Cultural differences between South Africa and Germany

Term Paper 2001 10 Pages

Cultural Studies - Empiric Cultural Studies


Table of contents

Why did I choose South Africa?
General information about South Africa
South African culture

Differences and similarities
Men and women in business
Negotiation, meetings and communication
Customs and social life
Final remarks

Dealing with the differences



Why did I choose South Africa?

I haven’t got any experiences myself, but I like to go to South Africa either for a practical placement or to study there, because I am keen on getting to know this exciting country with its variety of landscapes and cultures.

I read a lot of books about South Africa, some travel guides and have gained many information as well as reports of students who have been there, in the Internet. My uncle who has got relatives in South Africa told me about the country and the people living there.

General information about South Africa

South Africa which is called the “rainbow nation”, a term coined by archbishop Desmond Tutu, is a diverse nation with people of all colours, from all backgrounds, rich and poor, with different religions and many different languages. This term also symbolises the objective of South Africa to be one nation but to have all cultures under one sky living peaceful together.

South Africa has approximately 41 million inhabitants from four ethnical backgrounds with about 76% blacks, 11% whites, 9% coloureds, 3% Asians and Indians and some others. Blacks consist of many different cultural ethnical and tribal groups. The two largest ones are Xhosa and Zulu. The country has got 11 official languages originating from the process of change after Apartheid, but the main business language is English followed by Afrikaans which is of Dutch origin. There are also a lot of inofficial languages. It is interesting that one of them is German which receives preferential support by the government.1

It is remarkable that it is no bad sign in South Africa to call a black person “black”, because people stand to their colour and talk about it openly.2

Another point is that regional differences do exist in South Africa. On the one hand there are industrialised cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town which have a modern and open attitude and on the other hand there are very rural and conservative areas like KwaZulu-Natal. Cape Town is the only place in South Africa which is governed by whites and has got a large coloured community.3

In black communities family plays an important role. They have strong family ties and they teach their children to respect older people and to obey their parents. But there is one thing that interlinks all South Africans and plays a significant role in society: Sports like rugby, cricket and soccer.

Economically seen South Africa is a mix of first and third world. First world’s technology and economic structures dominate cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town, but especially in black rural areas people live below the subsistence level.

South African culture

It is difficult to point out a South African culture because it does not exist. As mentioned before there are different cultures in one country: Blacks, whites, coloured, Indian, Zulu, Xhosa and many more. Especially people with less education (almost from black background) think in totally different categories than western people or the white people in South Africa. Hence they have another understanding of society and life, e.g., the black tribes are often guided by magic.

Because of this I have to generalise a bit or I will just point out the behaviour of one or two of the different South African cultures in comparison to the German one, otherwise it would go beyond the scope of this paper.

If I compared every culture in South Africa with German culture, I would have to write six pages just to mention one topic.

Differences and similarities

Men and women in business

The South African workplace is similar to German business styles in many ways. But different to Germany is the fact that workers try to outbalance work and family life and do not live for work like many Germans do. As mentioned before, especially in black families, family life plays an important role. This has an effect on business. Another fact being different to Germany is that managers put a strong emphasis on values like quality, growth and productivity and less on employee satisfaction and flexibility.

In South African business male chauvinism can often be seen. Men from all ethnical groups have got a strong tendency to show chauvinist behaviour. Even though they are very polite towards women and treat them with great courtesy, they have a strong opinion about the women’s role. It is not uncommon that businesswomen are called “girls” “chickies” or “Sheilas”4. And often women are excluded from meetings where important decisions are made.

In Germany there is a strong movement into equality of man and women.

Nowadays South African women more and more fight for their rights and they received an equal standard by law, but the tribal law still disadvantages women. In white companies the situation for women is better, but in general one can say that women are treated less equally.

Negotiation, meetings and communication

In negotiation styles differences do exist between the different cultures. So here are some general ideas: In contrast to Germany bargaining is not a part of South African business culture. Hence hard tactics and behaviour should be avoided. So instead of pressure tactics it is better to focus on small talk and relationship building because a long term and solid relationship is the main objective of South African business people. Before turning to business one should chit-chat5. It is necessary to put interest in family and social matters before getting down to business details with colleagues. Tasks should be personalised wherever possible and negotiators should focus on personal matters. In Germany this is uncommon. Here such behaviour would just create frowning. The pace of business is relatively slow. This could be considered as a similarity to Germany since Germans have to discuss every little detail before making a decision and therefore the pace of business in Germany is slow, too.

Another difference is that you have to wait till you are asked to sit down. Once seated you will be asked a couple of times if you want coffee or tea. This shall be a break in formality and allows the start of some “small talk”6.

In South Africa business contracts more and more follows the pattern of those in Germany, but contrary to Germany many deals are still sealed with a handshake.

If it fails to draw an immediate genuine reaction during a negotiation, the deal will be over7.

Meetings in South Africa should be well prepared and scheduled as far in advance as possible.8 Similar to Germany punctuality is very important for business meetings. Another similarity is that business cards are exchanged at the beginning of a meeting. South Africans are used to have a tea break at 10 am and at 4 p.m. This is an important part of a meeting because there you have time to chit-chat and to strengthen the relationship.

During meetings South Africans should not be rushed and business people should outline as much information as possible about their company, values and qualifications. Similar to Germany you have to be aware of holiday times in summer. When dealing with black South Africans it is important to know that agendas might be more flexible and time will not be overstressed. They don’t like to work overtime because as said before family plays an important role for them. Meetings late in the evening are not likely to be seen by them. But in Germany they sometimes can take place then.

In difference to Germany South Africans put great emphasis on business relationships. Meetings are built on trust and good relationships.

South Africans favour individual success, but for them it is more important to have a comfortable business environment. In Germany it is just the other way round. Concerning meetings in South Africa, a few facts are helpful to know as they are different to Germany, too. These are, for example, that you have to keep your presentation short to the point and filled with specific ideas involving the circumstances of doing business in South Africa since sometimes financing the deal is more important than the selling product. Another thing you should know is that South Africans, especially the whites, will often sit back at discussion time and “take everything in”. Nevertheless they may take control of a meeting in an opportune moment9.

Communication and the attitude concerning time is another point of view which is different from German culture.

It derives from the cultures within this country, too. South Africa has got 14 main languages and about 24 home languages. As outlined before, 11 of them are official. So you can imagine how confusing conversation can be.

The pattern of thoughts also differ in each language group: White Afrikaans e.g., have comparable values and thinking patterns with western nations like Germany, while some black tribes are guided by natural beliefs and magic. This is also reflected in the language and communication.

A special South African expression is to say “I will do it now-now” which means to do it immediately, while saying “I will do it just now” means to do it tomorrow or in the future10.

The perception of time also differs between the various cultural groups. White South Africans have a strong tendency towards punctuality comparable to Germany. As mentioned before business people should be on time. In social activities however punctuality is not enforced but being late is not advisable.

Blacks, on the other hand, take time from a more poly-chronic point of view, so they often have got flexible schedules or a few meetings at the same time, or they even might not show up to meetings at all. This is a big difference to Germany. Business in South Africa usually starts early around 8 a.m. This is like in Germany, but in contrast to Germany it will be no big deal if deadlines are not held.

At formal appointments one has to expect to be kept waiting five out of ten minutes. Last minute cancellations are routine. In Germany this can happen, too, but it is not as usual as in South Africa.

Punctuality in business mostly depends on the size of a company. The bigger the company and the more formal the structure the more possible is that meetings will start and end on time. At smaller companies, especially those owned by black ones, the attitude to time is highly casual. Showing impatience is not recommended11. Gestures are used a lot especially by the black people, mostly in the term of hand signs, for example showing a taxi driver the direction the person wants to go. Similar to Germany it is considered to be rude to point at someone with your index finger. The “V” or peace sign means the same as showing the middle finger in Germany.

Eye contact is a very important part of communication as well as physical contact (a lot of handshaking and backslapping12 ) which is unusual in Germany. It is important to mention the raised, right-handed fist which has become a world- recognized symbol for "Black Power". In 1990, it received international exposure when South African’s black leader Nelson Mandela toured Europe and North America13. Apart from gestures it is important to know that South Africans are very talkative. If there is a long period of silence during a conversation this can be a sign that something is seriously wrong. In Germany periods of silence during a conversation are normal. A good topic which can be talked about to personalize business is sports because as said in the beginning South Africa is a sport obsessed nation.

As outlined before one should never forget that there exist many different cultures in South Africa and that they all differ in beliefs and values which influences the communication and also the negotiation styles.

Customs and social life

South Africans adapted some European traditions. An example is the tea-break at 10 a.m. and also 4 p.m14. which is comparable with the German “coffee time”. It is also remarkable that South Africans include some strong formal protocols in their culture. For example, men rise when a woman or a senior enters the room or, passing a doorway men precede women.

It is usual that introductions are orchestrated in order of seniority. In Germany this is not as formal.

Also the fact that men should rise when being introduced for the first time and that women should offer their hand to be shaken is a bit different in Germany.

There are many different ways of greeting depending on the culture, but a greeting is always welcome. Very important in this case is the “African handshake” where you slide your hand around the other persons thumb while shaking hands. It is noticeable that this handshake is only used between blacks or between a black and a white person but not among whites15.

Something which is completely different from Germany is that women have to initiate the handshake and that men should not reach out their hand.

Black South Africans are informal in their greetings. One has to expect to be asked questions about your family and so on English-speaking white South Africans follow the British style of polite, formal exchanges of pleasantries16.

South Africans should always be addressed by their surname. This is similar to Germany. Titles are common but not as important as in Germany. South Africa’s ethnic diversity means that different greeting words are used. For example English-speakers say “Hello” and “Good Morning” while Afrikaans-speakers say “Goie more”(= Good Morning) ,Zulu say “Sakubona”(= I see you) and the Xhosa greet each other with “Molo”17.

Most South Africans like to entertain at home. If you are invited to a South African home it is typical to be invited for dinner because it is the main meal. It is usual that business dinners are in private homes, too, contrary to Germany where business dinners take place in a restaurant at noon.

Usually South Africans get up early so that evening entertainment ends before midnight, which is different in Germany, too.

Business dinners can be very formal, and South Africans appreciate both, a humorous and serious conversation during a dinner.

When invited to a home one has to take a gift. This is similar to Germany. Flowers, chocolate or wine will be fine. Lavish gifts are not expected18.

Dining etiquette is comparable to Germany: Both hands visible on the table and eating is done “continental style” with the fork and knife staying in their respective hands19. But in some ethnical groups especially in rural areas people eat with spoons and use other cutlery only at weddings and parties.

Very important for South Africans is a barbecue called Braai. South Africans are real carnivores and apart from beef or lamb they eat meat of ostrich, giraffe, crocodile and other African animals which sounds exotic to German ears. Fish is popular in South Africa, too.

Vegetarians are often targets for mockery in South Africa20. In Germany vegetarians are accepted. Different to Germany is that salad is served after the main course. In Germany it is served before. In South Africa one has to make the effort to finish everything on his plate, since in contrast to Germany, leaving uneaten portions are considered to be a poor reflection on the host21.

Music plays an important role in life of blacks and they celebrate certain traditions a German businessperson might not understand. For reasons mentioned before, sport is a good topic to talk about. Apart from sport topics to talk about are achievements of South Africans especially in literature, music, sports or medicine e.g. Christiaan Barnard who has done the world-wide first successful heart transplantation. Talking about politics could be a problem.

One should also be aware of special traditions and holidays of the different cultural groups, for example the Indian or Jewish communities.

South African dress code, especially in business, is more of a conservative nature22. But it always depends on who someone is doing business with. In Germany this is different, too.

Suit and tie for men and a dress, costume or pantsuit are recommended for high ranked meetings but are not necessary for everyday workdays. This is just as in Germany. South Africans do not have a high expectation concerning style and fashion. Smart and casual wear is often sufficient especially concerning the hot weather in summer times. Sneakers are not worn in public, they are only used for sports. Nearly everybody in South Africa is wearing a pair of “veldt Schoome” for casual shoes which are soft safari boots23.

With regards to opening times in South Africa one can say that generally offices and stores are open Monday till Friday from around 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with an hour or a half for lunch. Late-night shopping is rare even in the cities. Most of the South Africans do not work over the weekend24. In Germany this is similar but in contrast to South Africa shops in Germany are open in the early evenings and on Saturdays.

Final remarks

Finally is to say that most parts of South Africa follow a western life style although they are influenced by black customs and values.

But in spite of this, South Africa definitely has got its own image which combines African values, western norms, speckles of Indian cultures and coloured influence. When dealing in business with South Africans one should always respect the past and the cultures and be aware of the rainbow coloured nation and all the facets that may occur.

Dealing with the differences

I think I would have no real problems with the foreign culture because I am both curious for the culture of South Africa and keen on getting to know the typical behaviour of people from another culture. I am rather excited about the South African people. And for that reason I will try to adapt the behaviour in their culture in a normal way (not in a ridiculous or exaggerated way) like I expect foreigners to do in Germany, too. This means I will try to behave as it is usual there.

Also important is my wish to go to South Africa voluntarily to get to know the people and their culture.

Often, people who had to leave their own country involuntarily and are forced to live in a foreign country are not willing to accept the foreign culture.

I read a few reports of students who have been to South Africa and those students all made the experience that South Africans are very interested to get to know you if you are from a foreign country, and mistakes will be forgiven more easily if you are a stranger.

I think it can be very interesting to converse with different colours and cultures if you have an open attitude and leave prejudices behind you.

Respect and a certain amount of intercultural knowledge like this will be very helpful and can lead to success in South Africa.

In my opinion it is very important to see the world with open eyes.


Duncan, Paul: Thomas Cook Reiseführer Südafrika, Droemer Knauer Verlag, 1996 Joyce, Peter: Reiseführer Kapstadt, Könemann Verlag, 1998

Mitchell, Charles: Passport South Africa, World Trade Press, 1998 http://www.learnaboutcultures.com


http://www.arts.uwa.edu.au/MotsPluriels/MP1300gm.html http://www.executiveplanet.com

http://www.globalassignment.com http://www.webofculture.com

http://sepdata.virtualave.net/sa1.html#life http://www.suedafrikainfo.de



http://www.kapstadt-magazin.de http://www.explore-africa.de http://www.joburg.org.za



1 www.auswaertiges-amt.de, Länder-und Reiseinformationen - Südafrika

2 http://www.arts.uwa.edu.au/MotsPluriels/MP1300gm.html

3 Mitchell, Charles: Passport South Africa page 23f

4 www.executiveplanet.com: South Africa, Chapter “Let’s make a deal”

5 http://www.globalassignment.com/10-22-99/southafrica.htm

6 www.executiveplanet.com: South Africa, Chapter “Let’s make a deal”

7 www.executiveplanet.com: South Africa, Chapter “Let’s make a deal” 4

8 www.executiveplanet.com: South Africa, Chapter “Appointment Alert”

9 www.executiveplanet.com: South Africa, Chapter “Appointment Alert”

10 www.executiveplanet.com: South Africa, Chapter “Appointment Alert” 5

11 www.executiveplanet.com: South Africa, Chapter “Appointment Alert”

12 www.executiveplanet.com: South Africa, Chapter “Appointment Alert”

13 http://www.webofculture.com/worldsmart/gesture_mid_af.html#SOUTH AFRICA

14 www.learnaboutcultures.com, Regions - South Africa

15 www.executiveplanet.com: South Africa, Chapter “Public Behaviour” 6

16 www.executiveplanet.com: South Africa, Chapter “Public Behaviour”

17 http://sepdata.virtualave.net/sa1.html#life

18 www.executiveplanet.com: South Africa, Chapter “Gift-Giving”

19 www.executiveplanet.com: South Africa, Chapter “Prosperous Entertaining”

20 www.executiveplanet.com: South Africa, Chapter “Prosperous Entertaining”

21 www.executiveplanet.com: South Africa, Chapter “Prosperous Entertaining” 7

22 www.executiveplanet.com: South Africa, Chapter “Business Dress”

23 www.executiveplanet.com: South Africa, Chapter “Business Dress”

24 www.executiveplanet.com: South Africa, Chapter “Appointment Alert”


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Cultural South Africa Germany




Title: Cultural differences between South Africa and Germany