Cultural Intelligence V: Germany

This series is edited by Dick Locke, SI’s resident expert on International Trade, author of Global Supply Management — A Guide to International Procurement (which was the definitive guide for almost a decade), and President of the Global Procurement Group which regularly gives seminars on International Trade and working with International Cultures.

As highlighted in last year’s post on Overcoming Cultural Differences in International Trade with Germany, Germany, which is one of the most influential nations in the EU, has a very distinct culture that is simultaneously easy and hard to sum up. About the only way to do it is to quote one of their favorite sayings — Alles lief wie am Schnürchen. (Everything went like clockwork.)

With respect to Locke‘s seven key cultural differences (first outlined as six in his classic text on Global Supply Management), while the power distance is very low in German society due to the strong push for social equality, hierarchy is mandatory in a German company and this often results in exaggerated deference to one’s superior or CEO. Time is monochronic as German’s believe in punctuality to a tee, buyers and sellers are of more-or-less equal rank (though the buyer will be treated with great respect if the rules of German business are followed), and uncertainty is loathed. While harmony is a must with respect to business decisions, as a consensus must first be reached, they will likely be the most frank, direct, and blunt people you encounter in your international dealings. Face is important within their culture (so while they will openly disagree with you, they will only air their internal disagreements in private meetings), which is highly individualistic and private.

Verbal communication in Germany is extremely direct. The tone of the conversation will be reserved in a business setting, though they may be loud and boisterous in public. The volume will be low to moderate, so you should avoid raising your voice — it’s about the facts, not the emotions.

Non-verbal communication is relatively low compared to some of the other cultures we’ll cover, but body position is very important. It’s rude to have your hands in your pockets while talking or to shake with one hand in your pocket. Also, keep your gestures to a minimum, don’t use the OK sign, and don’t point to your head. Be reserved in your facial expressions, as the Germans are suspicious of emotions, but do maintain eye contact when speaking or being introduced (and use a firm handshake). Finally, keep roughly the same distance as you would with your North American counterparts. Depending on where you are from in North America, you’ll find that the German’s are either a little closer or a little further, but there will not be much of a difference either way (except in a supermarket or bakery, where they might literally be breathing down your neck). With respect to touching, European greetings are reserved for friends.

As per our last post, to them, business is serious. It’s not a joke, and jokes in a business setting will not go over well. Meetings are to start on time, follow the agenda, and finish on time between buyers and sellers with representation of equal rank. (Pay attention to titles. They are very important.) Negotiations, which are to be honest and straight-forward, are hard and concessions should be expected on either side. Meals are common, but they are not the affairs you’ll find in Asia. Germans want to get home to their families, so don’t plan on sticking around too long after dinner. Also, be sure that you don’t drink before the host.

Finally, the Germans believe in giving a detailed factual rendition of their own capabilities. Don’t mistake this for arrogance.

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