Doing Business in Europe? Use this essential cultural cheat sheet!
Over the past two decades I have spent several years working in the United States, France, Germany, England and also Austria. I often get asked by Americans what the difference is in doing business in each of these countries. So as a quick cheat sheet, I have a compiled a few tips for each of these …
Doing business in the UK is only fun when you understand their language. This can be tricky for American English speakers since the words are the same but with completely different meanings in each culture.
In order to succeed, one really has to master British English. Not so much in terms of pronunciation but more so in terms of reading between the lines. For example, when someone tells you that a business idea is ‘interesting’, they really mean that the idea is a bit crazy and is not worth pursuing. Or if someone suggests to get together, they often are being polite and don't really mean the invitation. In fact people are always polite and will excuse themselves a lot. You hear the word ‘sorry’ all the time.
The English will never say no to something in order not to offend you, so getting a deal done can be quite tricky. If you are not sure you are in agreement, try to summarise the conversation from your point of view and slowly but surely you will get to the bottom of the issue. Just keep in mind, the word ‘no’ will never be used, so disagreement will be expressed with sentences such as ‘I hear what you say’, which really means they disagree with you.
Politeness is key especially when dealing with unknown people. A real sign of affection from the English is when people are openly rude to you, since it means they consider you as part of their inner circle.
Overall I would say the English are far more entrepreneurial than most European countries, but less so than in the United States. The tax system is well designed for entrepreneurs and setting up a company a matter of minutes.
Work hours are pretty much in sync with pubs. There is a lot of drinking in England and people drink fast and relentlessly. At the pub people are in their most natural habitat so if you want to do business with someone then the pub is a good starting point to see their real selves. And do not worry about having one too many — the English are very forgiving to inappropriate behavior due to excess alcohol. Just don't mention anything the day after and it will have never happened.
Contrary to the English, with whom one has to read between the lines, the Germans are straight talkers to the point that sometimes you wished they weren’t. Doing business is fairly easy since a verbal agreement and handshake is an informally written contract. When someone tells you that they are going to do something or agree to something, they will. However, getting to the point of agreement can take a long time, so patience and endless answers to endless questions are the norm. Just breathe…
Germans love to be right, which can sometimes come across as killjoy. For aspiring entrepreneurs this can be particularly frustrating since, with only one in ten new businesses making it through the first year, the odds are stacked against you. So given a ninety percent chance of failing and the Germans’ desire to be right, they will often talk you out of ideas — especially if they didn’t think of it before themselves.
While Germans love to be punctual and deliver a project on time and budget, they take it badly when you don’t. If they find a mistake they will go on about it forever. Nevertheless when they make a massive blunder, they really have a hard time admitting that they were wrong to begin with. The recent emission scandal at VW had consequences far beyond VW. Many Germans felt that their reputation as hard professional workers was at stake, even if they did not work for VW. This can lead to quite amusing situations, especially when a Brit does business with a German. The Brits love it when things go wrong for others, especially for those who take themselves too seriously. The Germans have a hard time laughing about themselves, while the Brits are masters at it!
I would also say that out of all the countries I have worked in, the Germans take the most vacations and stick to their working hours the most rigorously. Several two to three week holidays a year are not unheard of. Workers are very well protected and any form of overtime needs to be compensated via extra pay or extra vacation days. Senior management often has six weeks of holidays per year.
And yes, the Germans love their beer, which is truly one of the best in the world. There are endless micro-breweries throughout the country. Germans love to sit down and have long talks over beer.
The small Alpine cousins of Germany do share the same language but have a totally different attitude towards work. While hard work is encouraged, it really comes down to network and connection. This can be very frustrating for newbies to Vienna, the capital of Austria. When the Viennese meet you for the first time, they try to figure out common connections or even better family ties that date back centuries. Everyone knows each other somehow, so anything you do will be talked about fairly quickly. Gossip is intrinsic to Austrians, and they have an easy time laughing about themselves. They pride themselves for being slower than the efficient Germans, which in their mind reflects their better quality of life.
There are two things that Austrian take very seriously though: titles & coffee. If you are an MD or have a PhD you will be addressed as Mr Doctor or Mrs Doctor.
If you have a graduate degree in engineering you will be called Mr or Ms Engineering Graduate (in German ‘Diplom Ingenieur’). No kidding. Your spouse will also be addressed with your title if he or she has no title while if your spouse has their own title, then they will use that.
The coffee culture in Austria is serious business and one can spend hours with a newspaper in a coffee shop having only ordered one coffee. No one would dare to encourage you to consume more or leave. Austrians love going for coffee, which is a great way to get to know one. The fact that they have the best pastry and cakes in the world doesn’t hurt either — it’s a great excuse for a long coffee break.
France is very very hierarchical. Your career is pretty much determined by the universities you attended. If you made it into the Grandes Ecoles, close to the equivalent of an Ivy League school, your career is largely made. Foreigners are forgiven as long as they went to a good school themselves. Late bloomers in life are better off emigrating elsewhere.
The French are formal, especially in writing. Emails often end with sentences such as’ I remain at your disposal’ and so on. In terms of work time, despite the reputation of being socialist, most of my French colleagues worked pretty long hours. However lunch is sacred, a proper meal often including a steak, salad and a glass of wine. Business lunches can turn into lengthy affairs. Holidays are also long, and nearly everyone leaves for the entire month of August. Paris is deserted, the coasts and beaches in full swing with vacationers.
Other things to know about working in France: people are either career driven, great project managers and helpful networkers or not remotely interested in their work. This can make achieving deadlines a challenge. Strikes are frequent too, so those ready to move to Paris need a good pair of sneakers when public transport grinds to a halt. Lastly, dress code is often formal and people are well turned out. Never show up to a business meeting inappropriately dressed if you have to win over an audience.
As with all advice, there are exceptions to the rule. Enjoy your next business trip to Europe!