What North Americans need to know about working in Germany

After living and working in Berlin for over five months, I can safely claim to have experienced a taste of German working culture. Sometimes the differences between Canada and Germany are unnoticeable – no business likes to deal with tax paperwork. But there are a few differences, some which you may not have even thought of. (Ed. comparing ourselves to Germans is new, but comparing Canadians to Americans is our second-favourite national pastime. Our favourite is complaining about the weather.)

 

In Germany, working 9-5 is real. Or 9-4. Or 9-…Feierabend!

To all North American readers: if I told you most Germans leave work before 5 pm – regularly – would you believe me? My mind was almost blown when I found that out. Many German companies, including text&form, offer actual flexible hours so employees can set their own schedules. This also means that in a decentralized city like Berlin, rush-hour commuter hell isn’t (really) a problem! Having experienced real rush hour on Highway 401 in Toronto, a 12-lane superhighway that is considered one of the busiest in the world, this is something I really appreciate.

So, what happens at 2, 3, 4, or 5 pm when Germans have “Feierabend” –literally “celebrate evening”, which is what we should do–when leaving work? Relax HARD. This is an area Berliners excel in during the summer. Offices empty, and bars, parks, canal banks, balconies and lakes fill with locals enjoying a drink and the sun. A friend of mind invited me a few weeks ago for a radler and ice cream at Admiralsbrücke, a popular hangout spot in Kreuzberg. All normal, except it was a Monday! Coming from the rat race of Canadian working culture, it felt almost sinful. But I love it; summer in Berlin is a wonderful time (even if part of me wonders how much work is actually getting done). In addition to a deathly allergy to overtime, this contributes to a much better work-life balance for Germans. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to ride 15 minutes home, open up a cider and hang out by the Schlachtensee with friends…Oh wait, I need to finish this blog first.

 

Germans are more formal and hierarchical in the workplace.

This may surprise some (although maybe not those who picture the strong, silent, “Teutonic” stereotype when they think of Germans). In Canada, unless you’re speaking with the elderly or school teachers, it is extremely unusual to call anybody by anything other than their first name. That doesn’t mean that it’s always the correct form of address, but (like in Germany) if you send a formal email using Mr./Ms., and they reply with your first name, go with what they use. In the German workplace, referring to colleagues and clients by their last name is much more common.

It is also less common and accepted in Germany to “cold call” or “cold contact” a potential employer or client. It helps to have a strong network when working in Germany; whereas in North America you could develop this network with cold contacting, it comes across as a bit pushy and inappropriate for many Germans. That being said, there are always exceptions – I was able to get a job in Germany by cold calling the company, but I think the fact that my contact had gone to university in the States (and therefore understood North American work culture) helped.

 

Germans don’t like hard sales tactics.

When I say “hard sales tactics,” lots of people will picture the shouty used-car salesman type. What I mean is more nuanced. My first job in Canada was a cashier in a bike store, and I had lots of time to observe the different techniques salespeople used, and what worked and what didn’t. Although there were lots of variations, the general approach was helpful (“how can I help you today?”), forward (“if you’re looking for road bike tires, these Continentals are the best”), and a dollop of classic Canadian friendliness (“how was your bike tour of Italy?”). Both the customer and salesperson understand this is a sales job, but in a perfect situation the salesperson finds the right solution/product for the customer’s needs.

Many Germans would see this approach as too pushy: Helpful is good, a stranger asking about your vacation is taking it a step too far. In Berlin, you’ll experience a strong variation of this German attitude – especially away from tourist areas like Friedrichstrasse and Alexanderplatz. Here, you might find yourself ignored completely by the salespeople (which would not be a good way to generate business in Canada) but don’t take it the wrong way – they’re not being deliberately rude, you need to approach them – it’s simply a case of “Berliner Schnauze.”

Working in Germany has been an enjoyable experience, even if it took a bit of adjustment. I find it’s never the big things I had issues with (i.e. finding a job), but rather the little things (i.e. finding out a second job is taxed at 42%, even for part-time work) that posed some challenges. However, I highly recommend Canadians and Americans to work or do business in Germany; if you have the attitude of a Boy or Girl Scout (or Girl Guide, in Canada) and prepare before coming, you’ll be saying “Icke, icke bin ein Berliner” before you know it.

About the author

Charlotte Chase joined text&form in December 2017 to support the marketing team. The hockey loving Canadian (!) enjoys pucks and puns equally.

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