In your new job you will probably come into conversation with numerous German colleagues or customers. The following tips will help you succeed in your verbal and non-verbal communications in your new environment and avoid misunderstandings.
The communications style in Germany is generally considered to be direct; emotions rarely play a role in conversations. So do not feel hurt if colleagues rapidly express their concerns or opinions in conversation without much prior small talk. In most cases this is not a personal attack but quite normal business communications. In German companies, personal relationships are not a necessity to work together.
As your German work colleagues will probably communicate directly with you, they will appreciate it if you also express yourself clearly. Even if you cannot speak German very well as yet, you should take care to formulate your opinion clearly or express constructive criticism. Beating around the bush and flattery may be perceived as deceitful.
When talking on the phone you should also respect certain rules of behaviour: remember to start by giving your last name when answering the phone. Also, use the polite “Sie” form of address when phoning someone you do not know. Even if it is unusual in other countries, in German you should in general address your interlocutor using the polite form of address. That includes when phoning.
More and more employers in Germany offer flexible working hours. If you have fixed working hours, you should always take care to be punctual. If you are late, call one of your work colleagues briefly and apologise.
Punctuality is also important at meetings or work sessions. A fixed start and end time is part of German meeting culture. In Germany we also tend to insist on sticking to the agenda in meetings, so do not be surprised if there are no "open-ended" meetings.
At work sessions you will certainly be greeted in a friendly and warm manner by your German colleagues. However, especially at your first meeting together you should not necessarily expect laughing and joking. Give yourself and your new colleagues a little time. As you gradually get to know one another, you will be more relaxed in your dealings with one another.
In your day-to-day work, be prepared to make appointments for most talks. It is not customary to walk unannounced into colleagues’ offices to discuss important topics. If pressing questions that have to be decided rapidly crop up unexpectedly, the best thing is to ask your colleagues first of all by phone or email if they have time to talk.
In the world of work, great importance is placed on correct forms of address and people’s titles. If you meet someone you have never seen before, or have to interact with older people or your superior, make sure to use the correct form of address.
In a professional context, it is always preferable to use the “Sie” form. If your interlocutor has a title, such as a doctor’s title, you should use this title plus his or her last name. For example, say: “Herr Doktor Müller” or “Frau Doktor Müller”. Addressing people by their first name and using the “Du” form are reserved strictly for friends and family in Germany. However, if a colleague says you can address them with "Du” or allows you to leave out the “Doktor" when you talk to them, you should accept the offer. They are being especially friendly in doing so. From then on, you can start to call one another by your first names. That will make your interaction with your colleagues more personal and will instil greater trust into your working relationship. In many international companies, the use of first names and the “Du” form is very common among co-workers. Look out for how people introduce themselves at the beginning and follow their example.
And remember: unlike in many countries, using the "Du" form at work in Germany does not necessarily mean that you will develop a friendship. Even if your co-workers address you with “Du”, this does not mean that you will be spending your free time together. For many Germans, there is still a strict separation between their professional and private lives.
Whether at work or in your free time, striking up an acquaintance always begins with small talk. In Germany, it takes a long time to build up personal relationships at work. This is why it is not always easy to find the right topic of conversation at first go. With time, you’ll develop a flair for small talk. Since many Germans are not especially gifted small talkers, you will be helping to relax the general workplace atmosphere and at the same time your relationship with your co-workers.
If someone else does not introduce you, take the initiative yourself. Go up to people yourself and start the conversation. The usual way of greeting people is to say, “Hallo” or “Guten Tag”. If you are in Bavaria, “Grüß Gott” instead of “Hallo” is very appropriate. In northern Germany, you can greet people with the local “Moin Moin“. With that, you’re certain to break the ice!
Indulging in small talk with Germans is not about trying to come across as especially funny or knowledgeable. It is much more a matter of chatting with people in a friendly manner and striking up an acquaintance through conversation. Especially on business occasions, small talk can relax the atmosphere. So it's best not to start by telling joke after joke. Just hold back for a few minutes and listen attentively. Then join in the conversation by referring to what your interlocutor is saying. If possible, put questions to your interlocutors. They will thank you for it and in doing so, you will have established an initial contact.
Germans like to discuss everyday topics when chatting – this is small talk. These are topics on which anyone can talk for hours at a stretch. They include, for example, the weather, travel, sport (especially the German football league) or other hobbies. You should try to avoid controversial topics. Among these are politics and religion, as well as questions about your interlocutor’s salary or income. These are subjects to talk about with closer friends. Moreover, when chatting, keep a physical distance from your interlocutors and adopt an appropriate tone of voice. Embraces or kisses on the cheek are reserved for friends and family and are therefore not usually appropriate for work situations.
Small workplace celebrations and excursions are part of corporate culture in Germany. One such occasion is the annual Christmas party with work colleagues. What form this party takes differs from company to company. The general rule is that during excursions and business celebrations the focus is on socialising and togetherness. Business topics are rarely discussed on these occasions. Not taking part in excursions and celebrations might under certain circumstances be viewed as a lack of interest in the team or the company. The appropriate dress for a work excursion depends on the type of excursion.
Besides the annual workplace celebrations, depending on the region there might also be a Carnival party at work. In keen Carnival towns along the Rhine and Main rivers, it is absolutely customary to hold a little celebration at the workplace. While it can be the done thing in Cologne for employees to come to work in disguise, in other regions, such as Bavaria for example, it would be inappropriate.