The English-speaking student of the German language does well to carefully study German business culture before sitting down and drafting German letters for business purposes. In addition to certain cultural idiosyncrasies, a number of phrases are a must in these communications.
German versus American Business Culture
When drafting business communication in German, the letters must reflect the idiosyncrasies of the German business culture. As a country that thrives on formality and subtlety of expression, an in-depth understanding of German business manners can make the difference between merely being understood and actually being favorably received.
Perhaps the biggest difference is the formality of address. Executives, supervisors and employees may have known one another for years or even decades, but still insist on addressing each other formally by last name or title. This is also reflected in written communications. German business communication styles demand a formal opening and closure.
For example, open a letter with “Sehr geehrter Herr Dr. Meyer," which literally translates into “Much honored Sir Doctor Meyer" but is actually equal to the English “Dear Dr. Meyer." When writing to a panel or a recipient of unknown name, address the letter to “Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren," (literally: “much honored ladies and gentlemen"; colloquially: “Dear Sir or Madam"). Please note the comma after the sentence and the plural address in German, which is directly opposed to the singular that is used in American business writing.
End the business letter with “Hochachtungsvoll" that roughly translates to “Sincerely."
Type German Letters Using “Sie/ihr" and Forgetting “Du/Dein"
Part and parcel of the formality that is a key component in German businesses is the proper use of the “Sie" as opposed to the informal “du." Known as the practice of “duzen" (being on a familiar first-name basis), it is generally unheard of in business letters. Failure to heed this warning leads to embarrassment (for Germans) and the perception of rudeness (from the English speaker).
As a general rule of thumb, when addressing anyone other than a family member, close friend, pet or deity, the use of “du" should be off-limits. For example, the phrase "Are you expected?" – in Wirtschaftsdeutsch – would be appropriately rendered as “Sind Sie angemeldet?" When inquiring about something, the English-speaker who sits down to write letters in German might think “I am writing to ask if you…" while the German expects a rendition that reads “Ich möchte Sie bitten mir mitzuteilen, ob..."
The one exception to the rule is the offering of the informal “du." This offer is restricted to being proposed by the person with the higher-ranking job title to the person who ranks lower. Age restrictions also demand that the older person offers it to the younger one. If such an offer has been made, you and your business contact are now “duzen" one another. Writing a letter with the formal “Sie" – in this instance – would be considered rude and offensive.
Please note that the address of “Sie" is always capitalized in letter writing, while “ihr" is only capitalized at the beginning of a sentence.
Are German Letters Stilted?
To non-German eyes and ears these letters may appear overly formal and stilted. To the native German speaker, they are examples of proper formal business correspondence. In fact, a German business letter must contain a significant amount of formality. Informal letters have a markedly different tone. In case of a doubt, always err on the side of the most formal expression possible.