German Market Research Surveys: Cultural Insights and Translation Tips
Updated: Oct 9
Official Name: Federal Republic of Germany
Population: 82.7 million
Official Language: German
Currency: Euro (€)
GDP: 4 trillion USD
Area: 357,376 sq. km. (137,983 sq. mi.)
Germany, in many ways, is Europe’s economic powerhouse. From manufacturing to financial services, Germany is a leader in multiple industries. Not only is Germany the fourth largest economy in the world by nominal GDP, but it is also the largest national economy in Europe. If you’re a market researcher whose end clients want to expand into the German market, there are some things you’ll want to consider when designing your surveys, such as privacy laws, ethnicity, and translation. By following these best practices, you’ll be off to a good start and ensure that you’ll get quality and reliable data from your German research respondents.
One of the biggest concerns in Germany surrounding market research is privacy. While the Bundesdatenschutzgesetz, “Federal Data Protection Act,” has been in effect for decades, Germans are generally private for a number of other reasons. Their Nazi and East-German communist pasts, for example, during which the Gestapo and Stasi spied on its citizens and encouraged people to inform on their neighbors, helped shape this general attitude toward privacy. But that’s only a piece of the puzzle. The more recent revelation that the NSA was spying in on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s telephone conversations sparked huge controversy throughout Germany, and has led many Germans to become a little more leery about sharing information. It’s especially important, if you want to get back reliable data, that you do two things: gain your respondents’ trust and follow the Bundesdatenschutzgesetz, which states that:
“Persons employed in data processing shall not process or use personal data without authorization (confidentiality). On taking up their duties such persons, in so far as they work for private bodies, shall be required to have an undertaking to maintain such confidentiality . . .”
“The data subject’s right to information (sections 19,34) and to correction, erasure or blocking (sections 20, 35) may not be excluded or restricted by a legal transaction.”
The quoted section essentially establishes the illegality of respondents revoking their right to privacy. In other words, as a market researcher, you’ll only be able to use and process the data you receive for the specific study you’re working on.
Talking about Money In German Market Research Surveys
Another area where Germans are private is money. According to an article explaining why roughly 80% of all transactions in Germany are done in cash, “Germans like the anonymity of cash, in keeping with their general enthusiasm for tightly protecting privacy.” Friederike Mast, a Language Intelligence associate based in Frankfurt, says that people in Germany generally dislike discussing money. “The higher the amount, the less likely someone will be willing to talk about it. It is, for example, quite rare that people openly share how much they make or how much they paid for a house or a car.” That doesn’t mean you can’t ask questions about money or household income in your surveys. But the key is reassuring your respondents that their privacy won’t be breached and that the information they provide you and your team remains anonymous.
Germany is a very diverse country. In fact, it’s the second most popular migration destination in the world, after the United States. This has been especially apparent over the past couple of years due to the crisis in Syria and the hundreds of thousands of people seeking refuge in Germany and other European countries. But migration in Germany has gone back decades. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s the German government, in an attempt to redevelop its labor force, opened its borders to the Italians, Spaniards, Greeks, and Turkish to be Gastarbeiter, or “guest workers.” This happened in part because much of the German labor force were either deceased from the war or in POW camps. Many of these Gastarbeiter wound up staying. As Germany began to rebuild, increasing numbers of people immigrated to Germany, resulting in a vibrant melting pot of cultures and ethnicities. But as a market researcher you’ll have to be careful: talking about ethnicity is considered by many to be taboo (a fact owing to Germany’s past). Not only that, but it’s prohibited by the federal government to classify people by ethnic or racial groups, so it’s advised to leave questions like these out of your screeners and surveys entirely.
Translating Surveys into German
German is known for its complex and difficult-to-learn structure. It’s a language that not only makes heavy use of the passive voice, but is also riddled with formality and different forms of address. There’s a difference for example, when you say du, “you,” and Sie, “you.” One is informal and the other is formal. According to Friederike Mast: “This poses a particular problem when surveys are targeted to different audiences. I recently worked on a survey that both parents and their kids were supposed to answer. The client did not want to reprogram the entire survey and therefore chose to use only the formal address, arguing that many children would go through the survey together with their parents. Still, addressing a kid with ‘Sie’ sounds very, very odd to the German ear. When surveys like these are translated, they are—for grammatical reasons—best phrased as two separate sentences. One for parents, one for children. Inserts hardly ever work.” The real key to translation is communicating and working with your language services provider so that you don’t run into common translation pitfalls and so that you can prevent any unexpected delays.