What German Work Culture Is Really Like

After a few weeks on the job in Berlin, I think I am ready to debunk (and uphold) some common beliefs about German work culture. For easy skimming, it’s compiled into a handy dandy list.

1: The dress code is a lot more casual than in the US.

This is absolutely true! I and several fellow American interns packed our suitcases to the brim with suits and business casual attire, only to find ourselves severely overdressed on the first day. My supervisor wears acid-washed jeans on the daily. I showed up the first day in business heels. Save yourself the embarrassment (and the luggage space!) by packing more casual attire.

For reference, here’s what I wore to work today and it was a-ok.

Sanja Grujo’s work outfit. She’s spending the summer interning at Internationaler Wirtschaftsrat as a Cultural Vistas Fellow

2: Germans don’t want to be friends with their coworkers. 

It is often said that Germans are very reserved and prefer to keep their professional life separate from their personal life. This means that they will be friendly with you at the office, but you will not know about the party they’re hosting this weekend.

If this was true, then how would I know that my supervisor grew up in Cologne (where his parents and sister still live), is one of four siblings, has a nephew (who is three but turning four in two months), lives eight minutes away from the office, and is trying to help his partner pick the right college for his Master’s degree? I also met a wonderful gent at a conference today who called me his “folleague” (friend + colleague). I say this one is false false false.

Sanja and her “folleagues” attending a jazz show after work.

3: Don’t ask a German “How are you?” as an icebreaker.

This is true. You will be seen as ingenuine because you don’t actually care about the person’s feelings. Avoid if possible. (Will likely be forgiven if you revert to your American tendencies but still avoid if possible).

4: Germans tend to be very direct in their communication.

I personally haven’t found this to be an issue. I spoke to my supervisor about this topic during a three-hour car ride and he actually said that Germans are often taught to use the “sandwich method” (in which bad news is placed between two pieces of good/positive news) when sending emails. Maybe I’ll meet some more direct Germans in the future, but it’s important to note that this does not apply to all.

This is the most direct email I’ve gotten so far:


5: German offices rarely have cubicles.

This is true! I share an office with my supervisor and a research assistant. It’s a very collaborative atmosphere with no fake, tiny walls. I love it!

Sanja’s workspace during her Summer 2017 Cultural Vistas Fellowship internship in Berlin.

6: How serious are Germans about punctuality?

Be on time no matter what country you’re in, but especially this one. I think there are ten clocks in just one room alone.

Sanja sightseeing in Berlin along with two other Cultural Vistas Fellows.

I hope you found this helpful! Please learn from my mistakes so that you can have a wonderful time in this amazing country.

*Disclaimer: This blog is based on the experience of one intern and her conversations with various Americans and Germans living in Berlin. It may not apply to every office/situation.*

Sanja Grujo spent her summer interning in Berlin as part of the fully-funded Cultural Vistas Fellowship. The program was designed to give more Americans the chance to gain work experience abroad and remove cost as an obstacle. Follow her and the 11 other Fellows’ summer journeys in Argentina, Germany, and India at #CVFellows17