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Corresponding with Germans: How not to come across as being rude

Proper Email Etiquette when corresponding with Business Partners in Germany, Austria or Switzerland

Our law firm specialises in British-German legal issues, so most of our email correspondence takes place in English. In many cases, we represent German business clients for whom we liaise with UK business partners, barristers, solicitors, tax advisors, or other consultants.

Rule 1: Do not address people by their first name right away

German clients, especially if they do not have any prior experience with Anglo-American business partners, are often shocked, when the UK (or US) counterpart responds using the German client’s first name. This is sometimes considered as too intimate or even rude. Especially, if the British business partner uses only the first name – and nothing else, which is rather common in Britain and the USA.

However, to a German, an email starting with “Bernhard, could you give me a call …” sounds very much like “Bernhard, you have messed up and I need to straighten you out”. Virtually no German would write to another German by just using his first name. Even if they are on a first name basis, they will always use “Hello Bernhard” or “Hi Bernhard” or even just “Hello” or “Good morning”. Again, using only the first name without any salutation will ring alarm bells with the German recipient and it will remind him of when his mother used to yell “Bernhard, how often do I have to tell you to clean up your room”.

My recommendation: Use “Hello Bernhard” or “Hi Bernhard” or “Good morning Bernhard”. When in doubt about whether your German counterpart is old fashioned and/or unaccustomed to the Anglo-American habit of using first names even in business correspondence, use “Mr” or “Mrs”.

By the way: I personally would stay away from addressing a German with “Hello Herr Schmidt” or “Dear Herr Schmidt”. Surely, most British and US partners who use this “Herr” (or “Frau”) mean well and just intend to “do as the Germans do”. However, there is always the risk that the German recipient of such an email may take this the wrong way and feel ridiculed. When I do get such emails adressing me with “Hello Herr Schmeilzl” it always conjures up the image of John Cleese doing the Fawlty Tower Nazi Walk. On the other hand side, maybe it’s just me  🙂

Rule 2: Don’t hesitate to use “Dear”

The standard German salutation in a letter to someone you are not on a first name basis with is “Sehr geehrter Herr Schulz”, which literally translates into “Much esteemed Mr Schulz”. In German, it does not sound that old fashioned and stiff, it is simply the standard greeting one uses. In order to use “Lieber Herr Schulz” (Dear Mr Schulz), one must really have a very good personal rapport with the addressee. Thus, the combination of “Lieber” and “Herr” is rare, because if I can use “Lieber” then I am usually already on a first name basis with that person.

Now, since there is no practical English language equivalent to the German “Sehr geehrter”, you have the choice between “Hello”, “Hi” or “Dear”. To a German, the English “Dear” does not have the same intimate sound as the German “Lieber” has, so feel free and go ahead using “Dear Mr Schulz”, even if you would not use it to adress an English speaking business partner. Using “Sir” in the first ever letter or email to someone is fine, but it will sound stand offish and very formal if you keep using it.

German lawyers (Rechtsanwälte), by the way, do greet each other with “Sehr geehrter Herr Kollege Soandso”, i.e. “Well esteemed colleague Mr Soandso”. Leaving out the “Kollege” will be considered as impolite.

Rule 3: Explain

Finally, my advice is to get the matter out in the open and simply explain to the German recipient what you are doing. An introductory sentence like this one, for example, will mostly do the trick: “Dear Bernhard, I hope it is ok to address you on a first name basis as we do here in Britain…”. Very rarely, a German will then still insist on being formally adressed as Mr Soandso. Instead, in most cases, the German recipient will be flattered and happy to have “hit it off so well” with his British counterpart to even be called by his first name already.

As always, there are exceptions to these rules. Especially since the younger generation is much more international nowadays and many young Germans will be well aware of the fact that Britains and Americans do address each other with their first names without this meaning that they are best pals.

While Germans and Austrians are quite similar in their approach to business correspondence etiquette (or netiquette), the average Swiss will be much more conservative and traditional. So I suggest to stick with Mr and Mrs if you write to a Swiss person until he or she makes the first move re the first name issue.

Good luck with your British-German business correspondence! And if anything goes wrong after all, you can always call a Cross Channel Lawyer 🙂

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The law firm Graf & Partners and its German-English litigation department GP Chambers was established in 2003 and has many years of experience with British-German and US-German probate matters, including the representation of clients in contentious probate matters. If you wish us to advise or represent you in a German or cross border inheritance case please contact German solicitor Bernhard Schmeilzl, LL.M. (Leicester) at +49 941 463 7070.

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