Although, I am very much in favor of the idea that gender shouldn’t play a role in business, and that it must not make a difference whether you work or deal with a woman, or a man, or a person that would not (want to) fit into any of these two categories, I still acknowledge that, in fact, very often there are (still) differences in how people treat each other; or are treated depending on their biological features. How you define gender, and what behavior you would perceive as “normal” greatly depends on how and where you have been raised. And, I am not only talking about in which country you have been born and bred.
We are all at least somewhat biased – but don’t risk spoiling your deal
I am not sure if I would call myself a feminist. However, I am confident to claim that Germany by far is not the most developed country in the world when it comes to gender equality. It was only recently that I was asked at an event organized by some business club, how come I deal with clients in the building and construction business, and also from the electronics industry, when these are not at all (quote!) “Frauenthemen” (women’s issues or women’s topics). Old habits die hard, and I don’t want to blame the elderly gentleman for his comment; but he certainly missed a chance to win me as a new member for his esteemed association – that, I am pretty sure, is interested in raising their “Frauenquote”. And, I am ready to admit that I am most probably also (unconsciously) biased, in some way or the other.
Then, what is my point? My point is that there are some behaviors that might seem normal to you, but that can easily spoil the deal when you deal with a (German) woman. Here are some very pragmatic pieces of advice for international business travelers, that I am happy to share from the perspective of a member of that species. Any Ger-men reading this text – it might not harm to also pay attention.
(New) golden rules
Although, women are still not equally represented in top leading positions, chances are high that the woman you are talking to has the power to give or deny a “Go ahead!” If, as a man, you are used to mainly doing business with men, take care not to offend (German) women by leaving them out of the conversation and / or spoiling the deal by ignoring them entirely. Even if it makes you feel uneasy, try to look them in the eye and offer/accept a firm handshake. The golden rule “Ladies first” does not apply in a business context; I would advise that you (try to) start with greeting the highest-ranking person – for example, the managing director – and then proceed to those below him or her in rank. If there are just too many people in the room to straightforwardly proceed to the most important person (according to hierarchy), or in case you find it difficult to figure out the rank order, start with the person standing closest to you and do greet all one by one (e.g., going sequentially from left to right). You can still pay the most senior person more attention when shaking his or her hand.
Be careful with paying compliments
On the rare occasion of being invited to a German home, compliment your hosts for their good taste in furniture and home decor, show interest in the books that are displayed on the shelf (but “please don’t touch!”), and tell them how much you like the food; but be careful with complimenting the lady of the house for anything that (for you) might be typically “women’s business.” It is advisable to generally be careful with paying compliments to German women, especially during business meetings.
Pointing out that it is a pleasure to talk to such an attractive lady will easily 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 to enjoy my 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 background/culture, chances are high that he or she is not familiar with “your” savoir-faire. But, it is still a good idea to hold the door for women (and men, too!) or help the other person with her (or his) coat – you wouldn’t see that very often, but if some gentleman struggles, you can help.
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 look like Angela Merkel.” Well, to be honest, I was not exactly flattered, but I got the point. Because, as a woman travelling for business in Germany, you better avoid flashy makeup and jewelry. Business women over here generally prefer to “dress down” and would rarely wear high-heeled stilettos or figure-accentuating (short) outfits. Men are used to seeing their female colleagues in trouser suits or knee-length pencil skirts. I am not telling you that, as a woman, you should mimic the local, more “functional” style; however, you must consider that a very feminine outfit might lead to your potential (German) business partner perceiving you as less professional than you actually are. But, if being underestimated is your preferred strategy, ignore what I have just said.
…and don’t cry – no matter what
Never ask a woman why she’s not married 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. A South Indian client of mine was quite shocked when he recognized that I am not married and seemed close to tears when he realized that also, I don’t have children. That was a bit of an awkward situation that is best avoided. Because, you would not want to make your business partner feel judged or pitied, would you?
Which leads me to my last point: Germans show their emotions less than people from many other countries, whether it is joy, excitement, or sadness; however, we are quite free with expressing our frustration. “Ein Indianer kennt keinen Schmerz” (an American Indian doesn’t know pain) is some nonsense many (still) like to tell boys when they cry. A woman who cries after a quarrel with a colleague is considered unprofessional and weak. Men are not supposed to cry at all!
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 contains snippets from my new book. You want to learn more about Germany in general, and about regional peculiarities in particular?
Then try to grab a copy of Doing Business in Germany : A Concise Guide to Understanding Germans and Their Business Practices. Either ask your bookseller to order a copy for you (might take a few days, though), or look out for it on amazon.