The world's third largest economy is peopled by humourless pedants. Richard D Lewis looks behind the stereotype to examine how the Germans behave in business.
The German character is often cited as pedantic, overly serious and generally lacking a sense of humour. Despite this collection of seemingly negative qualities it has managed to produce the world's third largest economy. A better understanding of what actually underpins German behaviour must, if nothing else, avoid unnecessary stereotyping and, ideally, lead to closer, more mutually advantageous ties.
In business the Germans have three broad defining characteristics: a linear approach to work (as seen in the desire to complete one set of actions before starting another); a strong belief that they are honest, straightforward negotiators; and a tendency to be blunt and disagree openly rather than opt for politeness and diplomacy.
Some, but not all, German companies are traditional, slow-moving entities encumbered by manuals, systems and hierarchical structures that are now commonly regarded by many Europeans and Americans as over-rigid and outmoded. Hierarchy is mandatory, often resulting in exaggerated deference for one's immediate superior, and, above all, for the CEO.
The German boss is an extremely private person, usually sitting isolated in a large office behind a closed door. In contrast with the 'horizontal' style of communication favoured elsewhere - in which senior executives leave their doors open and wander between corridors chatting to colleagues - the German system runs along vertical lines; instructions are passed only to immediate inferiors and kept rigidly within one's own department.
Similarly, though strong departmental rivalry is found in many countries, it's an area in which Germans can be especially sensitive. When dealing with a German company, always try to find the right person for each particular message. Tread on a German executive's toes and he will remember it for a long time.
As will doubtless be evident from your surroundings, possessions and property are accorded great respect. Solid buildings, furniture, cars and good clothing are all prized and will be shown off to their best effect. You should acknowledge this grandeur and, in return, should not be afraid to display the solidity of your company. Germans wish to believe that you are just as solid as they are.
It is a trait readily apparent elsewhere. A glance at German newspapers reveals pages full of heavy factual advertisements that give the maximum amount of information in the space available. Germans are unimpressed by flashy television advertising, clever slogans and stylised illustration. When advertising your company's products you should put as much as possible into print. Brochures should be lengthy, factual, serious and make claims which can be later fully justified. No matter how long or boring your brochure is, the Germans will read it.
When it comes to meetings and negotiations, Germans, accordingly, have their own particular style. They will arrive at a meeting punctually, well-dressed and with an outward show of discipline, and will observe hierarchy in seating and order of speaking. Similarly, they will be formidably well-informed as to the business and expect you to be also. Their arguments will be logical, sometimes weighty, and compartmentalised so that each member speaks about his or her speciality. Again, they will expect you to follow suit. By the same measure, they will have often already thought of the possible counter-arguments and prepared a second line of attack. Though they are not inclined to concede their case easily, they often look for common ground. For the other side, this can offer the best chance to make progress.
As with the Japanese, they like to go over details time and time again so that any future misunderstanding is avoided. Here, patience is required; they are cautious and don't like to be rushed. Unlike the Japanese, however, they will make decisions within meetings. In the end they expect to get the best (ie lowest) price. They may give you only a little 'trial' business, even at that. Take it. If they are satisfied it will lead to much more business later.
Be warned, however. They will look earnestly for deficiencies in your products and will criticise you openly, even energetically, if you fail to match up to your claims. In all spheres, Germans try very hard not to make mistakes. If you make a mistake, whether socially or professionally, they will tell you about it. They are not being rude. Rather, they see it as a part of their wider drive towards order (Ordnung) and conformity.
Finally, Germans are very sincere people and assume that others are too. In this vein, don't introduce jokes or anecdotes into business meetings. Business is a serious business and should be dealt with as such, without irrelevant stories. Germans don't like kidding or, for that matter, being kidded. In their eyes it's dishonest and creates confusion. They want to know about price, quality and delivery dates, and with some precision.
Leave the wisecracks until afterwards, over a beer. Preferably German.