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I'm having a bit of difficulty with discerning the difference between the two words "auftreten" and "erscheinen" when it comes to describing the likeness or behavior of something, in particular, when somebody "appears" in a certain way. Let me give two examples:

  1. Wenn ich in die Besprechung gehe, will ich selbstsicher auftreten/erscheinen.

  2. Van Rompuy möchte auch erreichen, dass einzelne Regierungschefs zu Besuch in Peking oder Washington nicht mehr nur die nationale Agenda vorbringen, sondern auch als Europäer auftreten.

Are "auftreten" and "erscheinen" interchangeable in 1? If so, it doesn't seem to fit in example 2. That is, simply to "appear" as a European doesn't seem like what is trying to be conveyed here.

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The core meaning of erscheinen is "to appear, to show as" - It's about the perception that other people have, maybe of your competence or self-confidence. You cannot "erscheinen" if no one watches.

The core meaning of auftreten is to "go on stage" - It's about what you do and you can do that without any observer at all, even when rehearsing in front of the mirror.

The second might lead to the first depending on how credible your Auftreten is.

  • Internetauftritt - the digital equivalent of going on stage – cardamom Jul 31 '17 at 18:24
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Just because both verbs would work in 1 does not mean, that they mean the same. You could also say will ich selbstsicher sein or will ich selbstsicher reden and all of them make sense but do not necessarily mean the same (in deed they really mean totally different things).

selbstsicher auftreten means: I want to ACT self confident, it is an active way of influencing my appearance.

selbstsicher erscheinen is normally the consequence of being confident. It is how others see me. Although I might TRY to act self confident, others might still see me as being shy.

In your second example the second meaning would work as well, but it would mean something totally different. If you say als Europäer erscheinen, then it means they seam to be european. This usually implies that they are not. What the sentence wants to say is: They should ACT as Europeans, so that everyone knows where they belong / which mindset they follow.

You are right, that one of the several meanings of both verbs can be translated into "appear". But they translate into different meanings of the verb appear.

Auftreten can be translated into the meaning of coming somewhere:
I appear on stage

Erscheinen has the meaning of seem to be something:
You appear to be wrong.

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"Auftreten" literally means "to step out." Figuratively, it means to make oneself available for viewing, or as others put it, "to go on stage."

"Erscheinen" is how you "shine" or appear, when you "auftreten." That's why they are used as substitutes, even though they are not synonymous.

"Erscheinen" is the end result. "Auftreten" is the "set-up."

To use your examples:

  1. Wenn ich in die Besprechung gehe, will ich selbstsicher erscheinen. If you make a speech, you want to "shine," not merely "show up."

  2. Van Rompuy möchte auch erreichen, dass einzelne Regierungschefs zu Besuch in Peking oder Washington nicht mehr nur die nationale Agenda vorbringen, sondern auch als Europäer auftreten. Van Rompuy, a European, wants to "bill" himself as such, even though he doesn't want to present (erscheinen) the Agenda.

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