Main Differences Between German and American Work Culture 

Germany and America may have a lot in common, but there are also many differences between the two countries – including in the workplace. In the US, it’s common practice to take short parental leaves, work through sickness, and skip vacation time. Germany is the total contrary to this.

While German companies tend to be more formal and hierarchical, American businesses are usually more relaxed and flat in structure. Germans also value efficiency, precision, and quality, while Americans are more likely to prioritize speed and quantity.

Whether you are looking to work in Germany or are already working there, it’s essential to be aware of these differences to ensure a smooth transition. You don’t want to be caught off guard by any cultural faux pas while at work. In this article, we look into the 11 main differences between the German and American work cultures.

1. Working hours

In Germany, people work 36 to 40 hours from Monday to Saturday, but some choose to extend it to 48 hours. After every work day, each employee must have a minimum of 11 hours of rest before reporting to work the next day.

Companies can sometimes agree with Germany’s holidays and work hours regulatory body to extend the hours. Nonetheless, they are to compensate employees with a more extended annual leave or higher salaries.

It’s illegal to work during public holidays and Sundays in Germany, but this rule doesn’t apply if you work in the service industry. If you report to work during these times, you must be compensated with off-days within two weeks.

In American work culture, the average daily work hours are eight from Monday to Friday, translating to 40 hours a week. Employees who work more than 40 hours a week receive higher pay for the extra hours. Working on Saturday or Sunday in America is based on the agreement with your employer, and there is no elevated pay for it.

Nonetheless, according to the research, the average American works about 47 hours per week, with nearly 40% of employees doing 60 hours a week. Moreover, in the US, people tend to work weekends, skip their lunch breaks, and check their emails after hours, So it all contributes to additional hours spent on work.

Here is the overview from OECD on the number of hours worked in 2020 among all European countries and the US. In Germany, the average working hours were 1,332. Compared to the US, where this number was 1,767.

In addition, below is a graph showing the average annual working hours per worker in different countries, including Germany and USA, in 2017 and 1979:

Source: clockify.me

2. Lunchtime

Lunchtime looks very different in Germany and the US.

In Germany, every worker is expected to take at least 30 min off to eat. Besides, lunch is taken seriously, neither people skip it nor eat some small sandwich at the desk. Most employees eat a warm meal together with their coworkers at the company’s cafeteria or cafes/restaurants.

Meanwhile, in the US, only one in five workers eat lunch, not at their desks, but many of them even skip lunch. Moreover, about 56% of Americans have 30 minutes or less lunch breaks.

In the US, federal law doesn’t require employers to provide employees regular breaks such as lunch or coffee breaks. In contrast, German workers are entitled to at least 2 breaks, where lunch should last at least 30 minutes, and the other 15 minutes can be taken throughout the day.

3. Work-life balance

You probably know that Europeans tend to work less and enjoy life more. Yes, Germany is superior to the US in work-life balance.

In Germany, people tend to separate work and personal life strictly. They give 100% at work and deliver during work hours. After 5 pm, you will see them going home, and employees aren’t available for employers. It might even be illegal to try making someone work in their “off hours.”

In America, it’s the opposite. Work is often taken home. There are fewer boundaries between work and private life. In addition to this, US employees work more hours than average German. This further affects the work-life balance and non-existence of such.

For example, in Germany, you aren’t expected to answer emails on the weekend or late at night. In the US, this is a common practice. People get their work emails on their phones at all hours, around the clock. It can be in the evenings and on weekends. They might even take calls from work.

Read about the differences between the work culture in the UK and Germany.

4. Etiquette 

The dress code in the USA depends on the company and industry, while in Germany, the dress code for work is official.

In the American work culture, it’s kind to firmly shake someone’s hands and make eye contact when greeting them. After shaking hands, it’s wise to move to an arm’s length since Americans love personal space. 

The dressing in the US varies depending on the occasion, position within the company, and industry. However, some companies indicate the dress code for some official meetings. 

It’s rude to interrupt someone when they are talking in American culture, but if one hesitates when speaking, someone else can take up the point and continue the discussion. After the initial speaker has gathered their thoughts, they can excuse themselves and continue when there is a pause. 

Similarly, in Germany, it’s good manners to shake someone’s hands and make eye contact when greeting them.

The dress code is formal for both men and women, and one can wear a jacket on top during cold weather. Women wear a formal dress or dark suit with a white blouse and men wear dark suits with white shirts and a tie.

Meetings at workplaces in Germany are usually very formal; therefore, interrupting someone when they are talking is considered rude. Additionally, one should avoid any irony or jokes; instead, communicate straight to the point. Directness is expected and taken without any offense, as it might be in the US.

5. Punctuality

In Germany, you should show up for a meeting at least ten minutes before time, while in America, it’s to show up at the exact time. 

In both cultures, if one suspects they will be late, they are expected to call and explain the reason for the unpunctuality. 

Read how living in the US compares to living in Germany.

6. Communication

Another difference between the German and American work cultures is workplace communication. In Germany, you’ll find people openly criticizing and pointing out the other person’s mistake. The employee’s communication is always straightforward, even when speaking to the boss. 

In the American work culture, one can’t correct the other openly; instead, they call them aside and communicate their displeasure. They are more cautious about being critical and try to use tact when providing feedback. Additionally, an employee can’t contradict their boss in public; doing this can lead to losing their job.

When it comes to people expressing themselves, Americans ensure that they formulate everything positively. For example, it’s hard for an American to simply say “no” when uninterested in something; instead, they raise a concern regarding the particular issue.

In Germany, people directly express themselves freely and honestly with one another without fear.

In the typical American office, people are pretty relaxed; you’ll find them taking breaks during work hours to chat and socialize with their colleagues. In Germany, individuals focus on work throughout the day without “wasting time” interacting with one another.

7. Working relationships

Here differences between the US and Germany are very significant, especially when it comes to befriending colleagues. It happens more often in the US than it’s in Germany.

Working in Germany might appear too rigorous for some international employees. Germans are often viewed as reserved and distanced in their approach. Moreover, expats struggle to make friendships in their personal life in Germany without even mentioning befriending their colleagues.

Unlike American workers who are much more warm, cordial, and friendly with one another. In the US, it’s common to make friends with colleagues.

Nonetheless, studies show that Americans are far less likely to socialize with their coworkers outside the workplace. At least they will be friendly with you at work.

8. Formality

Knowing how to talk to your colleagues and managers is crucial when working abroad. Germans use “Sie, “a formal name for “you, “to address one another at work. One can’t address colleagues or clients on a first-name basis; they use surnames.  

For Americans, there is no specific formal way of addressing people in the workplace. Most people usually address each other on a first-name basis or use “Mr,” “Mrs,” or “miss.” Greetings are pretty straightforward since a simple “hello” or smile is considered perfect. 

Though there is not too much formality in the American culture, one is not to make inappropriate, discriminatory jokes or negatively discuss sensitive topics like sexuality or religion.

In both American and German workplaces, when introducing someone to another person, one uses their titles and gives a short explanation of who they are. For example, you can say, “This is Grace Tommy. She will be heading our marketing team”.

9. Holidays

There are numerous holidays in Germany, and all businesses except hospitals, restaurants, and police stations remain closed during these times. Unlike in other countries, if a holiday falls on a weekend, it’s not transferred to a weekday.

Germany enjoys regional holidays, celebrated in some regions, and public holidays, which are recognized nationally.

The table below shows some of the most important holidays in Germany, their date, and whether they are regional or public:

HolidayDateType of holiday
Peace Festival (Freudenfest)8th AugustRegional
New Year’s Day(Neujahrstag)1st JanuaryPublic
Easter Monday (Ostermontag) 18th AprilPublic
Labor day (Maifeiertag)1st MayPublic
Epiphany (Heilige Drei Könige)6th JanuaryRegional
Ascension Day26th MayPublic
Whit or pentecostal Monday(Pfingstmontag)6th JunePublic
Day of German Unity (Tag der Deutschen Einheit)3rd OctoberPublic
Assumption Day (Maria Himmelfahrt)15th AugustRegional
New year’s eve31st DecemberPublic
Christmas day25th DecemberPublic
Reformation Day (Reformationstag)31st OctoberPublic
Saint Stephen’s Day (Stephanstag)26th DecemberPublic
All Saints’ Day (Allerheiligen)1st NovemberRegional
Source: trade.gov – International Trade Administration

In America, the holidays you enjoy within a year vary depending on your work state. There are no national holidays; each state has its own, which all employers respect. 

The federal government declares holidays for their employees. These days, banks, most businesses, government offices, and post offices remain closed. These holidays include: 

  • Labor Day: First Monday of September
  • New Year’s Day: 1st January
  • President’s Day: 3rd Monday in February
  • Martin Luther King Day: 3rd Monday of January
  • Independence Day: 4th July
  • Columbus Day: Second Monday of October
  • Memorial Day: Last Monday in May
  • Thanksgiving Day: Fourth Thursday of November
  • Veterans Day: 11th November
  • Christmas Day: 25th December

Annual leave

Regarding the annual leave, Germany imposes a law on all employers to provide workers with at least 20 paid days off for a 5-day working week and 24 days for a  6-day work week. Most German companies offer between 25 and 30 days of paid vacation.

In contrast, the US is one of the developed and wealthiest countries in the world, with the least amount of paid annual leave. Thus, American workers take the fewest average number of vacation days than in many other countries surveyed.

Generally, Americans work more than Germans and take less time off. On average, US employees take only 13 paid days off. This is mainly related to the absence of paid annual leave provided by the employer. In fact, the United States doesn’t federally mandate any paid vacation for employees.

Astonishing one-fourth of the US workers have no paid vacation or paid holidays.

Yet, some US companies give paid time off to the employees, which is usually limited by 10 to 14 days. In fact, the survey found that 26% of Americans have never taken off two weeks straight.

10. Sick leave

In Germany, employees are entitled to paid sick leave. They get 100% of their salary during the first six weeks of the leave, which can take place more than once a year. After the six weeks, an employee receives 70% of their income for 78 weeks.

In the US, some companies don’t pay employees if they are on sick leave, and they deduct the days off from their vacation days. If the sickness prolongs, one can claim a disability allowance of 50% of the usual pay. 

11. Social insurances

When working in Germany, making monthly social security contributions is mandatory, which makes up about 20% of your salary. 

Social security contributions cover the following essential areas:

Health insurance: This contribution covers your medical bills, including treatment, dental care, and medication; it also automatically allows you to get maternity and sickness benefits.

Most German employees choose public health insurance which is 14.6% of their gross income, but when divided equally between you and your employer, they are left to pay 7.3%. Premiums of private insurance don’t depend on the income. That’s why high-earners often switch to private insurance companies.

Pension insurance: This contribution usually builds towards your upkeep on retirement. It usually covers 18.7% of your salary; it’s shared with your employer, leaving you to pay 9.35%. 

Unemployment insurance: This contribution takes care of your unemployment benefits in case you lose your job and is currently at 1.2% of your gross salary.

In the US, the employee and employer pay 6.2% of the taxable income to social security. This contribution helps many groups of people, including retirees and the disabled.

The amount that each group of contributors receives varies significantly. Below is a table showing how much each group gets as of March 2022:

Type of beneficiaryTotal payouts (%)Monthly benefits ($)
Retired workers731,665.18
All recipients1001,536.94
Retirement benefits771,618.29
Disabled workers121,360.16
Survivor benefits91,325.68
Disability insurance141,224.53
Nondisabled widowers and widows5.41,559.42
Source: ssa.gov – Social Security Administration

As you can see, US social security doesn’t include healthcare. Therefore, workers must take out insurance at their own expense.

Anna

Anna is an enthusiastic expatriate with experience of living in Germany, Austria and Greece. She shares her passion for living abroad on this website.

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