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The Berlin Life

Three Common Myths About Working In Germany That May Surprise You

published7 days ago
5 min read

Happy Sunday [FIRST NAME GOES HERE] and greetings from Berlin -

I remember when I first starting work in Germany, all the way back in 2011. It was a culture shock to say in the least. I started freelancing as an IT project manager for a very traditional German company and boy, was I ever out of my element.

The company hit almost every one of the stereotypes that may come to mind when you think about working in Germany. Many staffers had worked in their job for years and years. It was so formal that senior managers had to be add to be addressed as Herr or Frau So and So. You had to be at meetings early, never mind on time. It was expected that you wear dressy business attire. People preferred that you talked to them directly vs. writing an email. I was asked to proofread English texts all of the time. I was often the only non-German in the room and they spoke English just for me and trust me, it was uncomfortable for all of us. There were also multiple (and some very hilarious), cultural misunderstandings. Once when discussing an office move, my German colleague asked me if I'd be sitting underneath my colleague, Ralph. When he realized his language blunder, we laughed so hard we almost cried. 🤣

It was completely different from any office environment I'd ever worked at in Canada and it certainly took some time getting used to.

So are all German workplaces like this? I'm here today to dispel some of the common myths about working in Germany.

1) You Don't Need To Know German To Work Here

I know we've talked about this one a lot already. There is definitely work out there for non-German speakers but the best thing you can do to increase your chances of finding a job is to learn German.

More and more companies are using English and other languages than German, in the workplace and it's only getting better with time. In fact, other than the first company I worked for, all the companies I've ever worked for used only English. It used to be only startups that attracted English speakers, but nowadays you can find English being spoken in any type of company - even the older and more established organizations.

Yet English is still the exception rather than the rule though, as about 95% of jobs on the German job market require some level of German. Some professions, like nursing, actually require German fluency. Even companies who use English in the workplace, spoken languages can even vary by team. While employees in tech may speak English, quite often they only speak German in back office teams like Legal, Finance, and Office teams.

The availability of jobs to non-German speakers is therefore limited and there's more availability in some professions than others.

To find out if your job tends to require fluency in Germany, just jump on any German job site (check our full list), and do a search. Filter through various job listings to see if the ads are in German or English. Generally, if posted in English, than German may not be required. Scan further through the job description to see if they explicitly list our language requirements. Do a search for the same job in another city and see how that compares. You should be able to quickly glean how strong of a requirement that German is for your profession and based on that decide how far you need to go with your German learning.

I get even more into the topic in this post, Are There English Speaking Jobs In Germany?

2) Germans Are Unfriendly (& Other Stereotypes)

I hear people say things like this all of the time:

  • "All Germans are unfriendly."
  • "Germans are so direct."
  • "Germans are more hardworking than anyone I know."

I could go on and on. Whenever I hear these words being spoken, I honestly cringe. People often ask me for a "cultural blueprint" - a guide about what Germans are like in the workplace and how to work with them. I steadfastly refuse to go this route (see our core values).

Yes, there are certain universal cultural truths, but to make sweeping generalizations about an entire country and all of the people living there isn't cool. I'm Canadian and can tell you, not all Canadians are nice for example. 🙃

No one anywhere likes being boxed into stereotypes, so drop any biases you might have about Germans when you move here. I coach international teams for a living and this is the crux of what I advise:

Expect people to be different than what you're used to and that things are likely going to be done differently too. Be open minded as you get to know your colleagues. Take time to observe how things are done, be curious, and ask questions when something doesn't seem clear or make sense. Be comfortable noticing the differences you may have and talk openly about them with teammates. Be eager to hear their feedback as well, as they may have similar thoughts. They'll appreciate your honesty and it will give them a chance to help familiarize you with how they work and vice versa. This type of behaviour will actually help you settle into your new team very nicely and go a long way toward building up your professional relationships.

3) All German Workplaces Are Formal

Naturally, every company has a different environment. It will run the gamut of being really casual to ultra formal. Yet somehow German workplaces are portrayed as stuffy places where people just work all day, never talk to you about anything else but business, and scold you for being a moment late to a meeting.

Yes, some offices or other work environments in Germany are super formal, like the company I mentioned above. Law firms, banks, government organizations will surely be like this, but this doesn't mean it's the norm.

From a clothing perspective, start-ups, small businesses, and even big established companies tend to be pretty casual these days. Some opt for a more business casual with jeans and dressy shirt while at most places, jeans and t-shirts, paired with sneakers, aren't unusual at all. Maybe it's just Berlin (?), but tattoos, brightly coloured hair, and more aren't uncommon either. I've seen people show up to work looking like they just rolled out of bed. In some places, anything goes.

What about everything else? You can usually greet someone by the first name. People are friendly and will be willing to make small talk. It's possible to become friends with your colleagues and go out after work for dinner and drink. If you're a few minutes late for a meeting, it's generally not a big deal (as long as it's not a habit).

So take my advice and don't believe everything you read you about German workplaces. There is some very silly, outdated, and untrue content out there. When interviewing, try to get a sense for their workplace culture and hopefully, you'll be able to find out in advance if the workplace is for you or not.

What do you think about these common myths about working in Germany? Note, what I'm sharing here is based on my personal experience of living and working in German for 11 years. Other people's experiences may be different and I'd love to hear what you think. Hit reply if you want to share something or ask me questions, or even better, start a discussion in our Facebook group.

I actually have more common myths to share, but I'll save it for another time. Stay tuned! 👋

Until next time,

Founder - The Berlin Life