Newcomer‘s Guide for Working with Researchers from Germany

November 6, 2019 Eva-Stina Müller

If this article caught your attention, it is very likely that you are, or have been, working with Germans. If research is your primary area of professional interest, there is a high likelihood that you will be working with German researchers at some point in your career.

Many people’s first thoughts when they think of Germany are schnitzels, dirndls, and the Oktoberfest (which are in fact more typical to the German southern state of Bavaria). Germany is much more diverse than this—ranging from the predominantly protestant north to the catholic south, whilst not forgetting the historical split between West and East Germany.

For those unfamiliar with German culture, this blog post provides a quick overview as well as top tips for engaging with German researchers. 

Like clockwork

Ask someone to describe a stereotypical German, and it’s likely that ‘punctuality’ is one of the first adjectives they’ll give. Unfortunately, this does not mean that trains always arrive on time, but in a business setting, punctuality is good to keep in mind as meetings usually start on the dot. Integrity and reliability are important attributes for many Germans. Germans take pride in their ability to be relied upon and follow through on their commitments. Even if there has only been an informal, oral agreement, you can count on them to do their part. This well-organized approach requires having a detailed plan beforehand —a German cowboy would not simply shoot, he would first calculate the right angle and velocity, then check for compliancy with the relevant standards, before executing a single successful shot.

Compared to other countries, the German style of communication may be perceived as being very direct. It may be that those used to the direct nature of German communication have difficulty understanding less explicit messages. Therefore, it might be helpful to consider asking clarifying questions to ensure that your message was understood correctly. On the other hand, individuals from other cultures may be taken aback by the very direct tone and focus on ‘getting down to business’. Many cultures may begin a meeting with casual small talk, whereas this is relatively uncommon in meetings in Germany.

During meetings with Germans, the tone can sometimes be perceived as being almost aggressive – however, this is completely normal and should not be a cause for concern. Many Germans are not afraid of confrontation and tend to address issues directly – it’s important not to take this very direct style personally.

Foreigners working in Germany describe the German working environment as tougher than in their country of origin. Several acquaintances have noted that Germans often tend to separate their personal from their professional lives, and as such, may choose not to socialize with colleagues. Personally, I feel lucky that I do not share this experience.

Writing emails

Although the communication style in general is direct, emails and other written correspondence tends to be long and well formulated compared to other English-speaking countries, for example. Some Germans might be offended if an email starts with only the recipient’s first name and not a greeting or “Dear …” Or, even worse, if the email begins directly with the message itself. Even messages on services such as WhatsApp can begin with “Liebe(r)… “(“Dear…”) and end with “Many wishes, …” (“Viele Grüße…”) In other words, it is wise to spend a couple of additional seconds on the correct formal structure and spelling of your email.

It is also advisable to start your first email with, “Dear Professor [Last Name]”, especially if you are writing to someone slightly older. If you are communicating in English, most researchers are likely to be fine with you addressing them by their first name after your initial contact.

It is important to familiarize yourself with the differences in the degrees of formality between English and German. In English, there is only one “you”-form, whereas in German there are two. Usually, in a business setting, it is a safer bet to use “Sie” instead of “Du”. Traditionally, “Herr/Frau [Last Name]” is used with the “Sie”-form, whereas first names are assumed with the “Du”-form. Sometimes, “Sie” and the first name are used together, which is convenient, especially if your German-speaking counterpart sometimes switches to English. Titles such as Professor and Doctor are usually not used in the spoken language but should be used in very formal emails and especially for initial contacts – for example, “Sehr geehrter Herr Prof. Dr. Schmidt”. The less formal approach is, “Lieber Herr Schmidt”. A German might also call you ‘Mr. Smith’, despite your PhD degree. This is merely more formal than being on a first-name basis. This might sound very confusing and not only do foreigners in Germany struggle with this issue, but also the locals find this challenging.

Meeting in person

A hand shake is the most appropriate way to greet your German counterpart. At work, people shake hands when initially introduced, but this isn’t repeated every day. The ritual of cheek kissing (similar to Southern Europe) is not typical in a German work environment.

Your contact may, at some point, introduce themselves again with their first name, despite you already having met and exchanged names. They are not suggesting that you have problems with your memory but is simply a kind offer to encourage you to speak on first name terms.

The sense of hierarchy within the German scientific community can be more pronounced in comparison to other countries. Its importance varies between individuals. Amongst the younger generations, there is a trend towards less rigid social structures, whereas the older generation tend to be more traditional. In cases where you are uncertain, it is advisable to take a more conservative approach.

Outside of work

Top Culture Keys
Be direct in communications and when dealing with issues.
Respect formality and hierarchy.
Prioritize quality and organization.
Be punctual.

Most Germans do not work at the weekend and clearly distinguish between the work week and the weekend, which is usually reserved for family and friends.

Germans tend to have longer holidays that other countries, approximately 6 weeks annually, and many Germans take 2-3 weeks off in July or August for their summer break.

At some point during your collaboration, you might go out in the evening and enjoy some German beer or wine. A trip to an ATM/Cashpoint is advisable before your evening out as credit cards and payment apps are not so widely used in Germany. Visiting vegetarians will be pleased to know that the number of vegetarian options has increased in the last few years and there is a wide variety of dishes beyond schnitzels. Local cuisine, travel experiences, and hobbies are acceptable topics of conversations, as is soccer, which is popular in Germany. Discussions about Germany’s military history should be avoided in order to prevent any awkward situations. Finally, it is important to remember to maintain eye contact when you raise your glasses to say “Zum Wohl!”.

Eva-Stina Müller has lived in Germany since 2007. She is originally from Finland, spent parts of her childhood in the USA and Canada, before studying and obtaining her PhD in Sweden. She enjoys meeting scientists from many different cultures as a part of her work as Publisher of a portfolio of journals in chemistry. 

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