Business German: Vocabulary, Etiquette and Tips to Help You Sail Through the Workplace

Germany is one of the biggest economic, political and manufacturing players in Europe—and arguably the world.

That means if you’re serious about learning the language, you’ll want to wok on becoming what the Germans call verhandlungssicher or in other words, capable of doing business in the language!

In this article, I’ll be summing up exactly what business German looks like, and why it’s important for you to master it. I’ll also get into business vocabulary and etiquette for the German office. 

Contents

What Is Business German?

So what exactly is business German?

Simply put, it’s the formal version of German used in workplaces.

It encompasses not only the business-related words and phrases you need to know, but also German business culture and etiquette. You need to know the right time to use certain tones and forms of the language and in what context.

Why Learn Business German?

There are a few reasons you want to learn business German.

  • You’ll increase your overall fluency. Even if you don’t plan to work in a German-speaking country, business German can still teach you about the differences between formal and informal German.
  • You’ll need it when applying for jobs. If your German resume is up to scratch and you know all your lines for your interview, that’s awesome! You’ve taken the first major step to becoming a business German pro.
  • You’ll be using business German with everyone at the office—including colleagues who are at the same level as you.  Therefore, you need to be at the top of your game with specialized vocab and the polite form of German.
  • Business German is used throughout the myriad bureaucratic processes of German life. From registering a new address ( sich anmelden ) with the local Citizen’s Office ( Bürgeramt ) to organizing a German visa, there’s loads of everyday situations in Germany that require you to be fluent in the formal register—even if you’re only staying in the country for a few months to study or work.

If your business German is up to speed, you’ll easily sail through these hurdles. Otherwise, you could accidentally offend someone by using informal German with them.

But worry not! It’s not quite as daunting as it sounds—which is where the following sections come in.

Business German Vocabulary: Essential Words and Phrases

Respectful Ways to Address Others in German

German Form of AddressEnglish Translation
Sie You (formal)*

*The safest way to address anyone in a business context
Können wir uns duzen? Can we use the  du  form (informal "you") with each other?*

*Ask this only if you feel that your colleagues are comfortable enough with you. They may say "Yes" or "No."
Wir können uns duzen. We can use the du form with each other.
Herr Mr.
Frau Mrs. / Ms.

General Business Vocabulary

General Business German Words and PhrasesEnglish Translation
Kollegen Colleagues
Kunden Customers / Clients
Wie heißen Sie? What's your name?
Ich bin... My name is...
Wie geht’s Ihnen? How are you?
Danke schön. Thank you.
Bitte schön. You're welcome.

Job Application (Bewerbungsbogen) Vocabulary

German Job Application VocabularyEnglish Translation
Bewerbung Application
Bewerbungsbogen Job application forms
Lebenslauf Resume
Anschreiben Cover letter
Zeugnisse Certificates*

*These include letters from previous employers, as well as academic transcripts dating back to high school
Selbstpräsentation Personal introduction
Vorstellungsgespräch Job interview
Hochschule
Hochschulen
Equivalent to a U.S. college; focuses on real-world applications and skills; offers bachelor degrees and sometimes graduate degrees
Universität University; offers bachelor degrees and higher
Gewerbe the trades (e.g., construction, cooking and the like)
Ausbildung Apprenticeship; equivalent to college and the 11th, 12th or 13th grade levels
Abitur German high school diploma; equivalent to a U.S. associate degree
Familienstand Family status (married or single)*

*In Germany, it's common to have to attach your photo to your job application, as well as your family status, age, citizenship and hobbies.

Letter and Email Vocabulary

German Letter and Email VocabularyEnglish Translation
Unterstrich Underscore ( _ )
Minus
Bindestrich
Hyphen ( - )
Punkt Dot ( . )
At-Zeichen
At
The "@" symbol
Sehr geehrter Herr ... Dear Mr. ...
Sehr geehrte Frau ... Dear Mrs. ...
Mit freundlichen Grüßen My best regards
With friendly greetings
Hallo Hello (informal)*

*appropriate only if the other party greets you with Hallo first
Grüße Regards / Greetings*

*somewhat informal way to end emails; appropriate only if the other party greets you with Grüße as well

Phone Vocabulary

German Business Phone VocabularyEnglish Translation
Hier spricht ... (Your name) speaking
Hier ist... Mit wem spreche ich? This is (name). Who am I speaking to?
Darf ich... sprechen? Can I speak to (name)?*

*Make sure you remember how to address the person you want to speak to. For example, if their name is "Mr. Schmidt," you should call them Herr Schmidt .
Ich rufe an, um einen Termin zu vereinbaren. I’m calling to arrange a meeting.
Können Sie das bitte wiederholen? Can you repeat that please?
Wie bitte? Ich habe nicht verstanden. What was that? I didn’t understand.
Könnten Sie das bitte buchstabieren? Could you spell it please?
Ich rufe wegen einer Initiativbewerbung an, die ich vor zwei Wochen geschickt habe. I’m calling about an unsolicited (job) application that I sent two weeks ago.
Auf Wiederhören Until we hear each other again*

* auf Wiedersehen would be inappropriate to say over the phone, because it literally means "until we see each other again."

Business Meeting (Geschäftstreffen) Vocabulary

German Business Meeting VocabularyEnglish Translation
Geschäftstreffen Business meeting
Tagesordnung Agenda
Um wie viel Uhr ist das Meeting? What time is the meeting?
An welchem Tag ist das Meeting? What day is the meeting?
Das Meeting ist am... um ... Uhr. The meeting is on (day) at (military time).
Datum Date
Uhrzeit Time
Ort Place
Teilnehmer Attendees
Zweck Purpose
Begrüßung Welcome
Thema Theme
Subject
Aktion (Planned or intended) Course of action
Protokoll Meeting minutes
Es freut mich, Sie kennenzulernen. It’s a pleasure to meet you.
Bitte nehmen Sie Platz. Please, take a seat.
Wo darf ich mich hinsetzen? Where should I sit?
Lass uns anfangen. Let's begin.
Wir schlagen vor… We propose...
Hier ist eine Zusammenfassung der Sitzung. Here's a recap of the meeting.
Bitte unterzeichnen Sie den Vertrag. Please sign the contract.
Brauchen Sie weitere Informationen? Do you need more information?

Networking (Vitamin B) Vocabulary

German Networking (Vitamin B) VocabularyEnglish Translation
Vitamin B networking*

*Vitamin B refers to the first letter of Beziehungen (relationships), which is what networking aims to build
Möchten Sie einen Kaffee? Would you like a cup of coffee?
Was haben Sie am Wochenende gemacht? What did you do on the weekend?
Wie läuft es mit dem Projekt? How is the project going?
Also Sie arbeiten in der Tourismusbranche. Wie sieht es derzeit in diesem Bereich aus? So you work in the tourism business. What’s it like in this field at the moment?

Business German Etiquette: 11 Do’s and Don’ts of the German Workplace

1. Get Your Sie and du Straight

I briefly touched on this earlier in the vocabulary list, but I can’t stress it enough: if you’re in doubt as to whether you should use Sie or du to address people in a business context, use Sie.

In English, there’s only one word for “you.” It doesn’t matter who you’re speaking or writing to and in what context: either way, it’s acceptable to say “you.”

In German, it’s a bit more complicated.

When Germans speak to family members, friends, children and other people they feel close to, they address them with the du form. 

However, when they’re speaking to anyone they don’t know or colleagues at work, they switch to the polite Sie. Usually, once you become more familiar with you colleagues, they might say that it’s okay to use du with them. But don’t expect this to happen: you might just have to continue using Sie with them. It all depends on the person and type of organization you’re working in.

There are even verbs that describe each form: duzen (to refer to someone using du) and siezen (to refer to someone using Sie).

So if you’re unsure and want to check with someone whether it’s okay to “du” them, just ask: Sollen wir uns duzen oder siezen? (Should we use du or Sie with each other?) But if in doubt, it’s always better to air on the safe side and use the formal Sie!

2. Respect German Hierarchies

Since we’re on the topic of addressing people, remember to also use titles and last names when speaking to a person with whom you have a strictly business relationship. If you don’t know the person’s last name, ask them in advance so you know how to address them when you need to. In a business context, use Herr (Mr.) for men and Frau (Ms. / Mrs.) for women.

Also, never try to bypass a person to reach someone of higher status just to close a deal faster (e.g., saying anything like “I want to speak with your manager”). German business deals operate mostly on hierarchy, so try to be patient and work with the person designated to speak with you.

3. Make Sure Your Bewerbungsbogen Is Complete

In Germany, it’s not enough to just send out your Lebenslauf (resume) and be done with it. If you want your Bewerbungsbogen (job application) to end up in a German hiring officer’s square bin rather than the circular bin, you need to:

  • Watch out for word-for-word translations. You’ve probably noticed that a lot of German educational terms don’t translate neatly into English (e.g., associate degrees are considered the equivalent of a German high school diploma). Make sure you ask someone knowledgeable in German educational terminology to look over your qualifications before you send out the translated version of your documents. Or, if you’re really unsure, it’s sometimes better to just put the qualification in English. 
  • The more information about yourself you include, the better. As I mentioned earlier, make sure you attach a photo of yourself and include your marital status. Any hobbies and your age also need to be in there somewhere. It might sound strange (or even intrusive) to include these on a job application, but it’s the norm in Germany!
  • Include an Anschreiben and Selbstpräsentation. Cover letters and personal introductions aren’t optional in Germany: they’re required. You should also attach certificates from your previous employers (if any) and schools.

4. Be Mindful of How You Write Your Letters

No, I’m not talking about the German alphabet (though that will certainly come in handy).

When you’re writing a business letter in German:

  • Start with the appropriate salutations. If your addressee is a man, you start with Sehr geehrter Herr followed by his last name. If she’s a woman, write Sehr geehrte Frau followed by her last name. Both literally translate to “most respected Mr./Mrs./Ms.” Remember to pay close attention to the masculine or feminine adjective ending. 
  • Use proper punctuation and capitalization. End your salutation with a comma. The next line, which begins the body of the message, is not capitalized unless it’s a proper name, a noun or the pronoun Sie. Put a comma after your ending greeting, followed by your signature on the next line.
  • Use the right formal ending. Usually, German letters close with Mit freundlichen Grüßen (with friendly greetings). But if you have a more casual relationship with the other person and they close with just Grüße (regards), you can respond in kind.

5. Know How to Handle Negotiations in Germany

In Germany, most people expect the utmost respect at all times when conducting business. If, at any point, they feel disrespected during a negotiation or sense that you’re doing something unethical, you may end up kissing that deal goodbye.

Whenever you make a proposal or suggestion, make sure everything is written down and clearly stated. Many Germans base business decisions on empirical evidence and hard facts, not on whether you’re particularly friendly with them.

Also, it’s never a good idea to push a negotiation or discussion to hurry things up. If you feel that your German colleagues are taking more time than you’re comfortable with to reach a decision, politely ask them if they need more information. If they say yes, make sure you give them that new information in the form of solid data.

In any case, expect hard bargaining to take place, as well as heated talks.

6. Know the Do’s and Don’ts of German Business Meetings

When it comes to German business meetings, there are a few things you should keep in mind.

  • Do show up on time. Don’t ever show up early or late to meetings, because both are considered disrespectful. If showing up on the dot sounds too hard to do, show up early to the meeting, but sit in your car or visit neighboring shops until a few minutes before the meeting time. That way, you won’t look like you’re sitting there waiting for them (which is why being too early is considered as rude as being late).
  • Do prepare for the meeting as best you can. If possible, take responsibility for managing the tagesordung  (agenda) in advance. You can also designate someone else as the writer for the minutes of the meeting if you need one.
  • Do get right to the meeting. Relationships and small talk aren’t a huge part of German business. You can (and should) still say hello and shake hands, but don’t expect too much in the way of chit-chat.
  • Do plan meetings at least two to three weeks ahead of time. Time is considered a particularly valuable piece of currency in Germany. Your German colleagues will definitely appreciate you if you let them know exactly when a key event like a meeting will take place.
  • Do enter the room with the most senior person (on your team) in front. Greet the most senior person on the other side first.
  • Do hold meetings between 11-1 p.m. and 3-5 p.m. Otherwise, you might end up interfering with your colleagues’ work and personal lives.
  • Do follow up with the meeting participants after a meeting has ended. It’s not only common, but expected, to have a written follow-up after a business meeting. Within 24 hours, you should send a recap complete with important details such as meeting minutes, topics discussed, deals struck and contracts that need to be signed.
  • Don’t hold meetings on a Friday afternoon. Much like (most of) the rest of the world, German business people like to wrap up their week in preparation for exciting weekend events.
  • Don’t hold meetings in July, August or September. These are all holiday months.
  • Don’t hold meeting during regional events and festivals. This is for the same reason you don’t hold meetings during holiday months.
  • Don’t take your seat on your own. Instead, wait to be told where to sit.

7. Be Aware That German Speakers Don’t Mince Words

German speakers can be quite blunt, especially when expressing requests and criticism.

Instead of saying “I’m afraid the printer must have run out of paper,” they’re more likely to say “I need some paper.” Instead of saying, “Your presentation might be improved if you did X,” they’d brusquely respond with, “X is better. Do X next time.”

When your German boss criticizes you like this, they’re not necessarily trying to be mean. From their point of view, they’re just cutting straight to the chase and giving constructive suggestions for improvement.

There’s a German proverb for this: Kein Blatt vor den Mund nehmen , which literally translates to “not to put a leaf in front of your mouth.” It means someone doesn’t hide their words or intentions.

You may be expected to be just as direct in German, so you’ll have to get used to it.

8. Prepare for Business Meals

Sometimes, your German counterparts will ask to sit down for a meal with you—in which case you need to brush up on your German restaurant vocabulary.

Also, here’s some basic German meal etiquette to keep in mind:

  • It’s common for Germans to eat outside. Don’t be surprised to see a cat under the table or a beautiful landscape in the background.
  • Expect to pay a 5% tip and hand it directly to the waiter. Don’t leave your tip on the table and walk out.
  • Feel free to drink beer or Schnapps (Schnapps towards the end of the meal). Don’t feel like you should drink if you don’t want to. On that note…
  • Don’t pressure someone else to drink. The legal drinking age in Germany is 16 for beer and 18 for hard alcohol. It’s pretty common to drink coffee or tea (in the northwest region, at least).

9. Dress Appropriately When Conducting Business in Germany

All business attire in Germany is formal, non-flashy and conservative.

Men should wear white shirts, dark ties and dark suits.

Women, on the other hand, should don white blouses, dark suits or conservative dresses. They should also avoid wearing too much jewelry or makeup.

Both men and women should refrain from removing a jacket or any article of clothing until your German counterpart does so.

10. Follow the Rules for German Business Gift-giving

You’re usually not expected to bring a gift when meeting a German person for business. But if you receive one, it’s customary to open it on the spot. You should say something like  Danke für das Geschenk (Thank you for the gift.)

Also, business social events will likely involve gift exchanges. To be on the safe side, I suggest that you stick to office items like high-quality pens or mouse pads with your company logo. Wine and liquor work nicely as well.

When going to a business associate’s home, you can bring a gift of wine or chocolates. It’s also considered nice to gift something that represents your home country.

Although flowers are acceptable, I strongly recommend against them because there are way too many rules regarding colors and the number of flowers. For example, red roses mean that you’re in love with the person and carnations represent mourning.

When giving gifts, say  Hier ist ein Geschenk. Es ist ein… (Here is a gift. It’s a…).

11. Make Jokes When Appropriate

Contrary to popular belief, Germans actually have a sense of humor. (I mean, imagine naming “networking” after a type of vitamin. Only the Germans could’ve thought of that.)

Of course, jokes in German should be made in good taste—and not waste time that your colleagues could’ve spent finishing up their work for the day.

7 Hacks to Improve Your Business German

Now that you’re officially ready to polish up on your German for professional use, here are our handy hacks.

1. Watch German Shows Set in the Workplace

There are loads of fun ways to help you improve your German listening skills. But listening to radio hosts presenting pop songs isn’t necessarily the best way to target your business German skills.

One way to prepare your ears for the professional world is by watching TV shows set in workplaces.

One great example is “Stromberg,” the German version of “The Office.” It’s just as funny as the UK and American versions—not to mention educational.

You’ll be able to see business German in action, like how Germans go about using Sie with their colleagues. It’s also a good idea to have a notebook handy so you can jot down any useful vocab you pick up while watching.

Most “Stromberg” episodes are up on YouTube and on German Netflix.

You can also look for business-related YouTube videos and movies to spot more business vocabulary in use.

2. Read Newspapers

Now that you’ve practiced some listening, how about some reading?

One way to get started is by trying out some German newspapers. It’s also an excellent way to learn just what exactly is going on in the German business world.

When choosing a newspaper, opt for a broadsheet such as Die Zeit or Die Welt. These will have slightly longer and more complicated sentences than the tabloids—much better for improving your language skills! They’ll also use a much richer vocabulary in their writing.

Don’t want to splash out cash on foreign papers? Fair enough—but most of their articles are also published online, so you have no excuse!

3. Hit the Books

If you want to learn business German the old-fashioned way, there are plenty of German books you can get your hands on.

For example, Dialog Beruf (Dialogue Career) is a well-known series of textbooks often used in business German classes. They’re quite handy for self-study.

Sometimes, the books may cover industries that seem obscure or irrelevant to you. If it doesn’t seem important to your goals or your line of work, skip it! Focus instead on the more relevant vocabulary, grammar and cultural context that these books provide.

4. Find a Language Exchange Partner

Right, so that’s reading and listening done. Now, it’s time for some speaking!

If you haven’t found yourself a language exchange partner already, now is the time to do so.

Essentially, a language exchange partner is a native speaker of your target language who will help you learn their language if you help them learn yours. You can pick their brains about their experiences working in their home country in German.

One way to learn with a language exchange partner is to do role plays with them. For example, you can set up an interview scenario where they can play the interviewer and you the interviewee. Not only is it great German practice, but it’ll also let you know what kind of questions are usually asked in German interviews.

Many language departments in colleges and universities can help you find a language exchange partner. They’ll often have a noticeboard of adverts where you can take a look and see if anyone is offering the language you’re after.

Alternatively, websites such as MeetUp are great for finding German speaking events. You’ll be sure to find people willing to swap languages once you get out into the wider German-speaking community.

5. Use the Short Videos on FluentU

FluentU‘s German videos include an entire business category. Videos in this category cover many topics and industries, including real estate, technology, banking, design and more. You can organize these clips by difficulty to make it easier to find something that suits your needs whether you’re a beginner or nearly fluent.

6. Practice What You Learn

For example, if you’re looking for a job, consider this guide to preparing for interviews in German. Practice your chosen phrases aloud (ideally with a fellow student or a native German speaker), though the mirror will do if you’re short on time or company.

And if you’re worried memory will fail, write down your new vocab in a notebook or on flashcards and take them along with you for a last-minute refresher.

7. Take Advantage of Offline Resources

If you’re lucky, you might have access to business German classes at your local college, language school or Goethe Institute.

Alternatively, you can travel to a German-speaking region, take some business German classes and immerse yourself in the language and culture before trying to apply for jobs. When you’re actually in a German-speaking place, you have way more opportunities to practice native speech than you would have otherwise.

If you practice a particular profession (such as architecture or journalism), it’s also worth looking up their industry groups online. Many have working groups that meet on a monthly or bi-monthly basis to coordinate events and projects.

In these slightly less business-like environments, you might find that participants tend to address each other with the informal du and  euch (you and you-plural, respectively). However, meetings are likely to still follow a relatively formal structure, giving you exposure to typical protocol and behavior, though in a friendlier environment than a strictly business context.

Shaking hands is a typical way to greet one another. Don’t be surprised, though, if you have to make the first move when it comes to introductions. This initial reservation towards strangers can be quickly overcome by a friendly smile and greeting on your part.

 

Once you start with these hacks, you should quickly pick up all the vocab that’ll make you a whiz in business German.

With your newfound confidence, you’ll be ready to consider spending a semester abroad or looking for a German work placement.

Then you can show off your skills in a thoroughly professional environment!

And One More Thing...

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