Last Updated 16 Jun 2020

Cultural Attunement in International Business

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German customs are givens for the Germans. For Americans, on the other hand, they may very well pose as major cultural problems. In a world where English is considered the international language that almost everybody is expected to know, German business customs require at least some knowledge of the German language. Ninety nine percent of the Germans speak their own language using a number of regional dialects (“Germany” 2007). A large number, if not the majority of businesspersons in Germany, are uncomfortable communicating in the English language.

It is not unusual for them to claim that they know only a little bit of English and do not understand it especially when a foreigner speaks fast. This is perhaps the biggest challenge for a foreign business to confront when planning to enter the German market. Moreover, German businesspersons do not hesitate in making a foreigner feel foolish for not knowing the German language (Gelsi). If the multinational firm were to send its representatives to German firms to discuss marketing and distribution of its product, the importance of the German language must surely be borne in mind.

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Even Wal-Mart Stores Inc. , the world’s largest retailer, striking “fear into the establishment of every new industry it considers entering,” has had to learn the importance of the German language among German natives (Shaw and Tait 2006). Wal-Mart’s business practices have been misunderstood in Germany seeing that the giant simply translated its American writing into German without learning the German language with all its nuances (“Wal-Mart: Struggling in Germany” 2005). This was a major cultural problem faced by the company. According to a Business Week report:

To American eyes, the new ethics manual is standard stuff. But when Wal-Mart Stores Inc…distributed the newly translated code to German employees a few weeks ago, it caused a furor. They read a caution against supervisor-employee relationships as a puritanical ban on interoffice romance, while a call to report improper behavior was taken as an invitation to rat on co-workers. "They have to communicate better," says Ulrich Dalibor, an official at the ver. di service-workers union, which represents German employees of the Bentonville (Arkansas)-based retailer (“Wal-Mart: Struggling in Germany”).

Step 2: Remember: When in Germany, Do as the Germans Do Of course, there are many other business and business communication customs for Wal-Mart and other foreign entrants in the German market to learn. The Business Week report continues thus: …[T]he ethics-code fiasco shows that Wal-Mart is still prone to do things the Wal-Mart way without enough consideration to local customs. Rivals continue to chuckle about the customer reaction when, initially, Wal-Mart offered services such as grocery bagging. It turned out that Germans didn't want strangers handling their groceries. And when clerks

followed orders to smile at shoppers, male customers took it as a come-on. Also, German companies are used to dealing with workers' councils, which are easy to organize under German law. Some even say the co-determination system improves communication with employees… (“Wal-Mart: Struggling in Germany”). Of course, the major cultural problems faced by the multinational firm depend on the product it intends to sell in a particular country – in this case, Germany – and the methods it plans to employ in order to sell its product there. Wal-Mart had to learn how Germans behave in grocery stores.

If, for example, the product is a symbol for a certain religion, the culture of the Germans must be respected in that context. In that case, the multinational firm would have to analyze the cultural reaction of the Germans to the product. If, on the other hand, the company intends to establish a subsidiary in Germany, a partnership with a German firm, or simply send its representatives to Germany to market or distribute its product – other aspects of German business and business customs must be learned. Step 3: Learning Business Communication Customs in Germany

Regardless of the nature of the product and the methods that the multinational firm intends to employ to sell its product in Germany, it is essential to learn the behavior and/or communication practices of German businesspersons in order to deal with them effectively. As an example, Germans are often considered stiff-lipped serious by foreign businesspersons (Graff and Gretchen). In actuality, however, Germans are known to place a high value on their privacy. Intimacy is not freely expressed, and so it is not unusual for foreign businesspersons to suppose that Germans are cold.

The business communication style accepted in Germany is always straightforward, succinct and absolutely to the point. Emotions and unneeded verbosity are certainly not welcomed in business. Rather, formality and the rule of ‘mind your own business’ would help the foreign businessperson immensely (“Doing Business in Germany”). Due to its directness, the German business communication style may even be considered confrontational. In spite of this, Germans do not welcome criticism that is directed at people.

In business planning as well as discussions, it is common to openly and freely express criticism that is directed at various aspects of the project, business, or problem at hand. All the same, Germans never mean to express disapproval of persons in this manner, although foreign businesspersons that are unaware of the business communication style of the Germans may suppose that the latter are expressing “personal disapproval” thus (“German Culture Overview” 2007). German businesspersons are used to the telephone for important followup calls. They also use the fax very often.

However, they do not discuss vital business decisions over the telephone. What is more, a German executive should never be called up at his or her home without his or her permission. If permission has been granted, foreign businesspersons must be sure to address the Germans by their full titles. Indeed, Germans are quite attached to the idea of using complete and correct titles, regardless of the difficultly a foreigner may experience in pronouncing German names (“Germany”). The use of the Internet for communication with public authorities is also quite common in Germany.

In fact, one-third of the German people use the Internet to communicate with public authorities through the websites provided by the latter (“One third of Germans use Online Services provided by Public Authorities” 2007). A foreign firm may find this communication custom rather convenient while searching for information about taxes and business legislations in Germany. Foreign companies that would be interested in establishing their branches in Germany also have to know the business communication styles that are especially relevant to the German workplace.

As an example, the German office culture requires the persons of higher rank – that is, persons that hold higher “professional positions in the corporate hierarchy” – to introduce the people that are new to their group (Graff and Schaupp). Also in the German office culture, it is common to shake hands. However, the initiator of the handshake is usually the colleague who has a higher rank in the corporate hierarchy. He or she has the right to either offer or refuse his or her hand.

On the other hand, a foreign businessperson who is introduced to a German group must be the first to extend his or her hand before being introduced to the group. Furthermore, it is part of the German business communication customs to extend one’s hand to the older persons first (Graff and Schaupp). Time is money for the German businessperson. Hence, foreigners that would like to conduct business in the German market must prepare themselves to strictly talk business. Then again, it is best to learn some German so that straightforward communication is possible and little to no time is wasted.

Conclusion It is beyond the scope of this report to discuss all product and/or business related customs in Germany. Once Germany has been chosen as the right market for a foreign product, it is imperative to learn the German language – at least for the people that would be interacting with the Germans directly. Studying German customs related to the product in question is also essential, as the case of Wal-Mart’s groceries reveals. Finally, business communication customs of Germans must be learned in order for them not to present themselves as major cultural problems.

. References “Doing Business in Germany,” Kwintessential Cross-Cultural Solutions. Retrieved Nov 15, 2008, from http://www. kwintessential. co. uk/etiquette/doing-business-germany. html. Gelsi, S. , “Advantages of Knowing German in the Workplace: My Experience Working For an International Manufacturer. ” Retrieved Nov 15, 2008, from http://www. msu. edu/~mittman/simonagelsi. htm. “German Culture Overview,” 2007, Communicaid. Retrieved Nov 15, 2008, from http://www. communicaid. com/%5Ccross-cultural-training%5Cculture-for-business-and-

management%5Cdoing-business-in%5CGerman_business_culture. php. “Germany,” 2007, International Business Center. Retrieved Nov 15, 2008, from http://www. cyborlink. com/besite/germany. htm. Graff, J. & Schuapp, S, 1 May 2007, Mind Your Manners: Tips for Business Professionals Visiting Germany. Retrieved Nov 15, 2008, from http://www. german-business-etiquette. com/. “One third of Germans use Online Services provided by Public Authorities,” 2007, Mittlestands. Retrieved Nov 15, 2008, from http://www. just4business.

eu/2007/07/one-third-of-germans-use-online-services-provided-by-public-authorities. Shaw, H. & Tait, C, 31 Oct 2006, “Wal-Mart eyes banking: Financial services in Canada: It's a way to strengthen ties with its customers: analyst,” Times Colonist. Retrieved Nov 15, 2008, from http://www. canada. com/victoriatimescolonist/news/story. html? id=a41e0cda-dd28-46df-996d-56dd291e9e63;k=67140. “Wal-Mart: Struggling in Germany,” 11 Apr 2005, Business Week. Retrieved Nov 15, 2008, from http://www. businessweek. com/magazine/content/05_15/b3928086_mz054. htm.

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