Expats in Germany: 7 Tips for Being Successful in German Business Culture

German Business Culture

In the German job market, skills and expertise are, of course, the foundation for a successful career. But as we are in constant contact with other people, it is also important how professionals present themselves. Your personal appearance may be as decisive for your career in Germany as something on your resume. The goal for any professional should be that their personal appearance underlines—not undermines–their professional status. In this guest post, career coach Birgit Wolf, founder and owner of the consulting agency My Personal Style, gives seven tips to help expats master German business culture. 

1. You never get a second chance to make a first impression

Sounds banal – but it is true! First impressions are made within one to three seconds. The first impression is based on only a few key aspects, which are primarily visual and non-verbal. You should ensure that the first impression you make is a positive one, because you will have to live with it for quite a while. The first impression may be a gateway for future contact, determining whether a trustful relationship can be created or not.
What you say accounts for only 7% of how another person reacts to you. The way you speak, i.e., your voice, tone and expression, has a much greater influence. However, your whole individual appearance has the biggest impact, accounting for 55% of how someone reacts to you. This includes body language, gestures, facial expressions and individual appearance.

2. Attention to and appreciation of other people

This includes punctuality, especially in the German business culture. Being on time is a must. Another important habit to build is often using the words „thank you“, „please“ and „excuse me“. Finally, it is essential to actively listen to others and treat them with respect.

3. Greetings

Studies show that job applicants who had a good greeting were judged to be more positive and suitable for the job than those who did not. What constitutes a good greeting? Eye contact, greeting the person by name, and a short and firm handshake. Hierarchy normally determines who offers their hand for a handshake.

Be especially careful to look the other person in the eye, as a lack of eye contact makes the other person feel uneasy. Greeting with a kiss or hug should be avoided with business contacts. This personal greeting involves entering the personal space of your counterpart, and, depending on the culture, this form of greeting might only be for family members and close friends.

Additionally, a brief greeting when entering the elevator, in the stairwell or in the hall is expected here in Germany. Remember, a brief gesture of respect can have a great effect, and the lack of a greeting can do harm.

4. Alignment at the hierarchy level

In the German business culture, hierarchy is determined by rank, not by age or gender. In detail, this means that the highest-ranking person will be the one to decide whether or not a handshake is done. This person will also walk up the stairs or through the door first, and this person will decide whether someone else – for example a woman – is allowed to proceed first. An important reminder for expats, or non-native German speakers: The higher-ranking person always determines the transition from the formal to the informal salutation. „Ladies first“ has had its day in the German business context. In case of equality, rank is the deciding factor.

5. Good table manners

Business meals are a relevant topic for everyone. Even an internal lunch with a higher-ranking person has a completely different character than a meal with friends. Therefore, you should be familiar with general table manners.

In the case of work-related meals, food itself is not the main focus but rather the conversation. Here is my advice: Avoid studying the menu for a long time. Decide quickly. And, above all, choose dishes that you can eat easily.
Water can be had at any time – wine, however, should only be ordered when the host gives the signal. When tasting the wine, taste is not as important as temperature, and checking that the wine is corked. With a screw top, this is obviously of no significance.

6. Small talk is big talk

As an introduction to a conversation or during a business lunch, small talk is an integral part of business life. The topics should be kept neutral, i.e., the weather, local events or upcoming vacations. Always keep in mind that small talk is a pleasant chat about interesting topics. You should therefore avoid serious personal topics, such as illness or death, as well as polarizing topics. These include political issues, as well as financial, racial and religious questions.

To keep the conversation going for an extended period of time, consider the following: small talk is not a one-way street, but works best like a ping-pong game. This means that an open, positive attitude and an interest in the other person are helpful. Listen to what your partner is saying, don’t interrupt him, but don’t forget to contribute to the conversation. Not participating or just giving short, concise answers is unprofessional. After all, you are not acting as a private individual, but as part of your professional commitment.

7. Dress code in German Business Culture

Working as a professional in a technical job in Germany usually means there is no clear dress code. Frequently the clothing is dependent on the occasion. The border between leisure and professional clothing is fluid. Nevertheless, this should not be a reason for only and always wearing the clothes in which you feel most comfortable. Please consider clothing as a form of non-verbal communication. The clothes you wear send out messages and signals about who you are.
And what’s more: the style of clothing not only affects how you are perceived by other people but can also have an influence on how you behave.

For these reasons, you should pay attention to the clothes you wear professionally, and follow certain guidelines in German business culture. Shoot for a well-groomed appearance, from head to toe. This includes your hairstyle, shoes, and well-fitting clothing. Tops should measure 1 cm more or less in the shoulder area, a sleeve or the trouser leg can be decisive for the whole appearance. The goal should be that the clothing takes second place and does not distract from the person.

My advice for a job interview and the first days on job: it is better to be overdressed than underdressed. If in doubt, this means it is better to wear a classic outfit than to wear jeans and shirt. What counts above all is the first impression and the need to convey a coherent picture of professional competence and personal appearance.

About the author:
Birgit Wolf is the founder and owner of the consulting agency My Personal Style. For more than 10 years, Birgit Wolf has been advising business executives as well as young professionals on the topics of appearance, outfit and manners. Prior to becoming self-employed, Wolf worked for several years in well-known companies in the financial and banking sector, including abroad.

Also in our blog: Are German language skills necessary for working in Germany? In most cases at least, the German labor market is rather inflexible when it comes to language diversity. More often than not, German language skills are necessary for finding and exercising a job in Germany – in some cases German language proficiency is even mandatory. See what people experienced in recruiting have to say on this topic!

Foto: Birgit Wolf

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