Why ‘Germans Are Rude’ Posted by Constanze on Nov 13, 2015 in Culture, Language
I recently read an article called “How To Say ‘This Is Crap’ In Different Cultures”. It highlights the differences in how the British talk compared to other European nationalities – Germans included.
The article states that the Germans, Dutch and other nationalities are more direct than the British. While the British use what the article calls ‘downgraders’ to soften their criticism (for example, by saying ‘That’s an interesting idea, but could you, perhaps, think about tweaking this part slightly?’), Germans and other, more ‘direct’ nationalities use what it calls ‘upgraders’. These ‘upgraders’ are words that put emphasis on a criticism – words such as strongly, absolutely or totally. I’ve linked to the article so you can read the whole thing yourselves, and I suggest you do, as it’s quite interesting and makes some valid points. There is an amusing story in there about a German who almost got fired by his English boss for misinterpreting his instruction to ‘think about’ changing something at work – by telling him to ‘think about’ changing it, his boss actually meant ‘change it or else’. But the German employee took this to mean he could actually think about it and then choose either option, so he considered it, and decided against the change. Needless to say, his boss wasn’t impressed!
Many times I have had English people tell me that they think Germans are either rude or cold. Before reading this article, I never realised the extent to which this was down to language differences. As someone who has grown up with both, I agree that there is a difference in the way the Germans and the Brits deliver criticism and opinions. And I can now see how this is down to language use, too.
Ordinary German, never mind the language used in delivering criticism and opinions, is often more direct than British English. Here are some ordinary German sentences with their English translations (thanks to The German-Speaking World for these excellent examples):
Gibst du mir die Kassette? – Would you give me the cassette tape (please)?
Ich bekomme den Steak. – I’ll have the steak (please).
Sagen Sie uns bitte sofort Bescheid, wenn… – Please let us know as soon as possible if…
Now here they are again with their more literal translations.
Gibst du mir die Kassette? – (Will you) Give me the cassette tape?
Ich bekomme den Steak. – I’m having/getting the steak.
Sagen Sie uns bitte sofort Bescheid, wenn… – Please tell us immediately if…
These literal translations hopefully reveal the directness of the German language a little better. As you can see above, in German the ‘please’ is implied, though it is not always said. That is why, when a German speaker ‘translates’ these sentences into English, they may not always come across as overly polite to an English person. While the British often use the phrase ‘let us know as soon as possible’, for instance, the Germans are more likely to say ‘tell us immediately’. It might sound blunt in English, but rest assured, it sounds quite polite in German.
There is far more to say on this topic, but I’ll leave that for a follow-up post. What do you think so far? Do you find German more direct than English? Does that make it sound rude to you? Leave your thoughts in a comment!
Getting to the point – German upgraders
For a direct approach in German, add in words like:
absolut (absolutely/totally): Das ist absolut falsch (That is absolutely wrong)
komplett (completely): Das ist komplett falsch (That is completely wrong)
sicherlich (surely): Das ist sicherlich falsch (That is surely wrong)
wirklich (really): Das is wirklich falsch (That is really wrong)
sofort – Immediately
Softening the blow – German downgraders
For a gentler approach in German, use phrases like:
Könnten Sie bitte… – Could you please…
Es ist eine gute Idee, aber… – It’s a good idea, but…
Machen wir es vielleicht so? – Maybe we can do it this way?
Ja, doch, aber… – Yes, that’s true, but…
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Very interesting! I had never thought of this before. I wonder if the German tendency to say, for example, when offering help, “Kann ich,” (rather than “Darf ich”} is related to this. In English we were always taught to say, “May I help you?” “Can I help?” is considered a bit ruder, less elegant. I suppose that neither way of asking in English makes much literal sense. “Do I have the ability to help you?” / “Do I have permission to help you?” We mean, “Will you allow me to help you?”, but hardly anyone speaks that way.
@Allan Mahnke I work in customer service in England and we get taught to say ‘Can I help?’, so it doesn’t sound rude to me. But you’re right about it not really making sense. A few times I have some ‘clever’ customers reply back to me with ‘Yes, you can.’ Well, obviously I can… But I can hardly shout ‘COME HERE!’ or ‘NEXT!’ down the queue, can I?
If you have ever been in the left lane on the Autobahn and not going fast enough you will know what rudeness is!
Very good article! I think it boils down to the fact that all cultures are a little different from each other, and we should embrace these differences instead of being offended by them. When I first moved to Germany (from the USA), I admit that I found the directness of the Germans a little off-putting. The first time I asked a cashier if they accepted credit cards, she snapped “nein” and that was the end of that conversation. In the US, the cashier would have softened her “no” with something like, “oh, no, I’m sorry, we do not”. While it took a little getting used to, and the German directness was fodder for many funny anecdotes shared around the dinner table, I actually started to appreciate their directness. There was never any confusion about the intention or true meaning of the message, and frankly, it felt genuine and more sincere. Yes, the Germans lack the (over)friendly customer service found in the US, but ultimately, if you ask for help at a German store, restaurant, or hotel, the German employees are still helpful with the appropriate amount of pleasantness for human interaction. Germans are NOT rude, just different from us and vice versa. My accent so obviously gives me away as an American who is struggling with the German language. I think the fact that almost 99% of my interactions with the Germans ended with the German speaking English to me actually speaks volumes to their true courtesy. I never asked them to speak English, and they could have let me flounder my way through the conversation, but they were thoughtful enough to help me of their own volition – that’s the exact opposite of rude!
@Angela Glad you enjoyed it, Angela! I think people just love using the stereotype of the ‘rude, uptight German’ without a second thought. It has always bugged me, which is why I was so happy I could share the linked article and write about it here. 🙂
Alkspa, you’ll find that throughout ALL of Europe, not just on the German motorways because the left lane is supposed to be for PASSING, not cruising, even in the US. Therefore, if you’re going too slow or refuse to move over when someone is flying up behind you, then YOU are the one who is impeding the smooth flow of traffic, and that is extremely selfish, inconsiderate, and rude.
Loved this article. It actually helped explain British English to me, which has often struck me as so roundabout as to be incomprehensible – *what* are they getting at?! Why can’t they just ask/tell you what they want?! Now I understand it a *little* better.
I would NEVER in a million years dare venture near that lane; I don’t have a death wish.
I was unsettled to realize how central a role words like absolut, komplett, sicherlich, play in my spoken vocabulary. I might have added genau. I thought I had just been an aggressive American, but perhaps I come by it genetically.
@Allan Mahnke Which lane do you mean, Allan?
This is so true! We are not rude at all, we just express our politeness differently. Translating literally from English into German might even make you sound rude from a German point of view! I’ve put together a little guide on German mannerism, if you’re interested: https://www.thegermanz.com/3-quick-tips-become-macgyver-polite-german/ Thank you for this awesome blog post. Finally, the truth is being told.
Constanze, it’s das Steak 🙂
I think one subtlety of politeness that German does have often gets lost in translation. Modal particles, called “flavouring words” by one grammarian, can soften commands or statements, and unless one’s English is really good and idiomatic, a German won’t know how to translate them so just drops them. “ja” “mal” “denn” “doch” “eben” etc are really tricky to convey, and English often does the same job with emphasis and melody.
Kauf doch einen neuen Boiler! is a suggestion, not a command, akin to “Why don’t you buy a new boiler?”, but a German with 80% English will probably just translate “Buy a new boiler!”.
“mal” kind of means “some time, at a time of your own choosing, I’m not pushing you!”, similarly.
@Florian Very good point, Florian! The phrase ‘Kauf doch einen neuen Boiler’ is a great example, especially since ‘doch’ is difficult to translate into English and would almost certainly not come across. Also it did occur to me that maybe it should be ‘das Steak’, but all of those sentences are from a book (they aren’t my own) so I didn’t change anything in them. :/
I read the article linked and found it very interesting and funny!
As a British English speaker myself, though a South African, I can certainly remember many times carefully arranging downgrader words to get the result I required. But as quite a blunt person, personality-wise, I have used many an upgrader word to express my thoughts. 😉
after 20 years in the UK, I can tell a story or two about my learning process in this area!
I have come to think the difference is also in the intonation – Germans go down a notch when serious (or worse: annoyed/angry) – whereas the British keep their intonation light/up – the latter, I, of course, call ‘fake’ – I would, wouldn’t I.
@Barbara Schaefer Very good observation! I think that’s certainly true in a lot of cases!
“den Steak”- ist das bayrisch?
Es müsste eher “Ich bekomme das Steak.” heissen.
Ansonsten guter Artikel, danke!
@Andrea Nein, Andrea – diese Saetze sind von einem Buch! Ich wollte ‘den Steak’ nicht aendern, weil es nicht meinen Satz ist, aber ich aendere es jetzt, weil es verwirrend ist. Danke.
After having lived in the US for a long time, I do prefer the directness of German, but can see how it sounds rude when not having lived in the culture or translate from say a google.
For me directness and clear language is more efficient and also prevents misunderstandings much better.
I am British and I live in Germany. I have actually found that in shops Germans -although are more direct than the British -are rather pleasant, wishing me a good day and if I ask “do you take visa” I get “Visa, nicht” or rarely “Visa leider nicht.”
As a British speaker who used to do communications I think some of the seeming indirectness is in the fact the British expect you to know without being told, we joke the same way too! We don’t like to have to point out that we are joking, which is why we do sarcasm better than anyone else in the world. Our thinking is “I’ll just leave this here” and then what you do with it is up to you.
For me the fact I have had to tell you to think about something should inform you that I can’t be happy about what you did. The British really do not like to be rude you see but you will get those (like myself) who will make it clear to you but again in a polite way a good example is the phrase: “I see what you’re saying” that means you are about to be told why you are absolutely wrong…and you are going to like it. British people feel annoyed if they have to be direct with you because they feel embarrassed to be pointing out the fact you have made a mistake and would hate to draw attention to it further by actually spelling it out to you. I avoid this by giving feedback and an action list (worded as suggestions) and then ending with but it was a great attempt or some such, “hey don’t take it too bad” phrase.
Another thing we have in England that I don’t see much elsewhere is the phrase: “Do you mind?” which means: “Go and do it” but we don’t like to be rude: “Do you mind passing me the pen?” It means: “Pass me the pen” but it is just a nicer way to ask.
In South London where I am from often please is implied and not used: “Sort me out with a packet of gum mate” or “Do you sell magazines here?” this would often be followed by a “nice one, cheers” or “okay thanks mate” or “alright cheers take it easy” again politeness is implied.
They don’t like to speak English