von Martin Stappen

Language is important, especially when working together in any setting. However, it should be a priority in any case when coming here. To make your life safer and easier. To understand what your landlord might be hinting at, what a policeman might be asking or how to phrase something at the doctor’s office.

At most German workplaces, your German skill will be a necessity for building long-term success as well. If you are lucky, it might be an international environment, mainly speaking English even though the company is German. But this often constitutes a trap. If most of the leadership consist of German native speakers, they will tend to revert to this quicker and surer way of communicating in moments of crisis or urgency. It is for this reason that, although most flight attendants will know English, most cabin crews share a native language nowadays. To reduce friction in case of an emergency.

So even if you are joining one of the German companies with English as a main language, do try to get that German level to somewhere between B2 and C1 as quickly as you can. For your own safety in the country as well as for your career chances.

Whatever your proficiency level in the language, you will have heard of Du and Sie, informal and formal speech. The most common default in a professional environment is the formal Sie. However, in a lot of companies the switch to the informal Du can happen very quick. The general rule is that you, as an applicant or new employee, will follow the other’s lead. It could be that your co-workers will offer you the informal level one by one. Then it is important to remember who is on Du-terms and who is still at Sie. Using the wrong form could, depending on the person you are talking to, be considered a minor slight in either case. Make notes if needed, for instance on business cards or digitally. Easier (and quite common too) would be a general invitation by a superior to use Du with everyone in the company. If this is made clear during onboarding, all the better!

I am sure you will quickly learn and pick up all the words to use while working – and expand your professional vocabulary constantly. On top of that, a lot of everyday words in a German workplace will also seem quite familiar to English speakers: Most German office dwellers will know “benchmarking”, “best practise”, “onboarding” and “task”, amongst others.

So here are some words for the fringes of work that won’t be the focus of most mentors:

Mahlzeit – A short greeting during lunchtime, usually when seeing someone in their break or heading towards it. Not used in all companies but where it is, it is a little bit of social bonding. Quite nice: Answering “Mahlzeit” to someone saying “Mahlzeit” is never wrong.

Brückentag – A Day of possible vacation, connecting other free days (like two national holidays a day apart, or a national holiday separated from the weekend by only a day). With quite a few mandated vacation days, these are often targeted for an extra day off, especially by people one really needs to call just then!  

Feierabend – The time after work, ideally free of it. It can be used as a goodbye (“Schönen Feierabend!”), as an exclamation that you are done for the day (“So, Feierabend!”) or even as a call to a longer working colleague to not stay too long (“Feierabend!”)

Also, schönen Feierabend!