Differences between Germany and the U.S. oftentimes cause confusion in the communication on both sides—we provide you with a quick guide to help avoid misunderstandings in your communication with and for Germans.
What the #$%& is CW?! Communication with and for Germans
On the website of a German company in the U.S., you see a job posting that you’re perfectly qualified for and very interested in. It’s now mid-December and the date of the post reads 4.12.2017. You assume that the job posting is from April 12, 2017—almost eight months ago—and decide not to apply as you believe the position is filled by now. Later you find out that the job was posted on December 4, 2017 – the date format on the website had been set up based on German standards.
The employees of a U.S. supplier face challenges in their email communication with the employees of a German manufacturer. The German project manager emailed some of the U.S. employees an overview with deliverables for the manufacturer’s project plan. The overview had been translated from German into English and, amongst others, includes the abbreviation “CW” combined with a number behind the individual deliverables. The employees in the U.S. were requested to follow up with the German project manager on the status of the deliverables on the respective due dates. A few months after the U.S. employees had received the overview, their supervisor was contacted by the German project manager with a complaint: most of the employees failed to send status updates at the time that the deliverables were due. It turned out that the employees hadn’t been aware of the due dates. “CW” in the overview stood for “calendar week,” a translation of the German word “Kalenderwoche,” which is commonly used in Germany (especially in business communications and in the corporate world) to specify the timeframe of a given week.
In addition, the supervisor found out that some of the German employees were put off by the tone of the emails from their American counterparts who had taken the liberty to immediately address the Germans by first name. To add insult to injury, in their email threads, most U.S. employees only used a salutation and closing in their first email and went straight to business in the rest of their email communication.
Being aware of the differences of your own culture and that of the recipient helps avoid miscommunication. We’ve summarized some of the most important peculiarities of German and American written communication along with suggestions for how to handle differences.
Date format—Germans turn it around
While the typical date format in the U.S. is written in the order month, day, year, Germans use the format day, month, year. For example, April 12, 2017, would be written as 4/12/2017 (or 4-12-2017) in the U.S., while in Germany this would be 12.4.2017 or 12. April 2017. (While Americans most commonly use a forward slash or sometimes hyphens to separate month and day as well as day and year, Germans use periods.)
November 6, 2016, in American date format is 11/6/2016 (or 11-6-2016) and 6.11.2016 in German date format.
June 11, 2016, is 6/11/2016 in U.S.-American format and 11.6.2016 in German format.
The different formats can lead to a lot of confusion in the communication between Germans and Americans, especially if some employees in a German team or company are aware of and use the U.S.-American format in their communication with Americans while others use the German format.
To avoid confusion and misunderstandings, we suggest that in your international communication you spell out the month (or at least abbreviate it as in “Jan.,” Feb.,” “Oct.,” etc.) whenever you write a date. When you receive communication from outside the U.S. containing a date that is ambiguous, seek clarification and ask the sender to spell out the month when specifying dates in the future.
For international companies that use English as office language, we suggest you establish the standard of spelling out the month (or at least abbreviating it) company-wide.
In Germany, the dates of a given week are oftentimes summarized as “calendar week” with the respective number of the week within a year. For example, “calendar week 30” (“Kalenderwoche 30” or abbreviated “KW 30”) in 2018 would be the week of July 23, 2018 (or July 23 through 29, 2018). Calendar week 44 (“Kalenderwoche 44” or “KW 44”) in 2018 is the week of October 29, 2018 (or October 29 through November 4, 2018). We’ve seen Germans use “calendar week” and abbreviate it with “CW” in their English communication (confusing the heck out of their American counterparts).
Calendar weeks can be easily googled. Printed calendars—wall, desk, pocket—are available that include calendar weeks. If you work in an international team, make sure that everyone is aware of what calendar weeks are.
For simplicity and to avoid misunderstandings, we recommend that instead of calendar weeks the respective dates are used in written and verbal communication: “The week of July 23,” “The week of October 29.”
Time format military style
Unlike the United States, where only the numbers 1 through 12 are commonly used to indicate time (followed by “a.m.” or “p.m.,”), Germans specify time with the numbers 1 through 24. In other words: Germans use military time.
For example, two o’clock in the night—“2 a.m.” in the U.S—is written as “2 Uhr” in Germany, whereas two o’clock in the afternoon—“2 p.m.” in the U.S.—would be specified as “14 Uhr” in Germany.
Minutes after an hour are separated from the hour by a colon both in the U.S. and Germany: “6:30 (Uhr or a.m. respectively); in German it’s not uncommon to put a period instead of the colon: “6.30 Uhr.”
If a time is on the hour such as five o’clock, six o’clock, etc., it’s perfectly acceptable to omit the zeros both in the German and American format: “5 Uhr,” “6 Uhr” or “5 a.m.,” “6 a.m.,” etc. If there is more than one time specification in a sentence with at least one time being on the hour and at least one followed by minutes, it’s best to add zeros after the time that’s on the hour for consistency: “From 8:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.” or “Von 8:00 Uhr bis 13:30 Uhr.”
Because the use of military time is uncommon in the U.S., we suggest that Germans and Americans use the U.S. time format in their communication—it’s an easy adjustment to make for Germans and avoids confusion.
Germany, unlike the U.S., has only one time zone: Central European (CET).
If your communication includes a time, for example in an invitation or on an agenda, then it’s advisable to specify the time based on the time zone relevant to the recipient. If your American colleague will be participating in a meeting at your office in Paris, then use and specify the Central European time zone but use the American format, for example “3 p.m. CET.” If you’re at an office in Tokyo and sending an invite to a teleconference that starts at 7 a.m. local time to an American customer who will dial in from Boston, then use Eastern (Standard) Time and the American time format: “5 p.m. EST.” It should suffice to include only one U.S. time zone if you’re sending communication to Americans located in different U.S. time zones. Americans are used to dealing with different time zones, and a person from California knows that 6 p.m. EST means 3 p.m. PST.
The time change from standard to daylight-saving time (or “winter time” to “summer time”) and vice versa in Germany typically occurs on different dates than in the U.S. As a result, the time difference between Central Europe and the respective time zones in the U.S. is an hour more or less than it normally is during this time. (An exception are, of course, the states Arizona and Hawaii as well as some U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico, which don’t change between standard and daylight-saving time.)
Units of measurement—the metric system rules
Unlike the U.S., where “customary units” are the common units of measurement, Germany uses the metric system. Dimensions or distances are specified in millimeters, centimeters, meters, and kilometers instead of in inches, feet, yards, or miles. Liquids aren’t measured in ounces, quarts, and gallons but rather in milliliters and liters.
A report about your recent factory expansion to 400,000 square feet on your website or in a press release will not knock too many socks off in Germany (or in the rest of Europe) as a square foot is not something most Europeans have come across. Thus, you will need to convert square feet into square meters for your communication with Germans.
And just like most Americans won’t be sure if 50 kilometers is a walk down the street or a bit of a drive, most Germans won’t have a feeling for how far 50 miles are. While for most Americans 80 degrees simply means tank top, shorts, and flip flops on a nice spring or summer day, this temperature is something a German only experiences in a sauna—because that’s how Celsius and Fahrenheit differ.
Therefore, if you use units of measurement in your communication with Germans, make sure you localize and use the metric system (at least offer the respective information in metric units in parenthesis behind the information in U.S. customary units for clarification).
Letter format—not all letters are created equal
German and American letters are structured differently.
A typical business letter in the U.S. will look something like this:
January 2, 2018 (Date)
Mary Smith (Sender’s name)
Account Manager (Sender’s title if applicable)
ABC Company (Sender’s company name if applicable)
123 Main St. (Sender’s street address)
Keller, TX 76244 (Sender’s city, state and zip code)
(Sender’s country if recipient’s address is in another country)
John Miller (Recipient’s name)
Senior Buyer (Recipient’s title if applicable)
XYZ Company (Recipient’s company if applicable)
456 Broadway (Recipient’s street address)
Tucson, AZ 85710 (Recipient’s city, state and zip code)
(Recipient’s country if other than the U.S.)
Your inquiry from 12/27/2017 (Subject line)
Dear John: (Salutation, typically followed by a colon in a formal letter)
Sincerely, (Closing, followed by a comma)
Mary Smith (Sender’s name)
Manager Customer Service (Sender’s title)
A typical letter in Germany is organized differently in various aspects:
ABC GmbH (Sender’s company if applicable)
Maria Schmidt (Sender’s name)
Account Manager (Sender’s title)
Hauptstr. 15 (Sender’s street address)
Xxxx Berlin (Sender’s zip code and city)
(Sender’s country if recipient’s address is in another country)
Berlin, 27.12.2017 (city and date, separated by a comma)
XYZ Unternehmen (Recipient’s company if applicable)
Johann Mueller (Recipient’s name)
Lead Buyer (Recipient’s title if applicable)
Markplatz 30 (Recipient’s street address)
Xxxx Neustadt (Recipient’s zip code and city)
(Recipient’s country if other than Germany)
Ihre Beschwerde vom 27.12.2017 (Subject line)
Sehr geehrter Herr Müller, (Salutation, followed by a comma)
Mit freundlichen Grüßen, (closing, followed by a comma)
Maria Schmidt (Sender’s name)
Sachbearbeiterin (Sender’s title if applicable)
Companies in both Germany and the U.S. typically have their individual corporate letterhead. On German letterheads, the sender’s address is oftentimes placed in the right upper corner, in one line in small font above the recipient’s name and address, and/or on the bottom of the page.
When composing a letter in the recipient’s language, we recommend you follow the letter format that is customary in the recipient’s country for consistency, at least as much as possible. If you’re using pre-printed corporate letterhead or a corporate letterhead template, then the sender’s information will already be filled in, of course.
If your international company has offices in other countries, we recommend that each site use the letter format that is typical of the country the site is in. An exception is the recipient’s address: for international recipients, use the address format of the recipient’s country. For example, if you send a letter from your American company in English to a recipient in Germany, you would organize the sender’s information in the U.S. format, the recipient’s information in the German format and the letter overall (date, subject line, etc.) in the U.S. format.
Emails—when in doubt, keep saluting
In emails, Germans, just like Americans, may use a formal salutation like in a letter (“Dear John,” “Dear Mrs. Smith” or, in German, “Lieber Hans,” or “Sehr geehrte Frau Schmidt,”) or they may use a more casual salutation (“Hello John,” “Good morning team” or, in German, “Hallo Hans,” “Guten Morgen in die Runde”), depending on the relationship with the recipient. In general, Germans are more formal in their business communication than Americans. In the last paragraph below, you’ll find some rules of thumb for the use of formal and informal address with Germans.
Unlike Americans, who typically use a salutation and closing only in their first email of an email thread, Germans oftentimes keep using a salutation and closing in each email within a thread. Some Germans understand that leaving out a salutation and closing after the first email is simply “the American way” of doing things (or even prefer doing it this way themselves), others may not be aware of this cultural difference and find it impolite.
In automatic replies to emails, both Germans and Americans state the date(s) of their absence and, if applicable, reachability during their absence as well as name and contact information of an alternate if applicable. If the reason for the absence is (extensive) sick leave, or maternity/paternity leave, Germans, unlike Americans, frequently offer this information. While in Germany it’s common to state these reasons in an out-of-the-office-reply, it’s against the law for an employer in the U.S. to request that employees offer this information. If the employees at the German office or headquarters include such reasons for their absence in an automatic email reply, the American employees of the company in the U.S. can’t be requested to do the same.
To avoid a misunderstanding or confusion in any international recipients of your automatic email response, we recommend you spell out the month when writing dates (e.g., “I’ll be out of the office from January 1 through January 5, 2018, with limited access to my emails and cell phone.”)
How to address a German
In general, Germans are (a lot) more formal in their communication and address each other with “Sie” (instead of “Du”) and their last name if they don’t know each other well. As they get to know each other, they may, sooner or later, switch to the informal address of “Du” in combination with the first name and, at the same time, become more casual in their emails. Nowadays, it is quite common for coworkers even of different ages to switch to the informal address of “Du” and the first name quite quickly, whereas Germans from my parents’ generation may have addressed people in a work setting such as coworkers—and most definitely supervisors—clients, or employees of a supplier with the formal “Sie,” even after knowing and working with them for years or decades. However, even nowadays it is, in most companies, unthinkable to address “high-ranking” employees, such as executives, with “Du” and their first name.
Academic titles such as “Doctor” or “Professor” definitely need to be honored in Germany: address the other person by their title and last name.
Many German employees of international companies are aware that different cultures do things differently. Those who deal with counterparts, customers, suppliers, etc. in the U.S. learn that Americans are more casual and that addressing someone by their first name and using a casual tone in written and verbal communication (right off the bat) is not a sign of disrespect but simply “the American way.” If you want to be on the safe side or if you’re communicating with a “high-ranking” employee or with a client, address him by last name. If you speak German, then address the other person with “Sie” and by last name, unless she introduces herself to you only with her first name. And unless you’re familiar with the somewhat intricate rules of who’s in the position to offer switching to “Du” and a first-name-basis to the other one, keep it at “Sie” and the last name until the other person suggests to move to “Du” (which may or may not happen).
In informal settings outside of the workplace, for example when making a new acquaintance at a bar or at a friend’s party, it’s nowadays common to introduce oneself by first name and use “Du” right away.
In the U.S., oftentimes only the first name is displayed on the name tags of employees, say, in a store, at a counter, or at a tradeshow as well as on the name tags of participants in a conference or workshop. In Germany, name tags display the person’s first and last name or the salutation “Mrs.” or “Mr.” (“Frau” or “Herr”) or the title (“Dr.” or “Prof.”) along with the last name. It may be a bit tricky when Germans and Americans work together, for example, at a tradeshow or participate in a conference together. Using the first and last name is a good compromise.