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Sometimes I see translations of selbstbewusst as confident, arrogant or selfish. I would like to know if this word has a negative or positive denotation. If I call someone of selbstbewusst, is it a compliment or not?

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Wenn Du jemanden selbstbewusst nennst, dann solltest Du am besten wissen, ob Du es wertend verstanden wissen willst oder beschreibend, und wenn wertend, wie. –  user unknown May 27 '13 at 22:19
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8 Answers

Falls das Wort "selbstbewusst" heutzutage dabei ist, eine negative Konnotation anzunehmen, habe ich es als Muttersprachlerin noch nicht mitbekommen.

Dafür gibt es ja schon selbstzufrieden/arrogant/hochnäsig oder was auch immer. Das bedeutet etwas ähnliches, aber in negativerer Weise.

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Selbstbewusstsein aufbauen etc. is a keyword for many self-development sites and popular books. It's describing the very positive feature. The term is often used in philosophy to describe the state of being aware of yourself, your nature, needs and thinking process (See this wikipedia article).

It's really hard to use it in negative context, to be honest. Well, you can say that someone is self-aware of his needs and therefore egoistic. In the same way you can use words such as assertive in negative meaning. But it comes from people using terms such as self-aware or assertive to justify their egoistic behavior, and not from the core meaning of this words.

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Actually the real meaning of the word is more along the lines of self-conscious / self aware, but in recent years it has mostly been used a synonym for confident. A tipical example hereof are low-lifes acting over confident / cocky and being refered to or referring to themselves as selbstbewusst in a positiv way. This makes the whole expression quite paradox, as overestimating one's own abilities is the exact opposite of self-conscious / self-aware. Hence, I would say most uses of the term selbstbewusst are negativ, even if not intended by the person using the word.

If I call someone of selbstbewusst, is it a compliment or not?

While lower educated people do often use it as an honestly meant complement (e.g. you're not afraid of tackling this task), I would be very cautious if an intellectual superior used that word to describe you, as it may mean that you are lacking skills, but at the same time are bragging about begin the best.

To give you an answer to your question: It depends on the social (social class & education) context, but, contrary to the other answers given, it may well have a negativ touch.

A important quote from the wikipedia article on Selbstbewusstsein to back up my statements (please read the whole article, it also gives examples of Kant's and Hegel's holistic interpreations of the word, which do not only focus on the positiv side):

Die affirmative (positive) Konnotierung im allgemeinen Sprachgebrauch des Begriffs verstellt den reinen Wortsinn: Denn ein Modus des Selbstbewusstseins in diesem Sinne wäre beispielsweise nicht nur der Stolz, sondern ebenso die Scham.

Translation (feel free to improve):

The affirmative (positive) secondary meaning (connotation) of this term, which is used in common language, changes its pure literal sense: E.g. a mode of the term Selbstbewusstsein may not only be proudness, but also shame.

EDIT (some current uses of the term selbstbewusst, resulting from the discussion):

I found a Ph.D. thesis in the area of artificial intelligence from 2002. In chapter 3.2.6 Selbstbewusstsein is defined very broadly with no hint to any positiv or negativ side effects. You could summarize it, as Eugene said, as seiner selbst bewusst. This logically makes the term self-aware no "false friend" of selbstbewusst, as it is still used in its literal meaning.

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Comments? Here we go: selbstbewusst is not used "to make fun of people". Selbstbewusst is not differently used in different social classes. Selbstbewusst, furthermore, do not have different connotation when used by different social classes. And there isn't any negative touch in common use of the word. The rare exception are given above. Can't tell about the "real meaning in former times" but etymology wasn't asked in the question. Conclusion: -1. Sorry. –  Em1 May 27 '13 at 14:47
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We live in "these days". And we have to live and accept with what people understand in "these days". And I never lived in "other days" so I do not know any other meaning of *selbstbewusst". –  Em1 May 27 '13 at 14:59
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"These days"™ only refers to a whole sub generation misusing the word, which does not automatically make the correct meaning invalid. Selbstbewusst broken down is self-aware and is "wrongly" used as confident. Some social classes pick up expressions with less vetting, thus you have to differentiate between who is using the word. –  Franz Kafka May 27 '13 at 15:05
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Language is a very democratic thing... maybe the most democratic of all. So if everyone says "A", and mean "B" and 9 out of 10 understand "B" correctly, then A is probably "B". Luckily, in a democracy everyone is entitled to his or her own connotation. That said, you do yound very "selbstbewusst" with regard to your education and your intellect. Now, is that a compliment or an insult? I don't know... difficult to decide. –  Emanuel May 27 '13 at 16:19
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Ich glaube ich bin Franz Kafka ähnlicher Meinung, dass "selbstbewußt" heute vor allem als "selbsteingenommen" gebraucht wird - genau von den 90%, die auch Emanuel zu kennen scheint. Dass diese das auch noch positiv werten ändert nichts an der divergierenden Einschätzung was das Wort überhaupt bedeuten soll. Ein schüchterner, zurückhaltender und bescheidener Mensch kann sehr selbstbewusst sein - die Masse assoziiert aber mit selbstbewusst einen testosteronstrotzenden Büffel von Mann, der mit dem Kopf durch die Wand will und es wahrscheinlich auch hinbekommt. –  user unknown May 27 '13 at 22:28
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The answer is: Yes. If someone says you are "selbstbewusst" in 99% it's something positive.

Aside: People with the property "selbstbewusst" are human who are sure about their skills and are not afraid to go some risks.

"Selbstbewusstsein": "Knowledge of your self"

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Selbstbewusst may also refer to self-awareness, meaning the ability to get something straight in one's own mind. At an extreme extent this may lead to selfishness.

Still I hardly hear it being used for anything but confident in everyday language while living in Germany. The only common negative connotation was pointed out nicely by Em1.

So in conclusion I'd say that callin someone selbstbewusst can be regarded a compliment.

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+1 for mentioning self-aware!! –  Emanuel May 27 '13 at 16:12
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Selbstbewusst is chiefly approving.

Er präsentiert[=zeigt] sich sehr selbstbewusst.

If you want to imply that the confidence is rather negative you have to state that the confidence is exaggerated. This is possible by simply saying that the confidence is too much:

Er zeigt sich zu selbstbewusst.

Alternatively you can say that the confidence conveys arrogance or similar:

Sein selbstbewusstes Auftreten wirkt manchmal eher arrogant.

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+1: "zu selbstbewusst" has a clear negative connotation. As almost all instances of "zu ___". –  Joachim Sauer May 27 '13 at 10:51
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@Joachim: ausser wenn die Dame sagt "zu mir" :) –  Emanuel May 27 '13 at 16:11
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Context is everything and I'm not a native speaker, so as a result I most likely would consider the entire sentence before concluding as to whether the word's connotation is positive or negative.

EDIT: However, two native speakers have said that they have rarely heard the word with a negative connotation, so take our answers with a grain of salt; it could have a negative connotation, but rarely ever does.

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then this word can have both denotations, positive and negative, depending of the context? –  user42912 May 27 '13 at 8:08
    
Depending on the sentence in which the word is used, I would believe so. –  Dustin May 27 '13 at 8:10
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I have rarely (maybe even never) heard this word in a negative connotation. –  heinrich5991 May 27 '13 at 8:39
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@user42912 No, it never has a negative DEnotation. Denotation is the dictionary definition of a word, and I doubt you will find any dictionary that gives "arrogant" or "selfish" as part of the definition. By the way, many people -- though obviously not you -- are tripped up by the false friend "selbstbewusst" <--> "self-conscious", just something to keep in mind perhaps. –  Eugene Seidel May 27 '13 at 11:57
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What "hoax"? If you know the meaning of the word "self-conscious" then you know that it is not congruent with the meaning of selbstbewusst. However, many people wrongly assume that it is. –  Eugene Seidel May 27 '13 at 17:13
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Generally, "selbstbewusst" has a positive connotation and I've rarely heard it used in a negative way.

It could be used as an euphemism for arrogant or selfish, however. Tone and context would help you decide if that's the fact.

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There's nothing wrong with this Answer, but 13 upvotes in three hours? Come on. Is this some kind of insider joke that I'm not getting? –  Eugene Seidel May 27 '13 at 12:05
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@EugeneSeidel: this question has found its way onto the Stack Exchange Hot Questions list. That usually inflates the vote-count quite considerably. (I fully agree with your comment, by the way). –  Joachim Sauer May 27 '13 at 12:16
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