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When I studied German in the early 90s, we were taught that an unmarried woman is a Fräulein, but I recently learned that Fräulein is offensive. We aren't all ugly Americans, and I don't want to fall in that category even accidentally!

What are other words or phrases that seem to have straightforward, innocent meanings but that may be off-putting to native German speakers?

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How would you envision a situation where you mistakenly use "Fräulein"? If a young woman says to you "Ich heiße Anna Huber.", would you just guess that she is not married? –  Phira Jun 4 '11 at 14:44
    
@thei: Maybe a relevant question is, is there a German equivalent of "Ms?" Some Americans would be offended as being addressed as "Miss." –  Tom Au Jun 14 '11 at 19:35
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@Tom In any situation where Ms. is applicable, you should use "Frau". –  Phira Jun 14 '11 at 19:38
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Basically, if you are an obvious foreigner, most women will assume that you call them Fräulein because you are using the conventions of your own country and not take offense. This might change if you insist on it after correction.

The same thing applies to many other faux-pas in social etiquette as long as they are honest mistakes. It is not the same thing as calling someone the German version of a**hole since I won't believe you that this is polite in the US.

It is a bit hard to answer your question because it is actually an English question as well: What polite English phrases are impolite/unused/misunderstood in German?

Something that you should look out for is that Americans can actually be "too friendly" for German speakers, as in superficially friendly and not meaning it. Your "polite" may be someone else's "hypocritical" and someone else's "honesty" can be "rudeness" for you. (But take this with a grain of salt because my knowledge of US norms is spotty.)

E.g. I will certainly not tell you that you are welcome to visit me if you come to my city if I don't mean it.

This is a great problem because people will perceive it as your character (and vice versa) and so they will not explain it to you.

I remember that language schools like Berlitz actually have courses on cultural interaction (so that US people can negotiate with Chinese, say).

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Differences in polite behaviour are nicely discussed here. –  Carsten Schultz Aug 7 '13 at 14:46
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