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From Berlin to the Bay Area: Anecdotes from German- American Business Practices

Updated: Jul 11

Cultural Differences

GABC Newsletter

This article is a long version of the column I write for the Newsletter of the German American Business Chapter of South Florida.


 

Today's topic is

The German Feierabend vs. the American Hustle


In 2012, I returned from a 3-year assignment in Dubai to the headquarters of my company (40,000 employees, hence not a small company, but a multinational, multi-billion corporation) in the south of Germany.


Within my first week on the job, I met a colleague, let’s call him Ted. Ted told me that he was an expatriate himself, sent by our marketing company in Pennsylvania, and had been at headquarters for 9 months. I asked him if he would like to join me and another colleague for lunch later. I saw him staring at me in confusion, and he finally replied with a big smile that he would love to join us, as it was the first time he had been proactively asked to join someone for lunch. Can you believe it? 9 months at headquarters and no one had ever asked this very personable, friendly, smart person to have lunch with them. I was as flabbergasted as he was.


“Mahlzeit”

Business people in front of an elevator

As we left the meeting room, people greeted us with a stoic "Mahlzeit" and I heard Ted reply "Mollseit". It was 10 past 10 in the morning and by now, many of you may know that the company I am talking about is located in the "Swabian Alb". While we were waiting in front of the elevator, Ted said something that I recall like this: "This "Mollsite" still confuses me. I reply "Mollsite", but I still don't understand why people greet me with "Time to eat" from 9:30 in the morning until noon. I am from Berlin and when I first came to this region, I was equally puzzled. I did some research at the time. (If you are interested in the explanation, you can find it here.). After my explanation, Ted said with a smile that this explains why everyone is so structured throughout the day, but it doesn't explain why he was never asked to join in the "meal" even though everyone eagerly awaits the meal break. I had no answer for that.

Anyway, my colleague, Ted and I had a great lunch together. He fired off all his questions about our German culture and business practices:

He still wondered why there was no free water in a restaurant.

He was confused about the importance of titles and why people often introduced themselves with their full professional titles.

But what really blew his mind was the fact that in all that time, he had never been invited to an after-work get-together: not to a birthday party, not to a barbecue, not to a soccer game, not to a concert. Deeply concerned that people just didn't like him, he started talking to other expat colleagues and found out that this was a common thing. They had all experienced the same thing.


So, what does that say about the German culture?

What can we learn from this?

What can we do to bridge this cultural gap?



The Concept of Feierabend in Germany

German office workers enjoy Feierabend, as part of their work-life-balance

In Germany, the line between business and private life is as clear as a well-drawn blueprint. Germans tend to keep their professional and personal lives strictly separate. A typical German workday is focused on productivity, and socializing is kept to a minimum. After hours are sacred, reserved for family, friends, and personal pursuits. The idea is to create a clear boundary between work and personal life, ensuring that neither encroaches on the other. Therefore, inviting a colleague over for dinner might seem unusual. This approach promotes well-being and productivity as employees return to work refreshed and focused. Looking at it closely, one could think that German need this down- time, because of the way they do business: focused, direct, straight forward, and often intense. Their work culture emphasizes efficiency and productivity, leaving little room for unnecessary small talk or prolonged meetings. This focused approach can be both a strength and a challenge, creating an environment where tasks are completed swiftly, but sometimes at the cost of interpersonal connections and team cohesion.


American Hustle Culture

At the other end of the spectrum is the American hustle culture. In the U.S., the lines between work and home are often blurred, with many adopting a "work hard, play hard" mentality. Long hours, after-hours emails and weekend projects are common, driven by the desire for career advancement and success. At the same time, business is being done on the golf course, and if you meet for business, why not do it in a nice setting? Maybe it's okay to work longer hours if the entire workday isn't so pressed and stoic. Americans are known for blending business with a bit of personal touch. It’s not uncommon to hear colleagues discussing their weekend plans, family life, or hobbies during lunch breaks or even in meetings. American work culture often includes team building activities, happy hours, and social events aimed at strengthening bonds and fostering a friendly work environment. This blend of professional and personal interactions helps create a more informal and approachable atmosphere.


Networking Unplugged

My personal experience is that in the U.S., basically every personal encounter is used to promote business, connect people for business or explore business opportunities, but in a relaxed way. Unimaginable in Germany.

Deifferences in American and German networking culture

The German business culture with its emphasis on clear delineation between work and personal time, can lead to high levels of productivity but often lacks the informal networking that can spark spontaneous innovation and creative collaborations. In Germany, professional relationships tend to be more formal and structured, with a strong focus on efficiency and precision.

While this can lead to impressive results and a highly organized work environment, it often means that the softer, social aspects of business interactions are overlooked.

In contrast, the American approach to blending personal and business interactions can create a dynamic and flexible atmosphere where ideas flow more freely. Casual business lunches, after-work gatherings, and informal meetings can lead to unexpected opportunities and partnerships. This relaxed approach helps build stronger personal connections, fostering trust and camaraderie that can be just as valuable as technical skills and expertise.


How can we navigate these differences in German and American business practices without stepping on each other's toes?


As so often the ideal lies in the shades of gray, finding balance in the middle ground.


Cultural Integration and Networking

Reflecting on Ted's experiences and my own observations, it's clear that cultural integration goes beyond understanding language quirks and professional etiquette. It requires a deeper dive into social customs and unspoken norms. In Germany, particularly in regions like the Swabian Alps, social circles can be tightly knit and slow to open up to newcomers. This isn't necessarily a sign of unfriendliness; instead, it reflects a cultural tendency toward privacy and reservedness. One of the key lessons we can learn is the importance of patience and persistence. Building relationships in a new culture takes time.


Americans enjoying after-work as part of work-life-balance

It might be helpful for expats to actively seek opportunities to connect with locals outside of work. Joining clubs, participating in community events, or even taking up a local hobby can be excellent ways to meet people and form genuine connections. Employers and colleagues also play a crucial role in fostering an inclusive environment. Simple acts like inviting new employees to join team lunches, after-work events, or even informal coffee breaks can make a significant difference.


Embracing Cultural Differences

Encouraging an atmosphere of openness and curiosity about different cultures can enrich the workplace for everyone. In conclusion, while navigating cultural differences can be challenging, they also offer a rich opportunity for mutual learning and growth. By approaching these differences with openness, respect, and a willingness to engage, we can create more inclusive and empathetic communities, both in and out of the workplace.


So, here's to embracing diversity and an open heart. 


Embracing Cultural Differences

No matter what shoe you wear, the most important rule is universal, not culturally specific: Good interpersonal relationships all start with open communication and an open heart. And like anywhere else in the world: An authentic smile goes a long way.


Please continue reading for more practical tips, to “Finding Balance Between Respecting Boundaries and Building Meaningful Connections”.


Stay tuned for our next article, where we’ll dive into "The Formality Factor: From Titles to First Names".


Thank you for having me here and warm regards,

Kristin


PS @Ted: Jens (my husband) and I still have fond memories of the many bike rides, BBQ's and “Biergarten” visits that followed our very first lunch. You are such a great guy and our former colleagues don't know what they missed :-)


 
Cultural Integration and Networking


Here are some practical tips for

Finding Balance Between German and American Business Practices: Respecting Boundaries and Building Meaningful Connections


  • Understand Expectations: When working with German colleagues, respect their need for clear boundaries. Avoid scheduling work-related calls or meetings outside of regular business hours unless absolutely necessary. Conversely, Americans might appreciate a bit more personal interaction, so don’t hesitate to engage in casual conversations or social activities.

  • Communicate Openly: If you’re unsure about the boundaries, it’s perfectly okay to ask. Open communication can help set expectations and prevent misunderstandings. For example, you might say, “I’d love to get to know you better outside of work. Would you be open to that?”

  • Respect Personal Time: Recognize that Germans highly value their private time. Refrain from sending work emails or messages during evenings and weekends. For Americans, while they might be more open to blending work and personal life, it's still important to gauge their comfort level with after-hours communication.

  • Adapt to the Environment: If you’re in Germany, be mindful of their cultural norms and try to separate your business interactions from personal ones. If you’re in the US, be open to more informal and personal interactions with colleagues, as it can enhance teamwork and collaboration.

  • Find Common Ground: Look for shared interests that can bridge the gap between business and personal life. Activities like team sports, hobby clubs, or interest groups can provide a neutral ground where both Germans and Americans can connect comfortably.


By understanding and respecting these differences in German and American business practices, you can foster a more harmonious and productive working environment. Embrace the German efficiency during work hours and enjoy the American friendliness in social settings. The key is to appreciate and adapt to each other's preferences, creating a balanced approach that works for everyone.


 

The Story behind “Mahlzeit”


Swabian Alb- region in Germany

Mahlzeit" literally translates to "meal time" in English. Historically, it was a wish for a good meal, similar to saying "enjoy your meal." Over time, it evolved into a more general greeting. This tradition stems from agricultural work environments. Swabian farmers had early and long workdays. Meals were significant breaks in their demanding schedules. Wishing someone "Mahlzeit" became a way of acknowledging the importance of these breaks and showing camaraderie among workers. With the rise of industrialization, factory workers in the region also adopted "Mahlzeit." Factories had strict schedules, and the term became a way to mark the passing of time and to wish colleagues well as they anticipated their next meal break. Today, "Mahlzeit" is still widely used, though often more out of tradition than necessity. It remains a unique cultural expression that reflects the region's historical work patterns and social customs.

By the way the "Swabian Alb" are one of the most productive regions in Germany, known for their “Mittelstand” (midsize companies), which are often family-owned and highly specialized in their fields. This region is not only an industrial powerhouse but also a place of rich cultural heritage and natural beauty.



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