the same effort is very high. The good news is that I can help them overcome intercultural pitfalls, and tell them how to make their German clients happy. The bad news is, no matter how able I personally am to reflect my reactions on behaviour that only my counterpart(s) might perceive as “normal”… sometimes I really get pissed off.
When you deal with Germans, the risk of annoying them is high if you…
… waste their time.
Let us analyse this, as almost any German would love to do. “Time”: Time for us is a resource. Once a moment is gone, it’s gone. It won’t come back. Not in this life, and certainly not in another. Normally we do one thing at a time. We focus and concentrate to get a task done, to think about a problem, or to enjoy time with our friends and family. When a German agrees to meet you in a business context, please keep in mind that his or her reasoning would be: I invest my time, therefore I want to know what is in for me. Showing up without an agenda, without having researched the needs of your counterpart and expecting them to spend some hours with you “just to get to know each other” does not work in Germany. In the worst case the German will perceive your behaviour as unprofessional and/or disrespectful.
If something has gone wrong, try to first cover up and then tell them “we can still fix it”.
If you have grown up in a culture where you are reluctant to tell somebody bad news for whatever reason, please listen carefully: Something goes wrong, went wrong, is about to go wrong, push the panic button (Achtung!) and tell your German client. You know that you won’t be able to ship the goods as promised? Tell your client, because only if she knows she will come up with a Plan B and/or inform her buyers. You won’t be able to meet a deadline for programming a software? Tell your client, because he would have made their planning (time, please see above) according to what you have told him. Also, if you messed up (no matter whether you personally are responsible or your supplier has goofed up), give them the feeling that you understand that they are in trouble now. Very often an apology would be expected. If you do not feel comfortable saying “sorry, that was clearly my fault”–be it for cultural or legal reasons–at least acknowledge the pain your client must be in, and tell them in detail what you will do to ensure the problem gets solved. If they do not want to listen to details, don’t press too hard. But a “simple” (as we would perceive it) “we still can fix it!” most certainly won’t do the job.
…ask them why they are not married.
In many cases we would not be able to understand that you might be seriously concerned, just because for you being married and having children is just super-normal. Asking questions about one’s marital status, children, digestion, salary for you might be part of getting to know another person. For us, at least in a business context, other things are more important (what is the task at hand?). Many would perceive all of those questions as too personal. For an unmarried person or somebody without children the question might sound like an insult (I can tell you from my own experience—the only person I allow to bother me is my mother). Although some Germans might be happy to discuss their bowel-movements on holiday, this is nothing you should openly ask during a business meeting. And talking about salary or income in Germany is an absolute taboo. I might tell my friends, but never ask them.
Another question many people don’t feel comfortable with is “How are you…?”. Even I am still tempted to quickly think and give a short but not too pessimistic status-report. If you feel the lady you are talking to on the phone regularly stiffens when you greet her, try “What’s the weather like in Germany?”
Clearly distinguish between male and female business partners:
Any Ger-men reading this text—it might not harm to also pay close attention. Pointing out that it is a particular pleasure to talk to such an attractive lady, will give the woman you are addressing the idea that you are unprofessional, immature, afraid of women or just stupid. The lady is sitting at the table for a reason, and chances are low that her breasts are of any particular importance. Once a potential client told me over dinner, when I put down my specs over steaming soup: “Without glasses you are beautiful!” Even if you are utterly surprised by the previously hidden beauty of your prospective business partner—just swallow it. Yes, some flirting if appropriate might not harm even in a business situation, but don’t forget… if you are talking to a person from another culture, chances are high he or she is not familiar with your “dating-rules”. By the way: The same person mentioned above gifted me red roses as a welcome present—as others have done after him in his country. To be honest, it made my skin crawl, because in Germany this is something only a Gentleman in love would do…
It is still a good idea to hold the door for women (and men by the way), and not to run two meters ahead of your female guest or host, unless the surroundings force you, …and only you as a local know the way.
One of the most memorable comments I heard about German women: “Yes, indeed, German women are very practical, you can also see it in the way they dress. For example, you (= Andra) look like Angela Merkel.”
Well, I am sure Ms. Merkel and her staff are even more experienced in telling others how to (hopefully not) piss off a German. In case they are busy, and you need pragmatic help and guidance please get in touch with me: andra[at]andra-ibf.com