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Hamburg Business Culture – how to deal with Hamburgers

Hamburg has a very unique culture and customs. Its location between the traditional South and the very liberal Nordics renders a complex result of liberalism and demureness. How do the Hamburgers tick? Let’s find out together.

The greetings

First impressions linger forever, so watch out for a potential faux-pas! A frank, solid handshake with eye contact will display your confidence and honesty. Keep a certain distance from your interlocutor: without stretching your arm to the limit, you should respect their privacy. If your contact person is not smiling ostentatiously, do not worry. Unlike Americans, you do not act overjoyed upon meeting a stranger in Hamburg. A reserved smile will do. If you have met the person a few times before and have grown close, a hug can be called for. Brief and prude: make sure only your shoulders are in contact – no breast, no pelvis, no legs are to be in contact. In a nutshell, bend forward, lean your head to the left and hug. And of course, no pecks – this is not France. If you really must display your endearment, a tap or a rub in the back while hugging is the limit.

Du oder Sie?

This issue will not arise if you do business in English, however you might want to address your business partner in German to show off a bit at some point. The thing is, German has the Du (you – colloquial) and the Sie (you –  formal.) In Hamburg, the Du is increasingly popular, especially if you’re on the startup or the digital scene: it’s Du by default. I heard last week that even in a big company like Otto, Du is the form of address at work. A trick to get around the ambiguity is to use Ihr (plural you) to avoid the abrupt Du and stiff Sie.

Conclusion: if you are on a first name basis, just use Du.

black board

Source: John Barré

Small talk (and lack of)

The Germans are direct and Hamburg is no exception to the rule. As such, they are rather frugal when it comes to uttering words. I just realise as I am writing these lines that there is no German word for small talk – they just adopted the English word “der/das Smalltalk“. Then do not expect too much small talk in Hamburg! Silence is fine, just embrace it. Now, there is a bit of small talk nonetheless. If such is the case, stick to neutral topics (“Don’t mention the war!” Or do actually, the Germans have come to closure with their past.) Topics like your trip to Hamburg, the weather, how beautiful Hamburg is, and anything related to business.

Hamburgers’ dire directness

I find it to be a good thing, but it can be an acquired taste for those used to discuss business with detours. If the job you did is deemed crap, you’ll be told so. No such thing as “I see room for improvement” or “Let us consider a different angle”. The people in Hamburg are direct and you will have to get used to it! Be extremely careful about the words you use. A polite agreement to something you do not really agree with will be understood as an approval. Be blunt if you have to, because what you say will be taken at face value.

There are many other aspects of the business culture in Hamburg or in Germany that could be approached in this article, but I shan’t spoil the fun of it and I let you experience Hamburg and her inhabitants. If you have any tips or anecdotes to share with us, do not hesitate to comment below!




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