Germany cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
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Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
Generally speaking, the communication patterns in Germany are not much different from those in Canada. Maybe people need a little bit longer to warm up. To make friends will take longer as it would in Canada. People seem sometimes more reserved than in Canada, and this is more pronounced in the North of Germany than in the South.
You always address people you meet for the first time with the polite form, and their last name. The Germans have (like in French) a special formal form, called ’Sie-Form’ or ’Hõflichkeitsform’ (polite form) in German. Normally you stick with it until you are told you should say ’Du’ (’Du-Form’ or ’Umgangs-form’ - informal), or you are part of a clique of young people, who all address each other with ’Du’. As a rule of thumb, women will generally be the ones to offer the use of the ’Du’-form to men as will older people to younger. The ’Du-Form’ is always used with the first name. (You say ’Frau or Herr Schmitt’ and ’Sie’—or ’Anne’ or ’Michael’ and ’Du’).
Discussion topics would be very similar to Canada; there is nothing that would raise controversy right away. Asking people about themselves (without being too personal) to get a feeling of their situation, and listening carefully to what they like and dislike is always a good idea.
There is nothing really special that should be avoided, and normally humour will be understood and appreciated.
Asking about family, their job and what part of the country they’re from are acceptable topics of conversation with a new acquaintance. Germans also enjoy telling people about their last trip or where they’re planning to go for their vacation. For many people their homes and gardens are a source of pride and are something people enjoy discussing. Lastly, it may sound stereotypical, but most Germans enjoy driving, and talking about cars is something of a national pastime.
Overall, Germans are quite conservative and don’t tend to discuss politics with someone they’ve just met. So it’s best to avoid polemical issues in the beginning of a relationship. In particular, Germans are extremely sensitive about issues involving violent conflict and war. Only two or three generations separate German society from the horrible tragedies of the Second World War. For some, there are still issues of guilt and responsibility that remain unresolved. Other people are simply tired of speaking about ’the past’. So any references to the War (2nd World War), the Third Reich or Nazis should be done with care or even better, avoided altogether.
The arrival and settlement of refugees and new immigrants in Germany may also be something that should be discussed with discretion.
For visitors, the German sense of humour can be baffling at first. For the most part, first meetings tend to be quite serious and mostly formal. But it isn’t unheard of for Germans to tell a joke to someone they’ve just met, and not laugh, perhaps as a way of judging character. For the new arrival to Germany, using humour with someone you’ve just met - particularly in a self-deprecating manner- is something to be careful of. Poking fun at oneself is rarely done in Germany and may be misinterpreted as lack of confidence.
Like in Canada, keep an acceptable distance when speaking to someone. Don’t touch anybody, unless they do it first. Kissing on the cheeks is only between good friends. A handshake when you meet somebody is usual.
Making eye contact is important to show openness and confidence. There is nothing wrong with underlining your expressions with gestures and facial expressions as long as they remain moderate. The tone of voice should be moderate. There is also nothing wrong with directness as long as you pay attention to the other person’s feelings and dignity.
There isn’t much difference, if any, between Germans and Canadians in relation to personal space during everyday conversation (approximately three to four feet). Older Germans are generally formal when they greet strangers and each other. Both women and men tend to shake hands. Younger people tend to be more intimate and often say hello and goodbye with a kiss on the right cheek, between women, and between women and men. People almost always make eye contact when greeting, and conversing. Looking away from a person when addressing them will be frowned upon and could negatively affect relations. Touching people you’ve just met is rarely done.
Germans can come across as overbearing and even dominating in first meetings; however, in most cases this behaviour shouldn’t be taken personally or seen as a threat. In business settings and especially bureaucratic-government roles, assertiveness appears to be a touchstone of the workplace. Responding firmly and confidently may be useful in developing a rapport and establishing a professional or personal relationship with people.
Restaurants are one place where Canadians will find German culture to be quite different than in Canada. Food and drink aside, if you’re meeting someone for the first time over a meal there are common gestures that new arrivals should take note of. Germans aggressively beckon wait staff when they wish to order, or request the check. A loud clearing of the throat or raised waving hand are two commonly used gestures. Tipping is generally done, although rather than tip a percentage of the bill, patrons will simply round up the charge and tell the staff what they are prepared to pay.
To articulate affection, anger or other emotions is both acceptable and common. You have the right to intervene (e.g. if you do not get what you were promised), to complain (e.g. if you don’t get what you paid for), and to demonstrate (e.g. if you are for or against political issues).
Overall, Germans are cool to overt public displays of affection. Of course, Berlin’s famous ’Love Parade’ each July is an exception. Imagine a massive Gay Pride parade, a gigantic rave and searing heat, all rolled into one expressively colourful day. Germans over fifty are particularly reserved in the level of affection they’ll show on the street. Hand holding, arm in arm and hugging are commonplace, and won’t be frowned upon. But lengthy kissing in public just isn’t done in Germany. Young Germans naturally smash such taboos. Showing lots of skin and couples kissing in the town square are done in Deutschland by the young. But all in all, expect most Germans to be pretty conservative about showing affection in public places.
The dress code and the form of address are different from branch to branch and from company to company, and between white and blue-collar workplaces. My recommendation would be: always wear formal clothes the first day, and look around to see what other people are wearing. If it is a blue collar workplace, you can ask at the end of the interview what kind of working clothes you are supposed to wear, if there is special uniform and if the company then provides it to you.
In Germany you always address your colleagues and supervisors with the formal ’Sie’ and by their surname. (see under ’First Contact’). If they have a PhD, you always address them as Doctor and their last name (Frau or Herr Dr. Schmitt).
You ought to get to work on time; punctuality means honesty. Always try to meet your deadlines and be productive. In case you have to be absent (e.g. you are sick) call your supervisor or your human resources department. If you have a doctor’s appointment, ask your supervisor or your HRD in advance how this is dealt with in this particular company.
On the whole, Germans dress conservatively in business settings. In offices the norm is jacket and tie for men and dresses, skirts or dressy pants for women. Depending on the workplace it’s becoming more and more acceptable for women to wear tighter, more revealing clothing in the spring and summer months. Most Germans are quite open and uninhibited about what they decide to wear, although when making a first impression it’s advisable to start conservative and adjust your dress as you begin to integrate.
Uniforms are common in many businesses and some professions—building trades—have a distinct outfit suited to the work. Punctuality is taken seriously in Germany. Timeliness isn’t just a cliché about Germans. It’s hard to walk anywhere in most towns and cities and not see a clock, on a church, city hall, or on the side of a office building. Trains invariably run on time and people are expected to arrive for meetings and appointments at the arranged hour. To be prepared and relaxed, it’s advisable to be a little early when meeting someone.
Office hours are quite rigid and it’s expected that people should be paid for overtime duty. However, that said, deadlines and productivity is taken seriously and extra work may be expected to finish projects on time. Lateness and absenteeism, without due cause, is frowned upon and will likely negatively affect work relations.
When addressing someone in German, the Sie/Ihnen form should always be used until a personal relationship is formed. In the workplace, if a person is speaking to a more senior colleague, than use of the formal should be continued indefinitely. In German, when addressing a stranger, ’Herr’, replaces ’Mr.’, and ’Frau’ replaces Ms or Mrs., followed by the person’s last name. Germans are very reluctant to criticize their employer, and in many cases, government officials. Some people - often younger- may confront superiors and coworkers directly, but it’s more usual for someone to remain silent or pursue things formally, for instance in a letter. Company loyalty and acceptance of hierarchy is still quite prevalent in Germany.
Professionalism is very important in a management position. It is made up of a mix of experience, a positive and fair attitude and a commitment to working hard; the right mix depending on the type of position. The same qualities are expected from local and non-local colleagues and superiors.
Formal appraisals are not very common. If at all, they take place only in large companies. But with an open and cooperative style of leadership you should be able to tell how your staff members view you.
Educational level is tantamount to success in Germany. It’s advisable that people bring copies of all degrees, diplomas and professional licenses to interview and meetings. It’s common to receive an ’official’ certificate after completing workshops or training sessions in Germany. Experience and work ethic are also highly regarded, although it is almost assumed that ambitious managers will possess these qualities. The same applies for expats who are given managerial roles, although in some spheres, if you offer new, exciting ideas, your profile will rise. Expats who are treated with respect and politeness can be fairly sure they are being accepted into the work environment.
In Germany, large companies have formal management boards which comprise representatives from management and the unions. As a result, unions have a stronger say in a company’s decision-making process than they would in Canada.
In day-to-day operation, it really depends on the company or the organisation: how big or small it is, which kind of management they may have. Going to the supervisor for answers and feed back is not only acceptable, it is also appreciated.
Germans are quite hierarchal, and when there are decisions to be made, they usually defer to a higher authority for answers. This means that high-level managers may be more involved in the day-to-day operations of a company or firm. In the public sector, (government) people are loathe to second guess each others’ department, so for instance, obtaining a building permit may take countless visits, to a surprising number of offices. People at all levels generate ideas, yet final decisions on how to approach problems/projects are generally made by senior managers. Feedback and performance evaluations usually are conducted formally, at the end of the year. Still, it seems acceptable for employees to casually inquire about their performance, at any time.
It is a constitutional right that nobody should be discriminated against on the basis of gender, religion, class or ethnicity reasons!! However there can be gaps between theory and practice. This is for example why there are special laws to promote the integration of more women in the labour market. These laws vary between the Bundesländer (like states or provinces) and tend to apply to the public service more than the private industries. There are also laws to integrate more people with disabilities to the labour market.
Attitudes regarding gender, religion, class and ethnicity do not generally affect relationships in the workplace. Germany is home to some 7 million foreigners, a large proportion of whom are from Turkey. While there are occasional racist incidents, attitudes are generally open and tolerant.
Gender roles are much more static in Germany than in Canada. Women and men can both be found working in almost all jobs and sectors. However traditional roles are still the norm, ie: women at home, caring for children and managing the household. Maternity/parental leave isn’t as progressively designed as in Canada, which limits the number of men who might be interested in leaving work to care for children. Institutionally, women and men enjoy the same rights of suffrage and access to government services. There are fewer women in positions of power in Germany, particularly in government; however, this appears to be changing.
Religion plays an important role in German society. Most major religions are represented to some extent. Christianity is by far the majority faith in the country, with Christian holidays strictly observed by many Germans. All shops are closed on Sundays and religious holidays.
On the surface, class would seem to be unimportant in the current German reality. But access to a growing number of private schools in the country and to professional jobs is still predicated on what class a person is a part of. Germany’s generous social welfare system equalizes some of the effects of class; however, some Germans admit that a person’s background can have an effect on their level of success.
Attitudes about race and ethnicity range widely in Germany. Sadly there are is still a xenophobic minority that would rather see Germany rid of foreigners and immigrants. As said, fortunately this group is small and isn’t tolerated by German authorities or the larger society. Generally Germans welcome people from cultures other than their own and assist these folks in integrating into German society. Lately, however, tensions have heightened and people across the Bundesrepublic have expressed concerns that too many immigrants are being allowed to settle in Germany, too fast. All of these issues can affect the dynamics of the workplace. Or they might not. Most work settings, however, are secular places of equality where people of all backgrounds and ethnicities will be welcomed.
There is no need to establish a personal relationship before getting to business. Nevertheless, it is a good habit to spend a little bit time to ’warm up’ the atmosphere, depending on the situation. Generally, Germans tend to separate their business from their private lives more than Canadians do.
As mentioned earlier, when you make friends with Germans before establishing a business relationship, the bond is often stronger. However, initial contact with new acquaintances can seem formal, especially by Canadian standards, so socializing usually doesn’t start until after a professional contact has been made. At any rate, if you’re lucky enough to know someone on a friendly basis before doing business, you’re sure to find that the level of commitment and trust in the relationship has been enhanced.
Bribery of public officials is illegal in Germany. In a public sector workplace, getting special privileges or considerations based on a personal relationship or friendship would be illegal. In the private sector, hiring and pay decisions are usually based on professional qualifications, not on relationships.
Germans take their friendships and family relationships very seriously. Often this has an impact on whom they choose to do business with and how those people are treated. Canadians often term this as pork barrelling and generally look down on favouritism. But excluding high political levels, this behaviour is quite common in Germany. As an example, in an extreme case it might mean a less qualified person could be hired over another candidate because of a connection to the boss, or another employee. Or a contract might be awarded on the basis of a friendship. If this is troubling or morally unacceptable, then approaching a boss or a co-worker in confidence should be met with understanding. However obsessively trying to blow the whistle and eliminate the practice would likely be foolish and personally damaging. The other option is to recognize the benefits of the practice and try and socialize with coworkers and clients, and try to humanize relationships. Perhaps inviting someone to your home to meet your family, or suggesting an activity that you could do together in a neutral, public place.
It depends on the problem and on the situation. Generally speaking, a work-related problem should first be discussed with this colleague directly. This could be done in a questioning manner rather than a direct accusation. Avoid a confrontation in public; try to do it in a way that no other colleagues can overhear the discussion. If this fails to solve the problem, then it is appropriate to raise the issue with your supervisor.
If you have the feeling that a colleague is having problems with you or seems offended by your actions, you should ask him or her directly.
If a serious and persistent work problem develops with a colleague it’s best to deal with it promptly. Initially you might try and broach the issue with the individual, express your concerns and hopefully the matter will pass. But if things worsen, then the place to take up the issue is with the boss. In other words, go to the top.
Job satisfaction is one of the most important things in a workplace. This can be achieved with managers and colleagues who are fair and collegial, and who share information that affects other people’s work, ask colleagues for their opinions and let them participate in the decision-making process. Good working conditions are also crucial, including a good ergonomic environment.
Loyalty is important and should be practiced in two directions: from the top down and the other way around.
Of course money is an important cornerstone but it is not always the main element in the remuneration package. There are other benefits that make a work place attractive, e.g. time off rather than pay outs for overtime, individual and flexible time arrangements within a core time rather than a fixed schedule, and so on. The unions in Germany are innovative and creative on these issues.
Commitment and loyalty to one’s employer and colleagues is taken very seriously in Germany. Rates of pay in Germany are some of the highest in Europe and working conditions in the country are also top notch. So in most cases people feel satisfied and inspired to perform at a high level. Of course, jobs exist where conditions and pay levels are poor. Usually these positions are filled by new immigrants to Germany.
There are hundreds of books that could be recommended that deal with German culture and the German life-style. I will list only a few general books that describe Germany today, its main political trends, tourist attractions, etc.
The German Federal Government publishes each year "Facts about Germany", which you can get from the German Embassy. You can also download it from the government’s web site www.bundesregierung.de. It contains all sorts of information about the 16 Bundesländer (provinces), German history, constitution, economy, culture, etc.
For more about the German culture, I would recommend you attend events at the Goethe Institut, which has offices in various Canadian cities, including Ottawa. The Goethe Institut has a fabulous website (www.goethe.de) that will guide you through the cultural element of your choice, be it music, literature, architecture, dance, film, design, painting, photography, etc.
For tourist information, I found "Rough Guide for Germany" an excellent and very informative travel guide, which tells you a lot of cultural and historical background too. You can buy the book or go to the Rough Guide website at http://roughguides.com.
The German Embassy publishes "Perspectives on Canada and Germany" (www.GermanEmbassyOttawa.org), which provides some context for issues of importance for our two countries.
Germany’s central role in the history and culture of Europe has inspired many writers to produce excellent books on the country. The German Empire: A Short History by Michael Sturmer is a concise, readable narrative on the rise of Germany from new nation to industrial superpower, ending with the terrible loss of life in the First World War. Highly recommended are the books of British writer Ian Kershaw. His portrait of Hitler provides a rare glimpse into how Germany’s worst period of history came into being. The Holocaust of Europe’s Jewish community still weighs heavy on German culture. For an unbiased, factual account, have a look at Holocaust: A History, by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt—who teaches at Ontario’s University of Waterloo. Austrian born, British journalist Gitta Sereny’s collection of essays, The German Trauma, is also excellent, especially dealing with the psychological damage done to Germany from the memory of the Second World War. In the same vein, Canadian journalist Erna Paris’s award winner Long Shadows: Truth, Lies and History, examines how the legacy of the two wars has shaped German national identity. Lastly, but arguably one of the best, is Wall Street Journal of Europe editor Frederick Kempe’s book, A Personal Search for the New Germany. Kempe, whose roots are German, uses a journalist’s eye to analyze modern elements of modern Germany, including immigration, militarism and the country’s complex relationship with the United States. Fascinating.
German directors and films are excellent sources of cultural understanding. Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, about an angel who floats about Berlin, illuminating the lives of people of all walks of life, is superb. Young director Tom Twycker has produced a number of films in recent years that provide a glimpse of modern Germany. His best known, Run Lola Run, launched the career of rising German star Franke Potente. (Others include The Princess and the Warrior—available on video in Canada) Film buffs interested in German’s extensive cinema history should have a look at films by Fassbinder, and of course Marlene Dietrich’s iconic turn in The Blue Angel.
Newspapers are always a good source for information. There are different national papers as well as local papers. If you need business and economic information, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine" or the "Handelsblatt" may be helpful. Local papers are always good to get a feeling about your local environment. It would also be a good idea to visit the local tourist information.
Beside the commercial TV and radio stations, there are two big Public Broadcasting Corporations: ARD and ZDF. Both are independent (more or less) from the government. They are funded mainly through charges per user and to a smaller extent through publicity, and their mandate is to inform, educate and entertain the public. Both are excellent sources for national and international news and background information. They also provide excellent comedy shows, a huge variety of movies, and extensive sport coverage.
The ZDF broadcasts nationally, while the structure of ARD is different, with a number of Land-wide broadcasting companies (e.g. HR = Hessischer Rundfunk for the State of Hesse www.hr-online.de) and some companies covering more than one states (e.g. RBB = Rundfunkanstalt for Berlin Brandenburg).
There is also a third leg in the Public Broadcasting System, partly with its own programs and partly with programs from ARD and ZDF. It is the DW (Deutsche Welle)—TV and Radio, at www.dw-world.de. The DW broadcasts nationally and worldwide (in almost 30 languages). You can get it in Canada via cable or satellite.
For those interested in travel, Germany is an absolute delight. Castles, churches, museums, sophisticated, high-energy cities; there’s a lot to see. Berlin is a must, with its countless historical sites, The Brandenburg Gate, the remnants of the infamous Wall, the Jewish Museum, and nightlife of every kind imaginable. The port of Hamburg, Munich, Cologne and Frankfurt are other cities that are wonderful to visit. The Bodensee area on the border with Switzerland is beautiful as is the Black Forest area near Heidelburg. The food of Germany is changing. As more immigrants arrive with their ingredients and recipes in tow, the options have been increased. If you like bread, beer and meat, you’ll be in heaven in Germany. They’re also peerless where it comes to cake.
The Deutsche Welle radio network—equivalent to the CBC—has a web site that has news and feature articles about living in Germany. They also have German language courses that can be downloaded. Expat.com is another excellent site that explores the challenges of relocating to Germany. For those who love newspapers and read German, there’s no shortage of options. Germany has numerous dailies, broadsheets and tabloids. Foreign papers are available at newsstands in big cities and surprisingly at train stations in small towns. No Canadian papers I’m afraid, but NY Times, and British dailies are easy to find.
Concerts are an excellent means of observing Germans and experiencing a cultural event, dear to the nation. Classical music is very popular, and many Germans belong to local orchestras or music listening societies. Germans are mad about soccer (football). Just think Canadians and hockey and you get the idea. Try and attend a German professional football match. It will bring to life, the extent of the passion for the game. In summer, Germans cities and towns become giant patios for enjoying a glass of beer or a dish of ice cream and fruit.
Germany has a huge number of cultural icons like musicians, authors and literates, composers, inventors, painters and architects, accumulated from the past centuries until contemporary times.
Other heroes include people who were engaged for social causes like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebrecht, and those engaged in the resistance movement during the 2nd World War, such as Sophie and Hans Scholl (the White Rose) and Anne Frank to name a few.
Germany has no military heroes, which of course has to do with Germany’s role in the two World Wars, especially the second.
Contemporary heroes would be found in the world of sports, the pop scene or among movie stars.
National heroes range from pop stars to poets to Baroque composers. Beethoven still ranks highly despite being dead for centuries, and poet and philosopher Goethe is a source of pride for many Germans. Formula One driver Michael Shumacher and tennis player Steffi Graf also seem to be favorites of the German public. The same can be said for many of football players. American music stars are also popular and likely adorn the walls of German teenagers.
Canada and Germany fought against each other in the two World Wars. During the Cold War until the beginning of the 1990s, Canada had military bases in Germany. But the relationship between the two countries is normal if not very friendly.
Canadians and Germans both have memories of the two world wars. Adversaries in both conflicts, the fighting may have created a gulf of distrust between Germans and Canadians. But time has certainly eased those tensions, and today there would be little reason to see the war as a barrier affecting social relations. A positive bit of shared history is the settlement of Germans in Canada. The second largest Bavarian oriented ’Oktoberfest’ celebration outside Germany, happens in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario with lots of beer, bratwurst sausage, and traditional German music.
I would say there is nothing that might be seriously harmful, but of course the first thing that pops in every German’s mind when thinking about Canada is: Winter = Cold (which is partly true for quite a few months!). For some Germans, Canada means dreaming about the beauty of an endless white landscape.
Distance and nature are often seen in a very romanticized sense: vast land of unspoiled environment. Germans follow very carefully (and are critical of) news about clear cutting of forests or reports about seal hunting (sometimes not knowing much about the complexities and interrelations). Many Germans who do not have a direct connection to Canada don’t know much about it and assume that Canada is somehow a northern part of the United States.
Images of Germans in war movies, guarding prisoners and speaking heavily accented English still pervade the airwaves of weekend television in Canada. These days you’ll find many Germans speak English, honed from travel and working throughout the world. Other popular stereotypes that portray Germans as inflexible and uptight should also be discarded. Germans are often very detail oriented, but in most situations there’s a place for discussion and dialogue.
Your cultural interpreter was born in 1949 in Düsseldorf (North-Rhine-Westphalia, Germany). She worked for 35 years in Germany, including 30 years in a Public Broadcasting Corporation in Frankfurt am Main. She also worked as a laboratory technician, television archivist, and later as Employment Equity Commissioner. She has volunteered for many years with Amnesty International and a provincial women's organization, which produced and published a monthly magazine and two books on women's history and political issues. She is interested in political issues, photography, culture and traveling. She immigrated to Canada in 1999.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Kitchener, Ontario, the oldest of two boys. He was raised in North Bay for the first 5 years of his life and later moved to Toronto. He remained there until finishing high school. He studied Anthropology at the University of British Columbia and Journalism in Toronto. He first went abroad when he was eighteen, with a nationally renowned youth exchange program. After four months in a first nations community in Northern Quebec, he travelled to India for another four months. Since then he has lived, studied and worked across Canada. As a journalist he has covered stories from many countries throughout Europe. Your cultural interpreter went to Germany in August of 2002, and stayed for one year. He's currently back in Canada, in Toronto working for a national media organization.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
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