German Etiquette for Personal and Business Travel

When traveling overseas, whether for business or pleasure, there’s a lot you need to know to make the best impression possible. And, the small things matter. Being punctual is accepted in some countries but hated in others. In Germany much importance is put on punctuality. Call if you will be late but don’t expect them to accept just any old excuse. And don’t drop in on someone when you’re in the country. Make appointments for everything – and make them weeks beforehand.

Between ten a.m. and one p.m. or between three p.m. and five p.m. are the usual business hours but avoid Friday afternoons when many businesses close early. Try to keep appointments rather than having to reschedule which is frowned upon without a very convincing reason. Many Germans take six weeks of vacation at one time so be sure to take this into consideration when scheduling appointments.

Dark, conservative suits are the norm for men or women for corporate business meetings but casual dress is acceptable for most other appointments. Shorts and extremely casual wear are reserved for youngsters in most part of the country. Avoid flashy jewelry or extremely busy patterns or eye-catching colors. Formal means extremely dressy and informal means dressy.

Introduce yourself when approaching a new associate and be prepared for initial relations to be somewhat strained. Small talk or mingling has little place in the German culture. And, German friends tend to hang together at a party, often leaving the new person alone to stand or sit alone. Or, a stranger to you may think nothing of asking you many questions concerning your origins. Giving compliments will not earn you extra points with Germans as many of them see this as suspicious if they don’t know you well. Use first names only after being asked, even if they call you by your first name. Normally first names aren’t used in business.

In some cultures gift giving must be done in private but in Germany large or expensive gifts should be done amongst a gathering of people. Small gifts upon first meeting an associate are especially thoughtful, but be sure they are not expensive gifts to keep from giving the impression that you are trying to “buy” the associate. Give flowers when invited into a home for dinner, but never red roses, which are normally reserved for lovers. Do not give lilies, either, since these are usually reserved for funerals. Never give clothing or toiletries like perfume since these types of gifts are considered too personal.

It is appropriate to shake hands at the beginning and end of a business meeting but hugs and kisses, although exchanged among friends, are not for newcomers. In the states we often give one big wave to a gathering as we leave but this is frowned upon in the German culture. Instead, take the time to give a brief handshake to each associate.

Impatience can sometimes lead to bumping or pushing in a line, but don’t take it personally if they don’t apologize. This is just the way of the land. Learn to do the same or you may never get served at certain stores. At the same time, don’t be surprised if you are chastised by certain residents for doing so.

Foods are almost always eaten with fork or spoon so look to see how others handle food and follow suit. It’s not necessary to eat every bite of food on your plate, but leaving large amounts is taken personally by the cook and others. Rather than being served, plates of food are passed around the table from which each individual can select. Lay your knife and fork parallel to each other, on the right side of the plate, to indicate that you are done. Do not set elbows on the table but don’t lay one hand upon your lap and eat with just the other. These are rude mannerisms in this country.

Study up on this country of strict rules and behavior patterns to be as successful as possible in business, or to make a great impression in a social setting. Learn a few simply sentences which may impress the residents. When in doubt about anything wait to see what your counterpart does first then follow suit.

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