Navigating the world of etiquette is difficult enough in our own native language.
Our parents’ and teachers’ voices ring in our heads, “Shake hands!” “Always look a person in the eye!” “Smile!”
Little did we know, this is a set of skills that won’t necessarily transfer to other languages and cultures. We all have our own definitions of what being polite means, so cultural misunderstandings can occur.
Thus, the stereotype that Germans aren’t necessarily known for their warmth continues on.
You might have been guilty of saying, “They’re always serious and in a bad mood, and when they talk they just sound so grumpy!”
Is that the picture that comes to your mind when you think of speaking to Germans? Well, then it’s time to put those stereotypes aside!
What foreigners may perceive as being rude is only a little cultural misunderstanding.
Once you become familiar with German etiquette, you’ll realize that, with a few exceptions, Germans aren’t rude at all.
Your perception just needs a little adjustment—every culture has their own understanding of what “polite” means.
Follow these tips and learn the words and phrases provided, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a superpolite German speaker.
Tips to Get Started on the Right Foot
Go ahead and skip the small talk
As a language student, you should always keep in mind that behaviors considered right in one culture might be inappropriate in another one. With that in mind, getting to know a country´s customs should be a key part of your language studies.
For example, Germans tend to be very direct and straight to the point. They often skip the small talk, especially with strangers. Starting a conversation about the weather with the cashier in the supermarket is very uncommon and people might think you’re strange.
Know when to use Du or Sie
However, what Germans do place a lot of emphasis on is addressing people correctly, especially in formal situations or interacting with strangers or casual acquaintances.
You can address people formally by Herr/Frau (Mr./Ms.) + their last name (e.g., Herr Maier or Frau Huber). If they have a title (like “doctor” or “professor”), be sure you add this too (e.g., Herr Doktor Müller or Frau Professor Reiter).
There’s also a formal and informal version of the word “you.”
Du is used to address friends, family and younger people.
Kommst du heute Abend zur Party? (Are you coming to the party tonight?)
Sie is used in more formal situations or when talking to people you don´t know well. It’s always capitalized and conjugated as a plural word.
Kommen Sie morgen zum Meeting, Herr Maier? (Are you attending the meeting tomorrow, Mr. Maier?)
During recent years there’s been a tendency to reduce formality (especially among young people) and the use of Du has become more common. Listen to conversations between Germans and pay attention to how they use it.
If in doubt, call a person by their last name unless they introduce themselves with their first name and use the Sie until being offered Du.
Form polite German phrases correctly
Another key point for forming polite German phrases is the subjuntive II mode, which is, among many other uses, used to express wishes and form polite requests.
Ich hätte gerne ein(e)… (I would like a…)
Hättest du…? (Would you have…?)
Könnten Sie bitte…? (Could you please…?)
This tense softens the request, like the difference between the sentence “I want a soda,” and “I would like a soda.” If you want to sound extra polite, it’s best to add these types of sentences to your speaking repertoire (please).
How to Be Super Polite in German: Helpful German Words and Phrases
Make a Great First Impression: Meet and Greet in German
Whereas Hallo (Hello), Tschüß (Bye) and Wie geht es dir? (How are you?) are common among friends, you should make sure you remember the more formal greetings too. And never forget the handshake!
Guten Morgen! (Good morning!)
Guten Tag! (Good day!)
Guten Abend! (Good Evening!)
Wie geht es Ihnen? (How are you?)
Auf Wiedersehen! (Goodbye!)
Auf Wiederhören! (Goodbye! [on the phone])
Small Words That Make a Big Difference
Similar to English, the magic words Bitte (please) and Danke (thank you) are indispensable in formal and casual conversations.
Bitte also means “you’re welcome,” which can sometimes sound a bit confusing to German learners.
A: Könntest du bitte ein Photo von mir machen? (Could you please take a photo of me?)
B: Ja gerne! (Yes, of course!)
A: Danke! (Thank you!)
B: Bitte! (You’re welcome!)
Entschuldigung is another useful word to add to your vocabulary list since you’ll need it a lot.
Depending on the context, it can mean “Excuse me” or “I’m sorry” and is used in a range of different situations.
Entschuldigung, könnten Sie mir sagen wie ich zum Bahnhof komme? (Excuse me, could you tell me how to get to the train station?)
Entschuldigen Sie mich bitte für einen Moment. (Excuse me for a moment, please.)
Entschuldigung, es wird nicht wieder vorkommen. (I am sorry, it won’t happen again.)
The German phrase “I’m sorry” can also be translated with Es tut mir Leid’.
Es tut mir leid, es wird nicht wieder vorkommen. (I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.)
Could You Repeat That, Please? Polite Ways to Get Clarification
There are a number of ways to express that you didn’t understand what someone just said.
Entschuldigung, ich habe das nicht verstanden. (Sorry, I didn’t get that.)
Könnten Sie das bitte wiederholen? (Could you repeat that please?)
Könnten Sie bitte etwas langsamer sprechen? (Could you talk a bit slower, please?)
In less formal situations, you can simply use the phrase Wie bitte? (Sorry?)
More Useful German Phrases for Casual Conversations
While in Germany, you never know when you might need assistance with your German studies or request your new friend’s phone number. Be ready with these phrases!
Könnte ich bitte deine Handynummer haben? (Could I have your phone number, please?)
Hättest du morgen Nachmittag Zeit? (Would you be free tomorrow afternoon?)
Könntest du mir bitte mit der deutschen Hausaufgabe helfen? (Could you please help me with my German homework?)
Ich würde gerne auf eine Party gehen, möchtest du mitkommen? (I’d like to go to a party, would you like to join?)
Ich würde lieber ins Kino gehen. (I would prefer to go to the movies.)
Macht es dir was aus wenn mein Freund mitkommt? (Do you mind if my friend joins us?)
Sounding Polite over the Phone
German phone conversations can best be described as kurz und bündig (short and concise). Again, unless you’re talking to a very good friend, you usually skip the small talk and get straight to the point.
If you’re unfamiliar with the number that’s calling, it’s pretty common for Germans to answer their phone by simply stating their last name. Once more, it’s not an act of rudeness, it’s just the German way to pick up a phone.
Again, don’t forget to address the people the right way and use the subjunctive mood for polite requests.
Here are two examples of short German phone conversations, one between friends and one between business associates:
A: Hallo, Paul. Na wie geht’s? (Hello, Paul. How are you?)
B: Mir geht’s gut, danke. Ich wollte fragen ob du heute mit zur Party möchtest? Wir treffen uns um 8:00. (I’m fine, thanks. I want to ask you if you’d like to join us at a party? We meet at 8:00.)
A: Heute habe ich leider schon etwas vor. (Unfortunately I’ve already got (some) plans for today.)
B: Schade, dann ein anderes Mal. Tschüss! (What a pity. Well, another time! Bye!)
A: Tschüß. (Bye!)
B: Guten Morgen, Herr Maier. Hier spricht Christian Huber. Ich muss unser Meeting heute leider absagen. Könnten wir es auf nächste Woche verschieben? (Good morning, Mr. Meier. Christian Huber speaking. Unfortunately, I will have to cancel our meeting today. Could we postpone it to next week?)
A: Kein Problem, nächste Woche wäre meinerseits in Ordnung! (No problem, next week is ok for me!)
B: Vielen Dank, bis nächste Woche dann. Auf Wiederhören! (Thank you, see you next week then. Goodbye!)
A: Auf Wiederhören! (Goodbye!)
And there you have it! Use these German phrases and words to sound superpolite but super charming!
Don’t worry if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed. We all know that the key to learning a new language is practice, practice and practice.
Just make sure you take every opportunity to hone your German communication skills and you’ll be on the right track to becoming a superpolite German speaker!
Nicole Korlath is an Austrian Freelance writer and travel blogger.