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5 key things you need to know about German working culture

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Shelley Pascual - [email protected]
5 key things you need to know about German working culture
Small talk on the whole isn't common practice in offices across Deutschland. Photo: Deposit Photos/Rawpi"

If you’re keen on moving here for work, you should know about the cultural differences in the German workplace. We spoke to an intercultural trainer to find out how you can deal with them.


Internationals mention time and time again that when it comes to starting their life in Germany, getting used to the culture of the workplace can be a challenge.

It’s not uncommon, for instance, for foreign workers to say that Germans are more direct than the colleagues they are used to - and they find this difficult to deal with.

Barbara Sametinger, a Freiburg-based intercultural trainer specializing in Germany, the US and France, says this directness and other characteristics of the German work culture stem from “core cultural values.”

Having coached international corporations in Deutschland for a decade, the US national tells The Local in a phone interview that, before taking a closer look at these aspects and values, it’s important for newcomers to determine and research the kind of company they’re joining.

The culture of a German startup can be much different from that of a traditional company, oftentimes due to a large pool of foreign workers. Photo: DPA

This can be telling when it comes to the organization’s work culture, Sametinger says, adding that the culture in a startup, for example, can be very different from the one that exists in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). A company’s work culture can also differ from region to region.

SEE ALSO: Berlin and Munich startup founders among world’s most extroverted

SMEs, called Mittelstand in German, form the backbone of the country’s booming economy with thousands of them spread nationwide. According to government-owned website Make it in Germany, any business with fewer than 500 employees is an SME, meaning that SMEs encompass a significant chunk of all German businesses.

The companies Sametinger says she tends to work with are ones in the Mittelstand category that do lots of business internationally. The coach adds that foreigners - such as those from English-speaking countries like her native US - usually need a bit of time to adapt to the culture of these companies since they tend to be more traditional.

1. Anticipate directness

Inside and outside of the workplace, from dealing with bank employees to cashiers in supermarkets, Germans have been known to be more direct compared to people from other cultures. For some, certain instances of this directness can even be perceived as rude.

There aren’t many other cultures that are more direct than Germans, says Sametinger, adding that this has to do with the German language.

According to the trainer, when a person declines an invite in English, she or he says something along the lines of ‘sorry, I’m not available’ rather than saying ‘no’ outright. Meanwhile a German speaker might simply say nein (no) – a neutral word that doesn’t necessarily communicate something negative in the German language despite what English speakers might interpret.

When faced with German directness, Sametinger suggests armouring yourself with a thicker skin and keeping in mind that it has nothing to do with whether or not your colleague likes you.

An employee at a middle-sized German company called Dürr AG. Photo: DPA

“Don’t take it personally. They’re just trying to get to the truth of the matter,” she says.

If for instance you’re being constructively criticized on your work, this shouldn’t be taken personally. Similarly, in a negotiation, it helps not only to be well prepared for it, but also to go in knowing that “diversity of opinions in the German workplace is seen as something positive.”

2. Small talk isn’t a thing

Whereas it’s common and natural for workers in countries like Canada or the US to ease into a business meeting with a bit of small talk, this couldn’t be farther from the case in many German offices where light-hearted chat loses the purpose of a meeting.

“Germans prefer to have discussions like talking about politics or what’s going on in the world,” Sametinger says. As such, small talk is not very satisfying and perceived as something that’s superficial. For some it’s even considered “a waste of time.”

FOR MEMBERS: How dropping the small talk helped me make friends with Germans

If you really can’t refrain from telling your colleagues what you did at the weekend or what you think of the current weather situation, the intercultural expert suggests saving this for the breaks between meetings or lunchtime.

But even if small talk doesn’t take place like you hoped it would, don’t be disappointed, she emphasizes.

“Understand that talking about oneself for some German colleagues has to do with getting closer to them on a personal level. This can take time and require patience.”

3. Keeping one’s personal and professional life separate

On the topic of getting to know your co-workers on a personal level, it’s quite common in Germany for people to keep their private life separate from their professional one.

While in the UK, it’s ordinary to head to the pub with one’s work mates after a long day in the office, it would be unusual to see Mittelstand employees doing this, since they generally prefer to spend time with their family or friends in the evenings.

“Unlike in places like North America, the German work environment may not be where you’re going to make close friends,” Sametinger says. “In general, work is a place to work.”

Thinking of asking your co-workers to join you for a drink after work? Make sure you're clued up as to whether this is common at your organization. Photo: Deposit Photos/Dmyrto_Z

This means it might be a good idea to avoid asking questions which are too personal at the beginning of business relationships as it could be considered inappropriate or even irritating.

Sametinger thinks German colleagues tend to “cherish and protect their private life.” This is rooted in a core value that has to do with the family, she says.

Not all hope is lost, though. If you’re a newcomer keen on making friends, instead of looking for them at your office, Sametinger suggests joining a club instead, or if you have kids, getting involved with their school activities. “As an expat, you want to make sure you have hobbies.”

READ ALSO: How I made friends during my first year in Germany

4. Don’t underestimate the use of ‘Sie vs. du’

In a feature article we published earlier this year, engineers across the country told us their top advice for internationals keen on working here is to learn the language as quickly as possible.

Another important aspect to learning German and thus integrating into the workplace is nailing the respective formal and informal words for ‘you’, Sie and du – a linguistic formality that doesn’t exist in the English language.

In Germany, pretty much all business relationships begin with addressing one another as Sie – similar to interactions in public with strangers. Only when a colleague feels close enough to you is the du form offered – which might or might not ever happen no matter how long you’ve known the person.

“The use of it is a challenge for English speakers to understand and they tend to judge it negatively, but the formality shouldn’t be underestimated,” says Sametinger.

While it depends on the relationship you have with your colleagues or customers, utilizing 'Sie' is commonplace in a business environment “as a way for Germans to create boundaries.”

Failing to do so could make you seem “disrespectful,” Sametinger notes, adding that your best bet would be to take the time to "understand the formality and the reasons for it."

Important to note though is that due to internationalization, many German companies nowadays have actually adopted the use of first names as well as the use of 'du' and the trend seems to be growing. 

5. Debunking the German punctuality myth

While it certainly cannot be said that Germans always live up to the stereotype of being punctual in all circumstances, when it comes to being on time in the workplace, Sametinger advises to take it seriously.

“It is extremely rude if you show up to meetings late without informing your colleagues. It might be forgiven once, but if you repeatedly do this it could be problematic. Time is seen as precious and punctuality is very much about politeness.”

Sametinger believes this connects to core cultural values coming from historical concepts and shows up in all aspects of life.

Ultimately, the biggest tip the trainer has for expats keen on working in Germany is to try to put yourself in your German colleagues’ shoes.

“Really use your ears, look around, and try not judge things in terms of good versus bad. Try to tell yourself it’s just different.”

It may also help to keep in mind that it's likely just as hard for German speakers employed in English-speaking countries to get used to making small talk with co-workers or addressing them in a way that feels too informal.

SEE ALSO: What you should know about gift-giving in the German workplace


Comments (3)

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Anonymous 2020/08/17 15:10
and be very careful when telling jokes in a meeting...<br />
Anonymous 2020/04/15 05:20
Anonymous 2019/01/10 14:25
good insights

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