What’s ‘Small Talk’ in German?

Germans have a reputation for being scientific but rather humorless. But is this ­cultural stereotype true? Fiona Evans, U.S. consul general in Düsseldorf, considers the relationship between her countrymen and their German business partners.

June 2020

The United States and Germany enjoy a strong trade and investment relationship. There are lots of reasons why: the robust rule of law and protections of intellectual property in both our nations, for example, and the advanced technologies produced by both. But I truly believe it is personal interactions that grease the wheels of commerce and that Germans have a singular advantage when developing relationships with American business partners.

German reliability is probably paramount in the minds of most Americans. It is no secret that German products are honored for their precision and reliability, but a reliable business partner can open many additional doors. It might sound simple, but adhering to timelines, respecting meeting times and focusing on the business at hand allows for more productive discussions and shows your American partner that you mean business.

After more than a year in my position as U.S. consul general in the Rhineland, it is clear to me that the Germans also know how to relax. Whether it is Carnival or simply a national holiday, the Rheinlanders make the most of their personal time. Americans are hard workers, taking relatively little vacation, but it is during the after-hours conversations on the golf course or in a restaurant, where a lot of business gets done. The German attitude toward taking pleasure in life is as welcome along the Mississippi as it is along the Ruhr.

The German people’s knowledge of the U.S. is a huge advantage. When I was in language training, I found it funny when my instructor told me that there is no real German translation for “small talk.” Nonetheless, I’ve had plenty of opportunity while chatting with people at trade fairs, receptions or in my personal time to engage in light conversation with Germans and to observe how they interact with their American contacts. In my view Germans are in fact experts in small talk.

Last year, I co-led the German delegation to the U.S. government’s annual foreign direct investment summit and saw first-hand how German attitudes, style and know-how make business deals happen on both sides of the Atlantic. It is therefore no wonder to me that the U.S. is the leading job creator in North Rhine-Westphalia and that Germans are some of the largest investors in the U.S.

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