For decades, Frankfurt was known as a stronghold of conservative business etiquette, dominated by men in dark suits and sober ties who met on time, addressed each other by their title and surname only and made little if any small talk.
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But times are changing. Last year, even the venerable, 180-year-old Nassauische Sparkasse — a municipal bank based in Wiesbaden, a well-heeled spa town in the Frankfurt hinterland — stopped requiring male employees to wear ties (except on Mondays and Thursdays, the bank’s so-called “Naspa-Days”).
Overall, business manners in Germany’s financial capital are converging with global standards. “For foreign visitors, these days it has really become difficult to commit a serious faux pas,” says one senior executive at a US investment bank in Frankfurt.
There are, though, still some unwritten rules visitors should be aware of.
The new sartorial freedom has not necessarily make things easier, as the Frankfurt-based head of a European boutique investment bank points out. “The question of how to dress for a client meeting is becoming increasingly difficult to answer,” he says, adding that while some clients frown on classic business attire, others still expect it.
If in doubt, put on a suit and a tie, but prepare to go tieless if the person you are meeting is not wearing one.
The dress code for women has always been more relaxed. A formal suit hasn’t been a must for a long time.
Ways of greeting in Frankfurt, and Germany in general, remain more formal than in the US or UK, for example. The key is to keep your distance — literally as well as figuratively (especially now). Stay clear of hugging and kissing unless you are meeting really close friends. In a business context, a handshake (in less anxious times) is the way forward between any combination of men and women.
Keeping your distance also applies to how you address your German business partner: it’s best to avoid addressing a stranger by his or her first name. “That’s one of the few things many Germans still really don’t like,” warns one banker.
In Germany, being on first-name terms with somebody implies a certain level of intimacy and trust.
Among themselves, Germans only use first names and the familiar “Du” (“you” — as opposed to the formal “Sie”) after agreeing to do so. Traditionally, the older or more senior person involved is expected to take the first step in this regard.
So if you met a Peter Schmidt for the first time, and he did not introduce himself with “Hi, I’m Peter”, you would address him as “Herr Schmidt” (or “Herr Doktor Schmidt”, for example, if he has an academic title).
While many clichés about Germans are not true, their obsession with punctuality is spot on. “Any delay of more than five minutes is deemed unacceptable,” warns German business etiquette coach Ulrike von Rohr.
Even if you are only running five minutes late, it is polite to text an apology to the person you are meeting.
Keep in mind that the German definition of punctuality goes deeper than just avoiding running late. “Arriving too early is equally bad,” warns Ms von Rohr, who argues that the other side may still be busy preparing the meeting, or tied up with other matters.
Germans like to get to the heart of the matter quickly, so avoid getting bogged down in small talk. “Five to 10 minutes at the start of a meeting is really the maximum,” says Ms von Rohr.
When a German business partner invites you to his or her home for dinner, you know you’ve won their trust. Respond by bringing a gift — ideally something related to your country’s culture, but you also cannot go wrong with flowers and a decent bottle of wine.
One important skill is knowing when to leave. “Some 45 minutes after coffee has been served, it is really time to make a move,” says Ms von Rohr — unless the dinner is clearly turning into a party and the host insists on you staying.
Either way, Ms von Rohr recommends going easy on alcohol when socialising with business partners. “If you want to get drunk, do it at home with your friends,” she says.
Unlike London, for example, Frankfurt does not have a strong culture of after-work drinks at the pub — probably because many Frankfurt office workers commute by car.
The etiquette in German pubs also is different to the UK. Normally you don’t order drinks at the bar and pay immediately. Instead, there is table service and the bill only arrives when you leave, though that means the waiter will often ask if you want another drink just as you finish your current one. An easy — and socially acceptable — way to avoid getting drunk is to order non-alcoholic beer.
Staying largely sober will also help when you settle the bill, which is commonly split precisely between each person — often a protracted process.
Germany is, to a large degree, still a developing country when it comes to vegan and vegetarian food (though Frankfurt’s vegan restaurant scene is growing fast). Not all dinner-party hosts will inquire about dietary preferences beforehand, and the main course will almost certainly be meat-heavy.
It might catch the chef — and your host — out if you ask for a vegetarian option on the spot. If you have special requirements, including food allergies, be sure to tell your host well in advance.
Illustrations by Harry Haysom
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About the author
Olaf Storbeck, Frankfurt banking correspondent
After almost a decade in London, in 2017, Olaf moved to Frankfurt to cover the German banking sector for the Financial Times. Before joining the FT, he worked in various positions at Germany’s Handelsblatt and Reuters. A keen cyclist, he is rarely seen without his Brompton folding bicycle in Germany’s financial capital.
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