Successful communication: tips for international professionals

  • 2024-06-25
  • Lisa Priller-Gebhardt
  • Comment
Diverse group of a businesspeople talking together while walking by windows in the corridor of a modern office
© Getty Images/Goodboy Picture Company

We can clearly state from the outset: there is no such thing as the singular German business, the singular German work culture or the singular German colleague. Not only is the workforce heterogeneous, there are even differences in the manner in which German companies communicate, the they follow and how social interaction within the team is managed. ‘There are businesses such as start-ups in which the hierarchies tend to be flatter and colleagues use the familiar term ‘du’ even with their managers. But there are also large companies that are still managed like public authorities’, explains Christoph Vatter, Professor in the Department of Intercultural Business Communication at Friedrich Schiller University Jena. Vatter believes that the aspirations of generation Z will also change the work culture in Germany. Albeit there are aspects that often happen somewhat differently in Germany than in other countries.

Germans like it direct

‘Direct use of language is associated with a high degree of courtesy and conveys reliability’, says Vatter. ‘What is verbally discussed is deemed to be determined.’ This communication style is therefore highly valued by many Germans. ‘Yet people from Mediterranean and African regions, but also from many Asian countries, prefer an indirect form of communication – such as the sandwich technique that involves criticism being hidden between positive aspects’, says Vatter. He recommends that even people who would prefer an indirect form of communication should feel confident in expressing their opinion or arguing their position. In the knowledge that this can involve a longer learning process. It may even be useful in this respect to seek out a role model within the company and to reflect on how this person would verbally respond.

Dealing with hierarchies

As initially already mentioned, there is an extremely wide variety of corporate and management cultures. ‘Yet there can be more hierarchical practices in a snack bar than in an international corporation’, Vatter articulates. Albeit the trend is generally towards agile working and thus also to flatter hierarchies. That may be an aspect that is irritating to professionals from other cultures. ‘Strong management figures and clarity regarding responsibilities are often expected in African countries, for example. The management level also plays a very significant role in Japan and China’, the researcher states.

Another aspect that is closely linked to corporate culture is . Yet Vatter believes that even this isn’t the single solution to everything. ‘It’s important to obtain information in advance as to what is customary within the company. But anyone using this respectful term on the first meeting is always on the safe side’, is his tip.

Dealing with criticism and feedback

in German companies often tends to use the aforementioned direct tone. ‘It is common practice in this country to express oneself in a direct and constructive manner’, says Vatter. Germans would even request open criticism. ‘Such feedback is seen as an opportunity for further development’, the communications expert believes. Even if the criticism were mostly substantive, it could frequently be understood as personal criticism by people who are not so familiar with direct communication. Above all people from Mediterranean countries, from Latin America, from African countries or the Asian culture area would sometimes face difficulties dealing with forthrightly presented criticism. Vatter provides a practical example of this: students from Africa were to participate in a teaching evaluation and give written feedback to their lecturers. ‘They weren’t familiar with this form of feedback. They had never learnt it and didn’t have the confidence to provide criticism’, says Vatter. They were concerned about negative consequences. Yet this would also be an opportunity to learn ‘that you can say anything as long as it's substantive’.

Promoting the joy of interchange

Vatter recommends that international professionals who want to develop their skills in matters relating to occupational communication should participate in courses or coaching sessions. These are now also offered by businesses to promote mutual understanding and appreciation. Which also strengthens team success. ‘Anyone who reflects on this aspect has already taken the first step in reducing their own uncertainties’, says Vatter.

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