Understanding the Differences Between American and German Business Culture

study abroad in germany
For American students looking to study abroad in Europe, an understanding of German business culture is essential. That’s because Germany has become a powerhouse in the European economy, making German businesses very attractive suppliers and partners throughout Europe, as well as competitive participants in the European Union’s shared economy.
Understanding differences between German and American business culture will give you a deeper understanding of German professionals you might encounter in an executive study abroad program, and it will also help your on-continent networking to be more successful.

Shared Social Norms

A shared sense of culture and professional decorum is a major part of the feeling of community in many German companies. Professionals with a German background do not view it as confrontational or rude to correct someone if they make a professional misstep. For example, wearing a slightly inappropriate outfit for a work function. These corrections are intended to show care for the recipient by helping them to do better. This aspect of German work culture might seem a little bit rude to an American when it is just a result of a cultural preference for directness.

Understanding the Role of Compartmentalization

Like many European professional cultures, German business culture prizes compartmentalization in one’s life. In fact, compared to many European cultures, German culture overall prizes compartmentalization, so it is not uncommon to find that colleagues will not expect or seek to become friends at work.
Similarly, personal friends may not necessarily belong to the same group one associates with for politics or community activism. Most European professional cultures involve less sharing of one’s personal life with colleagues than American workers are generally used to, but German business environments are known for an even greater degree of this kind of behavior.
Some of the visible effects of this value on compartmentalization include:
  • Lack of small talk in office spaces
  • Shorter and more structured small talk periods at the beginning of meetings
  • A tendency to work with office doors closed more often than American counterparts

Community and Professionalism

The other major value that German businesses tend to hold differently than American businesses is the way they express community and professionalism. Along with the tendency to offer polite corrective input when social norms are overstepped, German colleagues are also likely to have a higher expectation that when one commits to a deadline for a deliverable. Setbacks and foreseeable scheduling delays are meant to be folded into a quote for a delivery timeline, and it really doesn’t matter what industry the company operates in. That’s because this value is about personal responsibility, including the responsibility to be honest about your capabilities while delivering quality work.
German professionalism draws from the culture of compartmentalization and social cohesion discussed above, which means American students should expect colleagues to appreciate a thorough, well-planned approach to problems that attempt to reason through foreseeable roadblocks. When presenting a plan or idea, it is essential that Americans be ready to talk about details and to answer direct questions. This is because the professional decision-making culture prizes analytical reasoning and a commitment to the understanding high-quality, efficient processes that come with system-focused innovation. Going into a meeting with “big picture” ideas when one is not prepared to discuss the details about implementing those ideas would be considered a major faux pas in many German companies.

Other Differences Between Work Cultures

There are practical differences to the way that German colleagues and companies approach work life that stems from the way their core values are expressed in other aspects of life. For example, while German colleagues are likely to hold timely delivery of projects in much higher regard than colleagues from many other countries, they are also used to firm boundaries around their work time. German workers enjoy baseline 24 vacation days per year, as well as generous medical and family leave policies. They also tend to take the same precise and measured attitude toward breaking away from work at the end of the day that they bring to committing to project timelines.
German workers deliver when it is crunch time because a commitment to the project’s timeline is important. They don’t expect crunch time to happen often, though, because the boundaries of the professional day should be respected when planning out a project timeline. When there is a need for a big push that takes workers over their regular work times, it is usually a known and planned-for event.
There are quite a few shared work values that Americans and Germans enjoy, so getting along with colleagues from Germany should be fairly easy if you can keep these major points of difference in mind. You might even find, with a little practice accommodating them, that some of these values resonate with you. If so, consider what working for a German company could do for you in the future, and how a Europe study abroad program from International Business Seminars could do to get you there.
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