Cultural Awareness, the Cure to Failing in Germany

Cultural Awareness, the Cure to Failing in Germany

Expanding overseas is an expensive task. Companies invest in logistics, lawyers, new marketing campaigns, sales strategies and the list continues. Having invested heavily, you do not want your market entry to fail. Yet, for three out of four overseas subsidiaries, failure is the reality. A core reason is that companies overlook the human aspect: the need to adjust to cross-cultural differences.

For this article, we can understand culture as the shared expectations of a group on how to communicate. When expanding overseas, many business owners underestimate the different expectations that exist between cultures. They have often never lived outside their culture and are therefore unaware of how such a system has even influenced their own behaviour. As Cynthia expressed in her blog “Bridging the Cultural Divide”, culture is like the air we breathe, it’s a key part of life, but you can’t see, smell, taste, touch or hear it – it’s just there.

A prime example of underestimating cultural differences is the failure of American company Walmart to capture the German market. Many American customs were not welcomed. Greeting customers upon entering the store, for example, was not perceived as an act of friendliness, but as an invasion into their privacy. After struggling to succeed for nine years, Walmart closed its operations there. If you are expanding to Germany or already there, the following tips will help you to avoid such failure.

Honesty is key

Australian positivity confuses Germans

Phrases become popular in a culture because people can relate to them. Alaska Natives, for example, have over 50 words for “snow”. In Australia, a popular phrase is “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don´t say anything at all”. This reflects their tendency to not discuss negative things. When someone asks upon meeting you, “How are you going?”, responding with complaints will most likely startle your counterpart. Instead, the common response is a variation of “I´m fine. How are you?”, to which the person responds with a variation of “I’m fine too”. The parties may dive into small talk, during which negative experiences are rarely discussed. Australians are so focused on positivity that they have a “R U OK?” day to remind people that it is okay to be unwell and to share this.

Such positivity confuses most Germans. They often perceive Australians to be “superficial”. If you use the feedback burger, for example, they will generally not understand the diplomacy of starting and ending with something positive. Instead, the amount of positivity tends to confuse them into overlooking the criticism and instead believe that they are performing well. This is because Germans, on average, expect honesty. Also, as one of the most performance-oriented cultures in the world, they would rather learn how they can improve than be flattered with your compliments.

Don´t take it personally

One of the most popular phrases in Germany is “Nicht geschimpft ist genug gelobt”: it´s enough praise to not criticise someone. Many Germans recognise their country as “eine Kultur des Meckerns” or “eine Jammerkultur” (a culture of complaining). When I completed my first internship in Germany, my leader started the review with “In Germany, we never give a 10/10. We always find something to fault”. When I finished my first assignment at a German university, my teacher told me: “Americans spend most of their time talking about what they did good, then a little about what they did wrong. In Germany, we spend most of our time talking about what we did wrong”. The Culture Map by Erin Myer, a leading book in the cross-cultural industry, shares the following insight from a German finance director at KPMG:
“When I give feedback in my German way, I may actually use words that make the message sound as strong as possible without thinking much about it. I´ve been surrounded by this “pure” negative feedback since I was a child. We’d be much more comfortable just stating “Das war absolut unverschämt!” (That was absolutely shameless)”.
Therefore, when living in Germany, accept that you will often encounter unsolicited criticism. My prime experience was with a man who hosted me at his house. I baked ANZAC biscuits for him, then recounted how they were made for the soldiers who defended our country during World War I. He called them “stupid” for making a fatal mistake in trusting Britain´s leadership. When I shared with a roommate that this personally offended me, he responded “What’s wrong with you? Why do you take it personally?”. A friend then explained to me that this is German politeness. Indeed, studies have found that Germans generally find criticism beneficial to improving their performance. Therefore, when receiving criticism in Germany, interpret it as interest in helping you to achieve more.

Be Honest, Not Modest

Despite the greater negativity in Germany, one can still receive positive feedback. The truthfulness of its content will be the most important factor. An article by Deutsche Welle, a state-owned news broadcaster, provides an example of an American lady who taught English in Germany. One of her students told her: “You’re skinny for an American”. She explained to her classroom that this would be an insult in the United States. It means that the people in her country are fat. The class was confused. Honesty is the greatest compliment. Americans are generally overweight, and the teacher was skinny.

If you offer an authentic compliment to a German, studies show that they often respond by saying “yes” in agreement. Do not misinterpret this as a lack of modesty. The humility of most Australians in responding to a compliment by denying it, accepting it but reducing its importance or by returning one, results from a sensitivity to how compliments raise one’s social status. Being perceived as successful is undesirable in a country where the Tall Poppy Syndrome – the tendency to deliberately disadvantage successful people – is more prevalent than most countries, especially Germany. There, hierarchy remains a long-accepted norm of the country.

One Step Closer to Understanding Germans

Cultural misunderstandings are a key reason why three of four attempts to expand overseas fail. This article discussed different expectations that Germans and Australians have in their communication. In particular, Australian expatriates to Germany should accept that they will encounter unsolicited criticism and be expected to deliver it without the diplomacy of balancing it with praise. Do not expect positive feedback to be necessarily “sensitive” and when offering one, do not mistake their response of an agreeing “yes” for a lack of humility. This is a country of honesty, not modesty. If you understand this, then you are one step closer to understanding your German colleagues.

Kick-start your international market entry today

Get in touch to book an introductory call and kick-start your international market entry strategy today.

Looking for market entry advice?

We’d love to hear from you! Get in touch to book an introductory call to find out how we can help.

Business Beyond Borders: Take Your Company Global

Business Beyond Borders: Take Your Company Global is the latest book from international business strategist, Cynthia Dearin. Get your copy today!

The Manufacturers Ultimate Guide to International Expansion [2024]

Everything you need to know about taking your business global in 2024 and beyond.

You Might Also Like...



We’re excited to hear that you’re considering going global. Tell us a bit about your international expansion goals and a member of our team will get in touch.

Essential information is marked with an asterisk (*)


This website uses cookies to enhance your browsing experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our Cookie Policy.


Sign up for the #GoGlobal newsletter

We’ll send you an email twice a month with the latest insights into international market entry.

It's time to #GoGlobal

Sign up for the latest insights into international market entry