September 22, 2016
As September turns into October, Germany celebrates in full force. Oktoberfest attracts millions of visitors every year, among them most likely some Finns.
After all, our countries share an eventful history and long traditions of partnership. German tourists love travelling to Finland in order to enjoy Finnish nature, hiking and clean waterways. For Finnish companies, on the other hand, Germany is the most important export partner. But what kind of behaviour and language skills will charm Germans?
Even though both are European countries, the Finnish and German ways of communicating are different – especially in business. Finnish communication could be described as the ”straight to the point” approach where small talk and polite ways of addressing people are conspicuous by their absence. ”Why prattle on for nothing?” is the leading concept for many Finnish salespeople.
On the contrary, Germans always use the polite form of addressing, shake hands and remember everyone’s names. Titles and ranks are important in German-speaking countries, so you should greet top management first and then the others, in the right order. Germans are always polite and famous for their punctuality – arriving late to a meeting is seen as a highly impolite thing to do. On the other hand, talking over and interrupting other people are components of the German conversation culture. Feedback is also given quickly if the negotiation situation so requires.
Germans consider Finns to be trustworthy, direct, open and pragmatic problem-solvers. Germans, on the other hand, may seem to be more process-oriented, systematic and methodical from the beginning to the end.
The style of texts in company communication between the Germans and the Finns is also different. Communication between cultures is not always so straightforward that a translator could translate the text word for word and expect everyone to draw an identical understanding of the message in the target language. This is highlighted especially when Finnish marketing texts are translated into German, for example, when trying to reach new clients of when marketing tourism services in German-speaking areas.
A good example is what Finns consider to be an accurate and automatic combination of words: clean nature. For a German-speaking person, saubere Natur is something less than that – it merely means that trash is placed in a trash can. If you want to create an equivalent to the Finnish impression of nature that is more or less in its original state, the correct word is untouched – the translation would then be unberührte Natur.
An excellent environment-related example of the different way of communication is the typically Finnish sentence, ”We take care of environmental issues and we are a responsible employer.” For a Finnish person, this is clear: hey, we are fair and good people. However, a direct translation will not work for German-speaking readers. Sentences expressing praise must contain much more powerful words or the claim needs to be justified. In Finland, the word of a company’s representative may be enough but German-speaking readers require proof. For example, it must be clarified how the company can show that they are a responsible employer and what processes the company uses in order to take care of the environment.
When dealing with German-speaking people, you will be respected if you can speak their native language, at least a little. Therefore, it always pays off to start meetings in German even if the language is later switched to, say, English. Also, be prepared for the fact that all contracts are made in writing, preferably in German. Knowing at least the basic greetings in German is quite beneficial when negotiating business deals.
It is also polite to constantly use the word bitte in Germany. It has several meanings in German: you’re welcome, as a response to a thank you or here you are, when handing something to someone. It is also used as an affirmative answer to the question: – Möchten Sie Kaffee? – (Ja) bitte. The word is also a common and polite answer to a thank you (no worries): – Danke für Ihre Bemühungen! – Bitte! / Bitte schön! As a question, bitte means can I help you or a request to the speaker to repeat something (I’m sorry, what did you say?). You might also hear it in service situations, for example, when waitstaff approach tables. Of course, the word should be remembered when ordering the famous one-litre beer at Oktoberfest: Ein Bier, bitte!
So, how do you engage in smooth conversations with German people? German people favour their own language even if they can speak fluent English. Cécile, the teacher of our German language courses, provides useful tips below for meeting with Germans.
These will give you a good start:
Good afternoon / Hello − Guten Tag / Hallo
I am… − Ich bin…
My name is… − Ich heisse … or Mein Name ist …
I come from… [country] − Ich komme aus …
I live in… [country] − Ich wohne in…
I speak… [language] − Ich spreche…
Could we speak English? − Können wir Englisch sprechen?
Goodbye! – Auf Wiedersehen!
What kind of business experiences do you have with German people? We would love to hear your story, please leave a comment below.
Language Matters is a collection of topical language issues published in Lingo’s blog. Read our earlier blog about the colourful language of Brazil.
Cécile Baeriswyl is a German course teacher at Lingo. She hails from the German-speaking area of Switzerland and grew up in a German and French-speaking family, so languages have always played an important role in her life. Cécile has a bachelor’s degree in Scandinavian Studies and German Linguistics from the University of Zurich. Cécile speaks German, French, English, Norwegian and Finnish and she has extensive experience in teaching adult learners at a language school in Zurich. She has lived in Finland since 2015. Cécile encourages her students to improve their language skills in an open, positive and constructive learning environment.