Germans are not known as the most polite people on the planet, in fact the opposite is the case.
Rude, cold, and formal is how Germans are described quite often. There are a lot of blog posts and more blog posts on the rudeness of Germans. Those working in German customer service are apparently terribly impolite, even insulting or plain aggressive.
Germans have a different concept of politeness
What many don’t realise is that German politeness is a different concept and also fundamental to Germans. We want to tell you the facts about German politeness that you should know about.
The key factors are
- Addressing others using Sie in formal situations
- Getting straight to the point
- Use the subjunctive (Konjunktiv)
Politeness doesn’t make the top
Indeed, being polite doesn’t mean the world to Germans. Take German customer service for instance. Some people even swear you will find the rudest waiters and shop assistants they’ve ever come across in Germany.
Sitting in a cafe or restaurant, we’d rather have our food efficiently prepared and brought out to us as fast as possible, and it be of the best quality anyone can think of. For the best price you can think of too.
Certainly, it won’t go unnoticed if the waiter slams down the plate right in front of you without saying a word but hey, doesn’t the food taste delicious? And how fast it made its way to us! Yummy. I will be coming back here!
But there are situations where food isn’t going to distract from the need to be polite.
1) Sie vs. Du
The central elements of being polite in German are
- Identifying a formal situation
- Addressing people using the formal you
You address people in German formally when:
- Addressing someone you haven’t met,
- Addressing someone that seems to be older than you, or
- Addressing your boss at work
by using Sie (formal you) instead of du (informal you).
In a formal situation you will say things like this:
Guten Tag. Wie geht es Ihnen? (= Good day. How are you?)
Using the formal you (here in the dative case) is seen as being polite.
On the contrary, addressing your boss with the informal du is offensive and sinful behaviour (if you are obviously not a language learner any more). It’s so important, Germans even stick to the formal you when calling someone names. So please remember: If you call someone names, please do it using Sie, otherwise please run.
But there is more to the politeness of the German way than only using Sie in a formal setting.
2) Straight to the point please
Since we know about the basics now, we want to move on to more diverse situations.
I wonder what you would do in the following situation:
You’re walking along the streets of Berlin. You’ve been to Berlin before. You think you completely know the city. But in fact, you don’t know the city as well as you thought you did. Consequently, you get lost.
How do you ~politely~ ask someone the way to the nearest U-bahn station (subway)?
Being polite in English
Usually, if I get lost, I will approach someone walking past and say something like the following:
Excuse me. I think I got lost, and I was wondering if you know where the nearest subway station is? That’d be so helpful.
Or I will say:
Excuse me, I’m wondering if you could tell me where the nearest subway station is?
Using the formal you, our question translates to the following in German:
Entschuldung. Ich habe mich gefragt, ob Sie mir sagen können, wo die nächste U-Bahnstation ist?
You could also spy around and spark up a conversation with a stranger that looks like a local. Like just having a chat in a cafe before asking your pressuring question: You think you could tell me please – but only if it’s not too much of a hassle – how I get home?
Make me German
How will Germans get back on track? After finally realising woops I’m lost, I don’t know where I am, I will most likely do this:
Jump right at the next person that is walking past me, grab this person by the arm and scream (exaggerated a bit):
You could add an “excuse me” as in:
Yes, that’s all. Not even a formal Sie is required. There is no introduction either, no warning “Excuse me, I was wondering” … or “Excuse me, can you tell me where…”?
There will be no Achtung Achtung! I am approaching you and I will be asking a question.
Am I getting mugged?
The reason for that:
You don’t want to waste people’s time. Words without any purpose are useless words.
At least that is how it is seen from a German point of view. Why would you introduce that you are going to ask a question when you are going to ask that question anyway?
In addition to that, having a chat with random strangers is not the most common thing to do in Germany. Germans are definitely not the biggest small talkers. Especially not when it involves things about your daily routine or stories about your trip you just came back from last week.
Germans usually talk about their daily lives and daily routine with their family and friends.
Germans might even think you are about to mug them: “Why would anyone be so overly nice to me for no reason? Does this person want to trick me into something?” Or simply just steal their time: “I have somewhere to be and I need to be on time because I am German.”
3) Use the subjunctive
Here we have another real life example:
One of our students here at The Germanz asked me to revise an email to a German winery.
He was going to inquire about this flavourful wine he had read about online and whether it was in stock.
The email was written courteously and properly. Still, one sentence didn’t want to fit in with the overall polite tone of the email.
Ich habe mich gefragt, ob Sie mir sagen können, ob Sie den Wein “Hügelbiene” auf Lager haben? (= I was wondering if you could tell me whether you have wine “Hügelbiene” in stock?)
When we scratch off the fluffy and unnecessary introductory bits, we get this:
Haben Sie den Wein “Hügelbiene” auf Lager? (= Do you have the wine “Hügelbiene” in stock?)
The sentence already sounds more pleasing to German ears.
But it’s not yet all we are capable of:
We swapped Haben for Hätten, you may have noticed. Hätten is the so called subjunctive of Haben.
Subjunctive in English
Subjunctive? We use the subjunctive (der Konjunktiv), when saying
I could do something.
I would do it, if I could.
If I were you, I’d go.
Subjunctive in German
In fact, the subjunctive is what Germans choose to use rather than our introductory sentences in English (I am wondering …?, Can I ask you …?)
The subjunctive is also easy to form. Usually, you use the conjugated form of
würden plus an infinitive at the end of your sentence.
Ich würde nach Berlin fahren. (= I would go to Berlin.)
Wir würden ein Glas Wasser trinken. (= We would drink a glas of water.)
Sein (to be), haben (to have) and the modal verbs (können, sollen, wollen, etc.) form their own subjunctive forms.
Ich wäre dann soweit. (Lit.: I would be/was ready. =I am ready.)
Hätten Sie morgen Zeit? (Lit.: Would you have time tomorrow? = Do you have time tomorrow?)
Könnten wir morgen einkaufen gehen? (Lit.: Could we go shopping tomorrow? = Can we go shopping tomorrow?)
If you want to read more on how to form the subjunctive in German, you will find a concise explanation here.
No beating about the bush, just straight to the point implementing the subjective.
More real life examples
Here are a few more examples that show you how to be polite in German using the subjunctive:
Kann ich (bitte) den Stuhl haben? (= Can I have this chair please?)
sounds more polite using the subjunctive:
Könnte ich (bitte) den Stuhl haben? (= Could I have this chair please?)
Haben Sie (bitte) noch etwas Wasser? (= Can I have some water please?)
turns into the following sentence with the subjunctive:
Hätten Sie (bitte) noch etwas Wasser? (Literally: Would you have some more water?)
Ist es ok für dich, mir zu helfen? (Is it ok for you to help me?)
could also be expressed with the subjunctive:
Wäre es ok für dich, mir zu helfen? (Literally: Would it be ok for you to help me?)
Kannst du mir (bitte) helfen? (= Can you help me please?)
Könntest du mir (bitte) helfen? (= Could you help me please?)
using the subjunctive.
A word on bitte and please
Do you have to say bitte as in Kannst/Könntest du mir bitte helfen? (= Can you please help me?) or will it be ok to omit the bitte every now and again, or even completely?
You will bump into the evangelists promoting a mandatory bitte as well as the exact opposite, people who choose to leave it out. I believe bitte is not mandatory in German, but it also depends on the situation.
It’s not what you say but how you say it. Basically, you can turn any question into a compulsory instruction, only by applying a certain intonation. Gone will be the actual courtesy of bitte. You can read more on whether you should say bitte in this article.
My recommendation here:
If you want to play it safe, go for bitte.
Let’s recap everything. Be polite in German by doing the following:
- Addressing others using Sie in formal situations
- Getting straight to the point
- Use the subjunctive (Konjunktiv)
I wonder what you think about the German way of being polite? What do you think about German customer service, is it really that bad? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
9 replies on “3 quick tips to become the MacGyver of being polite in German“
Hi there !
There are a lot of true facts in this article ! I hope people will understand by reading it that German people are not “rude” like we think they are, but it’s just part of their culture and language. As it was said in this text, they don’t want to waste any time and it’s totally okay to ask them something without tons of polite sentences.
To give you an anecdote: a German colleague told me last time that she found my emails funny because I was always so polite (I’m French^^), and I always used a lot of different “tournures” to express a request or ask a question.
I asked her if she thought I should stop writing like this and she said “no, no, it’s just I’m not used to it”… 😉 I will never forget what she said and the good thing is that now I don’t feel bad if sometimes I only answer “ok”, or “wurde erledigt” in my emails!
Anyway, the German language is simple, that’s all you need to remember! Don’t make things more complicated and only ask what you want.
It’s so true, Germans don’t want to be rude, in fact getting straight to be point is seen as being polite. I am happy you got to appreciate the German “rudeness” in the end. Thank you so much for sharing your story!
Hilfreich und interessant, wie immer.
I’ve been living in Germany for a few years now and I’ve sort of absorbed this knowledge (using the subjunctive and not using polite English fluff like “I was wondering” or “could you tell me”) subsconsciously without realizing it. However something I haven’t been sure of is:
Every email seems to begin with “Hallo” or “Guten Morgen/Tag” and end with some form of “Grüße” however informal the email may be. I am on “du” basis with my colleagues. But they would never send/reply to an email without a salutation and a closing even if it’s otherwise a one or two word email, whereas I am tempted to just write one sentence replies if I can. (Of course, when I send an email / reply to someone on “Sie” basis I would never forgo the formal salutation and closing.) What’s your take on this?
Hi Lara, Glad you easily made the transition. With the emails I believe it’s because Germans learn about how to write letters properly more than once in school. Where to put your address, where to put the recipient’s address, of course it needs a subject line as well and so on, it’s serious business. And it might just have sunk in, so much so we have problems to not do it even in emails. When a bit of it casually crept into the German writing with the rise of the email (people would abandon the salutation as well as their closing, or even dismiss capital letters completely (total rebels!)), we were all reminded that emails are just digital letters which therefore also require the well known form of letters. And here we go, Germans feel that every email is actually writing a letter.
But it’s possible to skip salutation and sign offs. Maybe not in your first email or first response but it’s fine to do so with your second response and any time after that. I’ve done it numerous times myself and absolutely feel fine with someone else doing it in their responses (given it’s a ‘du’-workplace environment). Just give it a go. Start with leaving out the salutation in your second response to an email, but keep the closing, if you want to play it safe. I bet your Germans will follow. Let me know if it works. 🙂
Interesting, thank you. I have students asking me why would Germans answer the phone by saying their last names. And my idea was, because they want no nonsense – in case you got a wrong number, you’d know it right away, instead of asking for people that don’t live there, be asked back about whether they have the name right, etc. I really think it has to do with German efficiency. Straight and to the point. 🙂
I like the explanation and it’s so true as well, you’ll know straight away what’s going on. Thanks for shining some light on this (and for commenting of course). 🙂
I actually don’t find Germans being rude but polite and formal most of the time. As a newbie to this language Deutsch, I really find it hard and confusing using all this hätte instead of haben or wäre sein, könnten oder würden instead of kann and so on. The whole Deutsch language is really hard to learn and to understand but I am trying my best to learn it and understand it. I just started my VHS last December 02, 2015. I would like to thank you for your help explaining stuff in English. Also, thank you for this page. I am actually learning some.
Hallo Jene, Glad you find the posts helpful. Also happy you’re looking forward to the all the exciting things to come on your language journey. If you come across a topic you would like us to explain, just email me to [email protected]. Happy to help