Germans like to think of Germany as the land of poets and thinkers. You might have heard about Goethe and Schiller or Herbert Grönemeyer, to name a few super eloquent German celebrities. Or Thomas Mann, who came up with quite lengthy and sophisticated written texts.
Though not every German is a blessed writer – myself included – at least people from my generation were brought up to express their thoughts in writing. So no problem in this department. What Germans often need help with, however, is having a casual, meaningless conversation in the course of building a relationship.
That could be challenging for you when you travel to Germany to meet potential clients or business partners. So, how to make conversation with Germans when there is not even a proper German word for “Small Talk”?!
First things first: Humour is not a completely alien concept for us
One common perception about Germans is that we lack a good sense of humour. I would like to argue against this stereotype: Last month, I was traveling with one of my clients who speaks many languages but only a little German. As I had arranged the meetings we attended, I took charge of the initial introductions. To gauge how comfortable our conversation partners are with speaking English and to create a relaxed atmosphere, I often begin by speaking some initial sentences in German when unsure of their command of English. What often follows is summarized for my clients as “we just shared a joke” – a statement or exchange of words followed by laughter that would be difficult to translate or explain. So it looks like some humour can be traced when Germans converse. It might just not translate to you when you don’t know the language, the context, or the – let me call it “implicit knowledge” shared – the “punchline” is based upon.
In Germany, the weather is always a good topic for small talk
So, 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 the driver might be an excellent opportunity to get an idea about what is going to expect you when you meet your business prospects in Germany. 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!
Skip the 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 humour,” 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 entirely skip the small talk in Germany. 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.
Germans love a “meaningful conversation”
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”. 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.
If you are keeping the things I mentioned in mind, you’ll be doing fine – no worries!
Overall, I keep on noticing business meetings being much more informal and relaxed as compared to when I started working in sales some 20 years ago. This might also have to do with the international touch of these meetings, the great people I bring along, and / or my own being way more laid-back and self confident than in my mid 20s. You can ask me to come along and help you build rapport with your prospect clients in Germany.
Above are (slightly amended) snippets from my last 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.