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Published on Jun 20, 2013 in Europe, News

German Business Etiquette

I, and my partner Dave Dodge, have always enjoyed our interactions with German businessmen. They’re decisive. They know what they want. And they usually have a good knowledge of American etiquette and business standards so that they can interact seamlessly with us without culturally offending anyone. However, most Americans are not as familiar with German customs and cultural norms. We assume, since both Germans and Americans are considered Westerners, that the etiquette of both countries is fairly similar. But many are not. Subsequently, we can inadvertently create a cultural faux pas in our business dealings.

Below is a list of some of the most common breaches in etiquette that we try and avoid when we’re conducting business with our German counterparts.

Tardiness: One of the most common breaches of etiquette we commit is tardiness. German’s expect punctuality and consider it an insult if you’re late. Culturally, German’s see black and white, and not gray. Therefore, even arriving a few minutes late will cause annoyance and will be considered rude.

FE_DA_Crosswalk_011112425x284Use the crosswalk: When we’re walking to a restaurant or another venue with our German counterparts, I’ve often used the New York method and crossed the street on a red light, when the street was clear of traffic, in order to get to my destination faster. After all, jaywalking is an art form in New York and considered the norm. Not so in Germany. Crossing the street when the light is red is not the norm. They actually fine you for this type of behavior. In Germany, they wait for the green light. Again, it’s part of the culture that sees only black and white. But in this case, only red or green. If you don’t want to be embarrassed by your host asking you to wait, don’t cross the street on a red light.

Don’t chit-chat: Germans are generally more serious and focused than Americans and they like to discuss more substantive issues, such as business trends, technology, politics, and philosophy. Talk of the weather, how your flight to Germany was delayed, how nice your hotel room is, or other trivial matters are usually brushed aside in favor of discussing meatier issues.

Hands-in-pocket: We might consider having our hands in our pockets as relaxed and casual behavior. Most Americans, in fact, don’t pay much attention to it. Not so in Germany. Having your hands in your pocket is considered slovenly behavior and will reflect poorly on your character.

Blowing your nose: Blowing ones nose in public in Germany is considered rude, whether it’s into a handkerchief or a tissue. Germans tend to leave the room when they have to blow their nose and return once they’re finished. They’ll expect the same from you.

Asking for tap water in a restaurant: When Germans want glass of water at a restaurant, they almost always order bottled water. Therefore, when you’re at a business lunch or dinner, ordering tap water at a restaurant will be seen as a sign of stinginess and will give your German counterpart the opinion that you care more about saving money at the restaurant than in having him enjoy the cuisine.

Know which flowers and wine are acceptable as gifts: On occasions, when meeting our German counterpart’s family at their home, we usually bring a small gift, such as flowers, for his wife. When doing so, don’t give carnations, as they’re a symbol of mourning in Germany. Likewise, refrain from giving lilies or chrysanthemums, as they’re both used at funerals. Almost any other flower is acceptable. If you decide to bring a nice bottle of wine instead, just make sure it’s anything but German wine. Presenting a bottle of German wine will give your German counterpart the opinion that you believe he only serves inferior German wine and therefore you’re bringing your own.

Elbows off the table: This is something that I quite often inadvertently do, in spite of knowing that it’s considered rude. Most Germans like to see hands on the table and not elbows. My wife’s laser-like eyesight normally catches me before too long, but keeping your elbows off the table is considered good manners throughout Germany. At business dinners the only thing we generally see Germans place on the table is their hands.

Try not to eat with your fingers: Bread, pretzels, and McDonald’s are about the only things you should be eating with your fingers in Germany. Even pizza and fries are usually eaten with a fork. The Germans are not as casual as Americans when they eat. Subsequently, use a fork and knife for all but the obvious. It will be looked upon as good table etiquette.

Don’t reschedule at the last minute: Germans find rescheduling anything at the last minute to be rude. They’ve taken the time to adjust their schedule for the meeting and expect you to have done the same. If you can’t make the meeting, then providing them the reason you can’t attend is a necessity.

They rap their knuckles: One of the things that surprised me when I first spoke in Germany was the group I was speaking to rapping their knuckles on the conference room table at the conclusion of my presentation.  I was surprised, and didn’t know what to make of it. Later, my host told me that this was their way of applauding. Therefore, don’t be surprised if the people you’re speaking to pound the table at the end of your presentation. That’s good. They’re not hungry and demanding food. They’re applauding!

 

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