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Culture

Getting Germans on the Phone

In seminars, Dutch managers learn how to successfully deal with German business partners over the phone. Participants tend to agree that conversations with Germans are stressful and complicated.

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Germans like to keep things brief on the phone -- not only at the stock exchange during carnival.

At the University of Nijmegen, just to the west of the Dutch-German border, executives discuss typical communication pitfalls between the two countries. Stock exchange, for example, is called "Börse" in German and "beurs" in Dutch, both pronounced in a similar way. But Dutch people also use the word to refer to an exhibition or a fair.

Stock exchange or exhibition?

That’s why a Dutch businessman might tell his German partner that he’ll be going to the "Börse" in Frankfurt next week and talk about an exhibition rather than an initial public offering.

But communication problems between the two countries go beyond the different meanings of words: "Germans are reserved on the phone," one woman attending the seminar said. "Sometimes there are only two out of ten conversations that feel relaxed and fun. German business partners also always keep things brief, giving you a feeling that you’re disturbing them. That makes me feel insecure and I don’t know how to react."

Germans want proof, the Dutch like to talk

Erika Poettgens, who runs the seminar, agrees. "Germans don’t like to talk on the phone as much as Dutch people do," she said. "In my opinion, the Dutch actually use the phone way too often."

Germans prefer to write things down, feeling more secure when they have a document to prove what’s been decided on. "Even a little note is enough," the communications expert said. "That’s not surprising, considering the way the German judicial system is set up."

Kinder mit Handys

Germans love talking on cell phones, but sending them a text message will make them feel more secure.

Talking about "the Germans" and "the Dutch", Poettgens does not simply rely on stereotypes. The linguist’s father is Dutch and her mother hails from Bavaria, so Poettgens knows the two countries well and can differentiate.

Deciding what’s wrong and what’s right is not the point of the seminar, though, Jörg Renner, Poettgens’ colleague and a communications trainer, said: "We’re more interested in figuring out why someone behaves a certain way and how others can react to it."

Rapprochement and understanding

Communication between people from different countries always has to do with rapprochement and understanding, the experts said. "Just because participants discuss German phone habits doesn’t mean they have to end up negotiating like a German," Renner said.

But there’s at least one area in which Germans and Dutch people won’t be able to get closer any time soon: the ability to be precise. "The Dutch use smoother tactics," Renner said, showing that he’s learned a lot from Germany’s western neighbors in his professional life.

Poettgens on the other hand points to her German roots and expresses herself more clearly: "The Dutch just seem wishy-washy."

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