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Understanding German business culture and communication customs

March 1, 2020
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Why this is important to Wisconsin businesses: Being aware of conventions and expectations can aid greatly in developing business relationships.

As the largest economy of the European Union and also the biggest importer, Germany offers many opportunities to exporters from basically every industry in Wisconsin. For this reason, understanding differences between U.S. and German business communication may prove useful when starting conversations and negotiations with German business partners.

In general, both Germany and the U.S. are low-context cultures, meaning that information and meaning are usually communicated explicitly through words. However, most Germans would not hesitate to directly address potential problems, conflicts and issues through honest feedback, which might be perceived as impolite by their U.S. counterparts. In business, this also means that both focus on working on the task at hand directly instead of forming a personal relationship first. For this reason, it is also not uncommon for Germans to skip small talk and get directly to business, especially in written communication.

German communication is very fact-driven. When entering into business relationships with a German company, one needs to provide rational arguments, technical details and figures—and come well-prepared. In addition, Germans expect their business partners to accept their “duty to deliver,” meaning that if something hinders their partners form fulfilling their part, they expect to be notified immediately.

Especially during initial contact, Germans are generally more formal in communication than their American counterparts. In German business contexts, the more formal version of “you,” Sie, is usually used, and even co-workers are often addressed by their last names, especially in the more traditional industries. However, in recent years, there has been a shift toward less formality, especially among co-workers. In addition, managers that have been doing business with U.S. companies are usually aware of American communication styles and would therefore expect to be addressed by first name after an initial contact.

German formality also expresses itself in email contact. While emails are often seen as extended text messages in a U.S. business context, Germans treat them more like official letters and would therefore expect a greeting in the beginning and a closing at the end of the message.

Since most Germans have quite a good command of English, interpreters are usually not needed. However, one should be aware that even when a German counterpart indicates they understand what has been communicated, that may not necessarily be the case—even when they think they have understood. Using simple language is key, especially when discussing a topic outside the German counterparts’ expertise. While emails are a very common communication channel in German business culture, social business network platforms are growing in popularity. LinkedIn is becoming more commonly used as a communication tool for Germans working in an international context (import and export). XING, LinkedIn’s German equivalent, is more widely used among German enterprises, but would usually only be used to establish initial contact before switching to email communication. Since trust is needed for international business relationships, the use of videoconference tools to allow parties to see and hear one another is also growing in the German-speaking business world.

Since Germany is an important export market, many U.S. managers will have a reason to get in touch with their German counterparts. In order to communicate efficiently and avoid misunderstandings, understanding German directness, efficiency and formality in business communication is key. Establishing a business connection with a German partner may take longer and come with greater challenges than in some other markets, but once this connection is established and trust is built, Germans are in loyal long-term business partners that value sustainable business partnerships.

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