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.
As your German work colleagues will probably communicate directly with you, they will appreciate it if you also express yourself clearly.
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. In German you should in general address your interlocutor using the polite form of address.
Work and meeting culture
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.
In Germany 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 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. 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. For many Germans, there is still a strict separation between their professional and private lives.
Ana from Serbia:
"When I started my new job in Stuttgart, I introduced myself to all my colleagues and shook everyone's hands. So I assumed that shaking hands is the usual way to greet people in Germany. And so to go along with that, I greeted my office colleagues with a handshake every morning. After my first week, a colleague took me aside. He explained that a “hello” was enough. From then on when I arrived at the office in the morning. A handshake is only for first-time introductions. I didn’t know that. But I’m glad my colleague enlightened me!"
Small talk and informal relations
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.
The usual way In Germany 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“.
How to hold a conversation
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.
Topics of conversation
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 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.
And at business celebrations?
Small workplace celebrations and excursions are part of corporate culture in Germany. One such occasion is the annual Christmas party with work colleagues. 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.
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.