Business German Vocabulary to Impress Your International Office
Germany is the powerhouse of the European economy, making German an important language in international business.
German-speaking businesses build cars, fly around the globe, develop medicines, make delicious food and drinks and transform our digital lives.
In other words, it’s time for you to get in on it and learn some business German vocabulary words—so let’s get started!
- What Is “Business German”?
- Useful Business German Vocabulary for the Workplace
- 1. Formal address: Sie (you), not du (you)
- 2. Applying for the job: Your Bewerbungsbogen (application forms)
- 3. Qualifications: Hochschule means “college,” not “high school”
- 4. Letter and email formalities: Mit freundlichen Grüßen (best regards) and more
- 5. Telephones: Hier spricht… (… speaking) and auf Wiederhören (Goodbye)
- 6. Directness: Kein Blatt vor den Mund nehmen (Don’t mince words)
- 7. Meetings: Attending or running ein Geschäftstreffen (a business meeting)
- 8. Networking: Make the most of “Vitamin B”
- How Can You Learn Business German?
- Sound Professional with Business German
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What Is “Business German”?
Let’s get something straight: In order to become fluent in business German, you have to build fluency in regular German first.
No one in the office will take you seriously if you don’t get your cases right, use the correct adjective endings or pronounce things properly.
The problem is that “regular German” classes often focus on everyday encounters at first, with perhaps some literature thrown in at the higher levels.
It’s useful, and you’ll learn a lot from this approach, but when it comes time to write your German Lebenslauf (resume) or attend a German Vorstellungsgespräch (job interview), neither your ability to order a sandwich nor your knowledge of Goethe is going to get you the job.
This is where you need to go above and beyond what’s covered in traditional German classes. If you want to speak like a German businessperson, you’re going to need to learn business German.
Useful Business German Vocabulary for the Workplace
What are the kinds of information that distinguish business German from general German? Here are some examples:
1. Formal address: Sie (you), not du (you)
German has two forms of the pronoun “you”: the formal Sie and the informal du .
In business relationships, you always want to start with Sie for Kollegen (colleagues) and Kunden (customers/clients).
Often, colleagues and clients will specifically tell you if or when they feel comfortable allowing you to call them du. They’ll likely do this using the verb duzen (to use the du form).
Wir können uns duzen. (We can use the du form with each other.)
This might occur when you first meet, it might take some time or it might never happen at all. Everything depends on your type of organization and your relationship to the other person.
And remember that people will often introduce themselves by their last name only, like “Ich bin Müller,” or just Müller, to which it’s appropriate to say something like: “Es freut mich, Sie kennenzulernen.” (It’s a pleasure to meet you.)
2. Applying for the job: Your Bewerbungsbogen (application forms)
Once you’ve got all your Bewerbungsbogen together, applying for a job with a German company is as easy as sending off a direct translation of your English info, right? Wrong.
First of all, your resume contains all kinds of cultural information that might not translate. If you’re from the United States, you probably went to a high school, not a German Gymnasium .
But are the two terms close enough for you to use in translation? Not quite—the two institutions are part of two very different education systems.
You should “translate” your grades, though, if you include them on your documents. A 4.0 GPA sounds great to an American, but to a German, a 4 equated to a D average.
Second, a German resume often contains information seen as irrelevant or taboo in the States. In Germany, it’s common to attach a photo and mention your Familienstand (family status: married or single), age and citizenship status, as well as hobbies.
Finally, the resume is never enough on its own. Your Bewerbung (application) will need a strong Anschreiben (cover letter).
These are in addition to whatever Zeugnisse (certificates) your employer demands, which often involves not only letters from previous employers, but also academic transcripts ranging back to high school.
As an extra note here, it’s worth preparing and practicing a Selbstdarstellung (personal introduction). This is essential for a Vorstellungsgespräch (job interview), but also a worthwhile exercise ahead of business encounters with new colleagues and clients generally.
3. Qualifications: Hochschule means “college,” not “high school”
We’ve already commented on the dangers of trying to translate your qualifications. Here are a few more pitfalls.
In Germany, a Hochschule is the equivalent of an American college.
It differs from a Universität (university) in that Unis are usually more research-oriented, while Hochschulen focus on real-world applications and skills. However, both institutions offer bachelor degrees, with some Hochschulen offering master’s degree coursework as well.
An even further distinction is made for Gewerbe (the trades), such as construction, cooking and so on. These often involve Ausbildung (an apprenticeship) that replaces both college and the 11th and 12th (or even 13th) grade levels.
Meanwhile, U.S. associate’s degrees don’t translate at all, and are generally viewed as equivalent to the top German high school diploma, the Abitur .
Confused yet? Your employers might be too. This is why you should not try to translate the names of your degree and alma mater. Be prepared to describe your qualifications and competencies during an interview instead.
4. Letter and email formalities: Mit freundlichen Grüßen (best regards) and more
You will likely need to provide your email to potential employers or clients, and it’s highly possible you’ll need to collect others’ email addresses as well.
Knowing how to say common email-related terms will be extraordinarily beneficial. For instance:
- ( _ ) Unterstrich (underscore)
- ( – ) Minus /Bindestrich (hyphen)
- ( . ) Punkt (dot)
- ( @ ) At-Zeichen (at sign), but will almost always be referred to simply as At
So, an example email address might be: firstname.lastname@example.org, as Herr-Unterstrich-Kraus-at-blau-Minus-Welt-Punkt-d-e.
Of course, if you have trouble catching someone’s email, you can ask: Könnten Sie das bitte buchstabieren? (Could you spell that please?)
Now, you’ve probably learned guten Tag and auf Wiedersehen as “hello” and “goodbye” respectively. In a business environment, though, that’s not how you’ll start or end emails.
Typically, the opening line of a formal letter or email is either Sehr geehrte Frau Klein (Dear Mrs. Klein) or Sehr geehrter Herr Meyer (Dear Mr. Meyer), literally translating to “most respected Mrs./Mr. [name].”
Pay close attention to the masculine or feminine adjective ending, and end the line 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.
The most common formal ending for emails and letters is Mit freundlichen Grüßen (with friendly greetings), followed by no comma and then your signature on the next line.
There are numerous variations on these greetings, some equally formal, some less so. Feel free to match the tone of whomever wrote to you first. If they start their email with Hallo Frank and end it with simply Grüße , you can certainly write Hallo right back.
5. Telephones: Hier spricht… (… speaking) and auf Wiederhören (Goodbye)
Similar to the above, formal business calls require language of their own.
It’s traditional to begin a phone call by identifying yourself and your company, often with hier spricht Karl (Karl speaking), in which you’d replace “Karl” with your own name.
Further useful and common telephone phrases include:
- Hier ist Frau Scholz. Mit wem spreche ich? (It’s Ms. Scholz here. Who am I speaking to?)
- Darf ich Herrn Schmidt sprechen? (Can I speak to Mr. Schmidt?)
- Ich rufe an, um ein Treffen 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.)
If you’re calling to follow up on an application you sent, you might want to know: Ich rufe wegen einer Initiativbewerbung an, die ich vor zwei Wochen geschickt habe. (I’m calling about an unsolicited application that I sent two weeks ago.)
You should also note that it’s inappropriate to say auf Wiedersehen on the phone, because it literally means “until we see each other again,” but you don’t see people on the phone. The formal farewell on a business call is auf Wiederhören (until we hear each other again).
6. Directness: Kein Blatt vor den Mund nehmen (Don’t mince words)
Germans are very direct in how they speak, especially when expressing requests and criticism. It can sometimes seem rude to Anglophone ears, but then our many “pleases,” subjunctive forms and euphemisms sound wishy-washy and superficial to Germans.
What do I mean? Instead of saying “I’m afraid the printer must have run out of paper,” a German is more likely to say “I need some paper.” Instead of saying, “Your presentation might be improved if you did X,” a German is more likely to say, “X is better. Do X next time.”
When your boss criticizes you in this manner, she’s probably not displaying aggression or disapproval. She’s just getting right to the point with a constructive suggestion for improvement.
There’s a general saying for this: Kein Blatt vor den Mund nehmen , which literally means “not to put a leaf in front of your mouth.” Figuratively, it means that someone doesn’t hide their words or intentions.
And Germans will expect this directness from you in German, so you’ll have to get used to it.
7. Meetings: Attending or running ein Geschäftstreffen (a business meeting)
A good starting point for tackling a meeting is to take responsibility for preparing the Tagesordnung in advance. Use an example for reference, whether from your office or online.
Doing so will mean you’ll arrive much better prepared to follow the Geschäftstreffen (business meeting), or—if you’re in charge—direct the flow of it. Here’s some useful vocabulary for this:
- Datum (Date)
- Uhrzeit (Time)
- Ort (Place)
- Teilnehmer (Attendees)
- Zweck (Purpose)
- Begrüßung (Welcome)
- Thema (Theme/Subject)
- Aktion (Action)
If you want to kick things up to the next challenge level when attending a German business meeting, try writing the Protokoll (meeting minutes). And again, if you’re running the show, make sure you’ve designated the meeting minutes writer, if you need one.
8. Networking: Make the most of “Vitamin B”
You may hear Germans call networking Vitamin B , which refers to the first letter of Beziehungen (relationships).
In a positive sense, Vitamin B means you have good connections, or you’re able to use your connections in beneficial ways.
It can, however, be used with a more negative connotation to imply that someone only received something because of their connections—much like “nepotism” or “favoritism” in English.
But if you’re working or planning to work in a German-speaking country, it’s essential to get out and meet people—particularly at events likely to be attended by professionals in your field.
Brush up on your small talk to start building up your own Vitamin B at such events, or even within your company or with clients:
- Wie geht’s Ihnen? (How are you?)
- Was haben Sie am Wochenende gemacht? (What did you do at the weekend?)
- Wie läuft es mit dem Projekt? (How is the project going?)
- Möchten Sie einen Kaffee? (Would you like a cup of coffee?)
- Bitte nehmen Sie Platz. (Please, take a seat.)
- 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?)
How Can You Learn Business German?
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.
However, these opportunities are not realistic for most people. Don’t despair. It is possible to learn business German on your own.
Dialog Beruf (Dialogue Career) is a well-known series of textbooks that is often used in business German classes. If you’re dedicated, you can use these for self-studying.
Sometimes the books cover industries that may 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.
If you want to set concrete goals for yourself, you can aim to take the official WiDaF (Deutsch als Fremdsprache in der Wirtschaft — Business German as a Foreign Language) exam.
Many employers and schools will look for documented proof of C1 fluency or higher, and this exam is a great way to show that you’re not just fluent, you’re business fluent.
It’s also important to immerse yourself in the language and culture in order to get all the nuances down pat. A great way to do this is to incorporate native materials into your everyday life so that you’re constantly interacting with the language.
For instance, FluentU provides a library of authentic video material for learners of all levels. FluentU also provides interactive features, such as subtitles and transcripts that allow you to hover over any word, business-related or otherwise, to see its pronunciation, translation and in-context usage.
You can also look for business-related YouTube videos, movies and TV shows to spot more business vocabulary in use.
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Learning business German is just like learning general German, but with added cultural context and applications. In this regard, it’s somewhat advanced.
You can’t simply receive a list of twenty words or phrases and rote memorize them. You have to know what’s appropriate and when, so that you can sound professional.
But just in this one post, we’ve introduced you to more than twenty different German words and phrases, and that’s a huge start!
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Review business German vocabulary at your own pace—maybe you can write an imaginary Bewerbungsschreiben with formal greetings and a discussion of your qualifications.
You’ll definitely need to do this one day if you hope to work in a German office, so you might as well start practicing now!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)