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As a thank you for the people hosting a party I brought them a little present. They said:

"Danke schön! Das wäre aber nicht nötig gewesen."

Shouldn't I have given them anything? Did I do something else wrong?

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Danke, das war bitter nötig! – user unknown Sep 3 '11 at 21:34
In Swabian: Des het's aber et 'braucht! – Ingo Sep 8 '11 at 10:37
up vote 20 down vote accepted

It's a phrase to express gratitude. It is an indirect acknowledgment that you intended the gift as a gift, and not for satisfying a perceived necessity ("nötig" comes from "Not", English "need" or "poverty").

The confusion probably comes from the literal translation "That was not necessary / unnecessary", which, as I understand it, is a defensive remark to an attack or insult of sorts.

Edit: The more idiomatic translation and English equivalent is probably "Oh, you didn't have to!", in a positive meaning.

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Good answer. I'd like to add that people often use this phrase even if they did expect you to bring a present. – Stefan Sep 3 '11 at 16:45
btw: The "correct" answer to "das wäre doch nicht nötig gewesen" is something along the lines of "aber das ist doch nur eine Kleinigkeit" or "nicht der Rede wert". – 0x6d64 Sep 4 '11 at 0:29
The mentioned defensive remark to an attack or insult would be "das war [jetzt] [aber] unnötig" in German. – OregonGhost Sep 5 '11 at 8:53
@Stefan: +1 Right! Who says Germans can't be Japanese :-) – Kage Sep 5 '11 at 20:42

It's just a polite phrase meant to convey that you in no way expected to receive a gift, frequently used even by people who did in fact expect one, but want to appear polite. The English equivalent is "Oh, you shouldn't have!"

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