Cultural Differences – Luxembourg

Luxembourg is a small, proud, tradition-conscious country, but also a cosmopolitan and very European country. Almost half of the population comes from 163 different countries. In addition, there are about 177,000 border crossers who live in neighbouring France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. All in all, 370,000 foreigners work in Luxembourg every day.

In Luxembourg, you hardly ever have to deal only with native Luxembourgers, but also with numerous colleagues and business partners from many different European and non-European cultures.

Multilingualism

Luxembourg’s multiculturalism is also expressed in the country’s multilingualism. Luxembourg has a total of three official languages: Luxembourgish, French and German. Luxembourgish is the national language, French the legislative language and, together with German, the official EU language. In contrast to other multilingual countries, linguistic usage in Luxembourg is not territorially structured, but functional or according to economic or social areas. Various industries  have language preferences. The service sector, the hotel and catering industry as well as trade are generally very French oriented. English and German, on the other hand, dominate the manufacturing and financial sectors.

If someone answers the phone in Luxembourgish, it is common practice for foreigners to ask briefly whether they can also switch to German, French or English. If the other person does not speak the desired language, someone will usually be found quickly who can take over the conversation.

Small talk

In Luxembourg, too, business telephone calls or meetings should be started with a little small talk. However, when getting to know each other for the first time, stick to rather harmless topics and only enquire about the family or how things are going at the moment.

The extent to which your Luxembourgish business partners or colleagues indulge in small talk strongly depends on which country they come from. A Portuguese or Italian will like to address much more personal issues from the outset and extend the lively small talk time to establish a certain basis of trust before devoting oneself to business. Luxembourgers, Germans and Dutch, on the other hand, are more used to strictly separating their professional and private lives. They tend to be reserved initially; small talk is kept to the minimum and does not play a significant role in the atmosphere of the subsequent more factual business discussions. As soon as you get to know each other a little better, however, these new business partners or colleagues will also “thaw out” and be much friendlier and more open.

Therefore, the motto for the first business meetings in Luxembourg is: first wait and see which topics the new business partners or colleagues will address and what the mood is during the meeting. Don’t “take the lead” right away, but first find out who you’re dealing with. Due to the multicultural composition of many Luxembourg companies and the resulting differences in establishing new business contacts, you might, as an outsider, put your foot in it with either too much personal small talk or by being too buttoned-up.

Be open and friendly, but if possible act in the same way as your counterparts. Get to know each other personally as a basis for potential business contacts (Southern Europeans, South Americans, Asians) and take a purely factual approach (Germans, Dutch, Luxembourgers). This way you will always be on the safe side.

Greeting and address

You should be similarly flexible when it comes to the question of whether you should first introduce yourself with your surname or whether you should use first names right from the start. On the one hand, this depends on the language in which you communicate. In both German and French, a distinction is made between the (for professional contacts appropriate) formal you (Sie/vous) and the informal you (du/tu) for private contacts. English, however, has no linguistic differentiation between a formal or informal you and you usually switch to first names quite quickly. Accordingly, business people in Luxembourg are conditioned according to their native language and culture; this will influence the level of formality in their company: Germans who speak English may still cling to a formal Mr. or Ms., while Dutch people who speak German will quickly switch to first names. Corporate culture is influenced strongly by this.

So if someone introduces you as “Mr. Schmidt”, you should stick to this form of address and not simply change to first names, because this might be too informal for your interlocutor. Here, too, it is important for outsiders to be able to engage flexibly in the respective conversational situation. Just wait and see how you are addressed and act accordingly.

If you later notice that the atmosphere is very relaxed and familiar, you can of course take the initiative and suggest omitting the formal Mr./Ms. Due to the daily language mix and the multicultural environment, everyone working in Luxembourg has learned to be flexible!

Style of communication

You should be adaptable in all business communication in Luxembourg because you will encounter many different styles of communication in such a crosscultural environment. Keep a close eye on how your business partners communicate and interact with each other. When making initial contact, express yourself as diplomatically and carefully as possible in order to avoid putting your foot in your mouth – as long as you are not sure whether your counterpart is used to direct and open communication or not.

The communication style of native Luxembourgers tends to be more reserved and formal. Few emotions are shown in professional life and communication is generally purely objectiv. However, you should be prepared for straightforward communication in professional situations. Both the Luxembourgers and the Germans, Dutch and, to a certain extent, the French represented there will freely say what they think, even if it is negative. Honesty, sincerity and frankness are highly valued values here. Ruthless openness, even when it overshadows the relationship with the other, is driven by an inner sense of duty.

The often resulting harsh criticism is usually meant objectively, i.e. a strict separation between the matter concerned and the person involved. It is possible to critically break down a colleague’s work in a meeting and then leave the conference room as “best friends”. Similarly, it is possible for lower-level employees to openly question their supervisor’s approach or complain about something because it does not damage the relationship.

Ratings are meant exactly as they are said: What is good is called “good”, and what is bad is called “bad” – without looking for mitigating formulations, such as “That’s not bad at all”, if the person doesn’t really mean it that way. The only important thing is to keep the words factual and not to attack anyone personally. The latter would jeopardize a good relationship.

In many other cultures that you may encounter in Luxembourg, however, criticism is never openly voiced, as it is per se detrimental to good interpersonal relations. In these cases, there is barely any distinction between the matter and the person. The hierarchical gradient therefore also leads to supervisors criticizing their employees, albeit more in private, but never employees questioning the words of their supervisor or discussing them critically.

If you feel more criticized by Luxembourg interlocutors than you are accustomed to from your home country, you should bear in mind that they do not want to attack you as a person but feel that the criticism they have levelled at the matter is constructive. Critically examining and questioning the topic in question from all sides is considered to be an active contribution from a Luxembourgish, German or Dutch point of view; it is simply intended to make everything better. The matter itself is therefore always more in the foreground than the persons connected with it. Therefore, try not to take criticism of your work personally. Do not react in an offended manner but accept the suggestions. Be ready to talk.

Body language

As you might suspect, body language also depends strongly on from which country your interlocutor in Luxembourg is originally from. You can assume that native Luxembourgers or Germans gesticulate much more reservedly and reservedly than French or Italians, for example, who often speak with their hands.

Keep an arm’s length away from the other person during the conversation but try not to move too far back if someone approaches you or touches you during the conversation.

These non-verbal differences in interaction are culturally shaped and occur unconsciously.

Meetings

In Luxembourg, meetings are held in order to develop ideas or projects as well as to share information. They are held according to a certain international standard. Depending on the corporate culture, the framework is more or less formal. As a rule, written invitations to the meeting are sent in good time, and at larger meetings the date is often confirmed shortly before the meeting. If possible, try and find out in advance who will be attending the meeting, which languages and nationalities will dominate and prepare accordingly. It can be helpful to ask in advance in which language the meeting will be held and whether participants can translate for you.

Meetings start punctually and end relatively punctually. An agenda is often welcome but is not necessarily worked through consistently. You can assume, however, that the topics on the agenda will also be discussed in the meeting, although not always in the intended order.

A certain joy of debate can also be felt in meetings. Depending on the respective style of communication of the nationalities present, things are more or less openly addressed and discussed. In companies with a strong hierarchical structure, it is more likely that the superior will make the final decision, while in flatter structured companies, discussions will be ongoing until an agreement is reached.

If a meeting is held in English, you should not consider it an insult or exclusion if two or three Luxembourgers suddenly switch to Luxembourgish or French. Luxembourgers are often not aware of doing this as they are used to constantly switching between languages in their everyday lives. There may be many reasons for this change of language, such as the reference to a matter previously discussed in Luxembourgish. Simply wait for the conversation to end and then ask that what has been said be repeated in English. Do not assume per se that you were intentionally excluded from the conversation. Of course, this can also be the case, as Luxembourgers are well aware that very few foreigners speak their language. Even then you should simply ignore it and not react in an unfriendly way.

Depending on the company’s practice, a summary written protocol may be sent out after a meeting, specifying not only the decisions made but also the next steps for individual departments or persons.

Presentations

You’ll do well with figures, data and facts at a presentation in Luxembourg as a fact-oriented approach is the rule. Nevertheless, you should not neglect the relationship level by, for example, saying a few friendly words to those present at the beginning, then engaging in some harmless small talk afterwards or being available for questions.

If you give a presentation in English, you should speak slowly and clearly. Note that English is a foreign language for many in Luxembourg and is only the fourth language after Luxembourgish, French and German for native Luxembourgers.

It may also be advisable to offer your presentation slides as well as handouts and other accompanying materials in two or three languages, unless all participants have a common working language.

Negotiations and decisions

Depending on the hierarchical structure of a company based in Luxembourg, decision-making powers are also distributed. So make sure you are actually negotiating with the right people. However, even if only representatives of the middle level are present without decision-making authority initially, they can still be influential. It can’t hurt to have a good connection to all the people you know in an organization during ongoing negotiations.

There is a tendency to negotiate formally and in detail in Luxembourg, but the relationship aspect also plays a role. Perhaps you should stick to the motto: Tough on the job, soft towards the person. Negotiate respectfully, on an equal level and flexibly. Always keep an eye on which nationalities are sitting at the negotiating table and adjust your communication behavior accordingly.

With the presence of the EU institutions and the international financial community, you can rest assured that Luxembourg companies will have access to excellent legal advice and will draw up detailed contracts accordingly.

Business meals and after work socializing

Business meals are part of everyday life in Luxembourg. There will be both working lunches at lunchtime, during which the topics from the conference room will be continued or a joint project discussed, and business dinners in the evening purely to cultivate relationships. These evening events usually start at 20.30 and last several hours. They may take place in good restaurants or at home. It is also common to get together with colleagues after office hours.

Delicious food plays an important role in Luxembourg. There is a lot of gourmet food and a lot of alcohol in the country. Drinking good wine for dinner is not only the norm in the evening, it is often drunk during lunch. Restaurant bills are correspondingly high and are paid by the host.

Depending on the nationalities represented, the entertainment can be very lively. Heavy discussions are possible, which do not usually jeopardize the business friendship itself. People simply enjoy arguing and say goodbye afterwards with an even closer embrace.

Luxembourgers also like to have political discussions and will openly say what they think and mean. Even at business lunches, issues such as abortion, religion or sexual orientation can arise, something that is taboo in many other countries. Don’t take such “verbal attacks” personally! You will be expected to participate in the discussion and will be eagerly asked for your point of view. No matter what you have to say: Your personal opinion will be accepted.

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