Strictly Business: 9 Rules for Being Polished, Polite and Professional in German

Learning etiquette, gestures and other business actions are all part of speaking like a native, and should not be pushed aside in favor of focusing solely on the language.

This means that you won’t just need to expand your business vocabulary, but also study small particularities to doing business in Germany, like what you should wear to a meeting.

So, let me explain to you some rules you should learn if you ever plan to expand your professional work to Germany.


1. Know How to Handle Negotiations in Germany

Germany is a country with strong individualistic beliefs, so they expect the utmost respect at all times when conducting business. If at any point they feel disrespected during a negotiation, or if they sense that you are doing something unethical, you may lose a deal.

When you make a proposal or negotiation suggestion, make sure everything is written down and clearly stated. Germans review documents and look at empirical evidence and facts. They won’t accept an offer or bend to your demands based on your whit or friendliness. It all depends on your arguments and data.

Although minds rarely change once a decision is reached on a negotiation, you should never push a negotiation or discussion to hurry things up. Germans like analyzing everything, so take your time and let them view your arguments. If anything, offer additional experience examples or data that can help them make an informed decision.

Remember, Germans are ambitious and very hard bargainers. Don’t be offended if the talks get a little heated.

It can be extremely helpful to use native media to get used to how interactions go down in real-life settings. It will also help you learn to communicate in a more natural manner and make negotiations more fluid.

And thanks to the internet, you don’t have to go past the comfort of your home to begin immersing yourself in these kinds of media. For instance, you could head over to the FluentU program to browse a library of authentic media, from pop songs to news segments, categorized based on difficulty and topic of interest. Each video is also a personalized language learning session, where you can customize vocabulary lists, take quizzes on what you watched, create flashcards and take personalized quizzes.

Language for this situation:

  • Learn about German numbers here.
  • When talking about money, try writing and saying everything in euro.
  • We propose… — Wir schlagen vor…  
  • Contract — Vertrag

2. Follow the Do’s and Don’ts of German Business Meetings

Your German business meetings are generally the most important part of interacting with someone to make a deal or build a relationship. Since that’s the case, I put together a list of do’s and don’ts so you can write them down or even print them out to memorize on the plane over.

  • Do get right to the meeting. Relationships and small talk are not a huge part of German business. However, you should still say hello and shake hands, but unnecessary chatting is not expected.
  • Do plan meetings at least two to three weeks ahead of time. Germans enjoy knowing what’s coming up on the schedule.
  • 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.. Other times are reserved for personal work.
  • Don’t hold meetings on a Friday afternoon. German business people like wrapping up the week and looking forward to social events, just like much of the rest of the world.
  • Don’t hold meetings in July, August or September, since these are holiday months. Regional events and festivals should be thought about as well.
  • Don’t sit down yourself. Wait to be told where to sit.

Language for this situation:

  • My name is… — Mein Name ist…
  • Nice to meet you. — Es freut mich, Sie kennenzulernen.
  • Where should I sit? — Wo darf ich mich setzen?
  • The meeting is on Tuesday at 3:00 p.m. — Das Treffen ist am Dienstag um 15.00 Uhr. (You can even say and will often hear “das Meeting” these days.)
  • Let’s begin. — Lass uns anfangen.

3. Respect German Hierarchies

It’s essential to remember to never bypass a person to reach someone of higher status just to make a deal go through quicker. German business deals are very hierarchical, so remain patient and continue working with the person who is designated to speak with you.

In addition, use titles and last names when speaking to a person you don’t know as a friend. If you don’t know the person’s last name, try to ask them in advance so you can address them during the meeting.

Language for this situation:

  • Mr. — Herr
  • Mrs./Ms. — Frau
  • Miss — Fräulein (Note: This may be considered old-fashioned or even impolite these days. When in doubt, use Frau.)
  • What’s your name? — Wie heißen Sie?

4. Follow Up with German Associates After a Meeting

It’s not only common, but expected, to follow up with written communications after a business meeting. Within 24 hours you should send a recap with in-depth details of meeting minutes, topics discussed, deals struck and contracts that need to be signed.

This all ties into how German business people strive for organization and detail-oriented deals. Just because you gave them an outline of your plans at the meeting doesn’t mean you can stop there.

Language for this situation:

  • Here is a recap of the meeting. — Hier ist eine Zusammenfassung der Sitzung.
  • Please sign the contract. — Bitte unterzeichnen Sie den Vertrag.
  • Do you need more information? — Brauchen Sie weitere Informationen?

5. Prepare for Business Meals

What if your German counterparts request to sit down for a meal with you? Meal etiquette varies drastically from country to country, so listen up.

To start, it’s common for Germans to eat outside, so don’t be surprised to see a cat under the table or a beautiful landscape in the background. You should expect to pay a 5% tip and hand it directly to the waiter instead of leaving it on the table when walking out.

Feel free to drink beer or Schnapps (Schnapps towards the end of the meal). Don’t feel any requirement to drink if you don’t want to. Also, don’t press someone else to drink. The legal drinking age in Germany is 16 for beer and 18 for hard alcohol. It’s also not uncommon to drink coffee or tea (in the northwest).

Language for this situation:

  • Would you like something to drink? — Möchten Sie gerne etwas trinken?
  • What do you recommend? — Was können Sie empfehlen?
  • Can I have the bill please? — Kann ich bitte die Rechnung haben?
  • How much does that cost? — Wie viel kostet das?
  • I would like to have… — Ich hätte gern…

6. Dress Appropriately When Conducting Business in Germany

Germans take pride in looking professional and clean-cut regardless of the setting or their position. All business attire in Germany is formal, non-flashy and conservative. White shirts, dark ties and dark suits work best for men. White blouses, dark suits or conservative dresses are ideal for women, even in hot weather.

Going along with the conservative style, women should not wear 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.

7. Show Up at the Right Time

German business people are rather busy, so they are always punctual. Don’t ever show up early or late to meetings, because it’s considered disrespectful.

To avoid problems, show up early to the meeting, but sit in your car for the right moment or visit neighboring shops before the meeting time, to make it look like you aren’t sitting there waiting for them.

Language for this situation:

  • What time is the meeting? — Um wie viel Uhr ist das Treffen?
  • What day is the meeting? — An welchem Tag ist das Treffen?

8. Follow the Rules for German Business Gift-giving

You typically don’t need to bring a gift when meeting with a German person for business, but if you receive one, it’s customary to open it right there.

If you go to a business social event, it’s a little more common to exchange gifts, but stick with 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 nice to offer something that represents your home country.

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

Language tips for this situation:

  • Thank you for the gift. — Danke für das Geschenk.
  • Here is a gift. — Hier ist ein Geschenk.
  • It’s a… — Es ist ein…
  • You’re welcome. — Bitte schön.

9. Make Jokes When Appropriate

For some reason Germans are often seen as robotic, humorless people when conducting business, but they are just like regular folks—so they do appreciate a good laugh.

However, make sure your jokes are appropriate for the office place, and that they don’t take up too much time.

Language tips for this situation:

Now that you’ve learned the ins and outs of German business etiquette, pair these tips with your German language skills to go out into the German business world with confidence!

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