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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!
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
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…