How to make Conversation with Germans, when there is not even a proper German Word for “Small Talk”?!

Welcome to Germany! When you, as a business person, first arrive in the country and you take a cab to wherever you need to go, talking to your driver might be a good opportunity to get an idea about what is going to expect you when you are meeting your business prospects.

The weather is always a safe topic for small talk

Firstly, your taxi ride might give you a foretaste of how blunt Germans can be. Although, in Germany, talking about your own political preferences would be considered a taboo topic – now that I think about it, maybe that has changed slightly in recent years – do not be surprised if your driver is happy to share his or her views on the politics of the day in your country. When it comes to small talk (in German: “Small Talk” or “Smalltalk”), the weather is always a safe topic. Ask about the forecast, in case you would like to change the subject… Germans, being used to complaining a lot, would often tell you that it is too hot, too cold, too rainy, too cloudy, too sunny, and so on.

Having discussed the weather, your driver might lecture you about how you have chosen a lousy or overpriced hotel. If it is also slightly difficult to reach the place (because of one-way streets or road works) or the length of the journey (i.e., the fare) does not offset the time your cabby had to queue up at the airport or station, you are likely to be educated on the inconvenience caused to him or her. I once took a cab to transport an oriental-style coffee table I had just purchased from an inexpensive antique shop; while helping me to unload the table from his trunk (at least!), the driver’s very matter-of-fact comment was: “Hopefully, you haven’t paid any money for this crappy piece of bulk trash.” And, please note that I only remember the episode because he spoilt the excitement I had felt, not because my taste had been questioned by a total stranger!

Don’t expect Germans to be too chatty when it comes to small talk

For your first business meeting with Germans, intercultural coach Andrew MacKichan would advise: “Be on time, be smart, be prepared, and be clear about your goals. Shake hands firmly, look them in the eyes, and cut the small talk.” In my opinion, if you follow MacKichan’s advice, you have indeed heeded the most important aspects to make a good start. Senior Project Manager Hasan Syed would add that it “is important not to make humorous comments and opinionated statements. Unlike in London, this is not appreciated.” “Germans enjoy humor,” he continues, but in his experience, “it takes time to develop the trust to start using it. Do not be overconfident, regardless of context, and most importantly, be humble and genuine.” While it is recommendable to (quickly) get to the point, it doesn’t mean that you skip the small talk entirely. When you meet someone at a fair, a good opening question is “How has the fair been so far?” When you welcome someone at your office, a simple “I hope you had a good trip?” might trigger a brief informal opening conversation, during which you can get a glimpse of your counterpart’s personality and give him or her the chance to warm up to you. Still, if people ask you how your trip was, try to keep it short. Maybe, if the meeting goes well, more pleasantries can be exchanged when the task at hand (to discuss what is on the agenda) has been completed.

The focus of the book is to help readers understand how certain concepts and values influence the way Germans like to do business.
Doing Business in Germany: A Concise Guide to Understanding Germans and Their Business Practices

When you are having lunch or dinner is a better time to exchange more non-business-related thoughts than during the “typical German” two-minute-or-so small talk. Germans like to hear compliments about “Made in Germany,” but at the same time, as individuals, often prefer being considered “not a typical German” (that is regarded as a compliment). Your knowledge of German history will surely be appreciated, but pointing out how Hitler must be admired for his leadership skills is really not a smart move, trust me! [Please (!) catch up on German history, if you are wondering where I am coming from! In my book Doing Business in Germany, you’ll find a short briefing on what all you need to know]. If you want to flatter your companion, better talk about Germany as a great football nation or the beautiful places you have visited/heard of.

Germans like to have a “meaningful conversation,” (“Unterhaltung”) although German resident Neil Deane from Liverpool writes in his book, Modern Germany, that “the German might regard what we call an argument … as a meaningful discussion” (Deane 2014). Please don’t feel offended when people tell you how much they condemn any deficiencies observed in your homeland, which one can easily point a finger at from afar. Poverty, child labor, pollution, narrow-minded political leaders, one-child policy … you name it. Or – heaven forbid! – arranged marriage. I am not saying that you should not contradict or contribute your perspective, but sometimes, in my humble opinion, it’s better to just try to change the subject. Ask what their plans are for the next holiday, or inquire whether the Sunday evening crime-serial Tatort is worth watching.

The aforementioned are normally “safe” questions; people would not feel offended or awkward to respond. Never ask a woman why she’s not married (heaven forbid!), or why people don’t have children. Depending on where you come from, asking questions about one’s marital status, existence of children, digestion, or salary might be part of getting to know another person; most Germans would perceive these questions as far too personal.

How may I help you?

You want to develop your business in Germany? Then you may also face some very common pitfalls; the good news is that they can be quite easily avoided! You should hire me if you want to gain a better understanding of your opportunities, and you value a local’s help in finding buyers and potential business partners. Learn more about some past projects and what I can do for you: You’ll make it in Germany!

You are (only) interested in learning more about Germany?

Above are (slightly amended) snippets from my new book. If you want to learn more about Germany and how Germans like to do business, then try to grab a copy of Doing Business in Germany : A Concise Guide to Understanding Germans and Their Business Practices – or download the e-book. Either ask your bookseller to order a copy for you (might take a few days, though), or look out for it on amazon.