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When getting a coffee in Germany, occasionally the cashier would ask me "Zum Mitnehmen?"

Sometimes cashiers are in a friendly cordial mood, and other times they might be grumpy. That's how all humans beings are. But, having a perhaps not-so-happy person say forcefully "To go?" really struck me.

The reason is, that in English the choices of expressions would probably be:

  1. No question at all. Whatever "default" was implied.
  2. "Is this for here or to go?"
  3. "Is this for here …?"

Jumping immediately to the question "Is this to go?" (in English) puts extra emphasis on that option.

To explain how it sounds to me, imagine you are visiting someone's house as a guest. And they say to you, out of the blue, "Perhaps you'd like to leave now?"

You may corroborate this point, by imagining you go into a McDonalds in the USA, and the cashier asks suddenly and coldly "Is this to go?" or "To go?" They would not say that.

(Continuing the previous thought briefly, there's a difference regarding who says it. If a guest says, after staying for a while, "I think it's time for us to get going", that is perfectly normal. But for the host to say it is different.)

Do you think that "zum Mitnehmen", if said abruptly by the cashier, and without a smile, is still perfectly polite?

  • 1
    There's a certain pragmatic difference with regard to shortness in English and German. E.g., I was taught in school to avoid anwering just with "yes/no" in English, and instead use "yes, I do/can/...". Conversely, I'm a bit taken aback what could be wrong about "zum mitnehmen?". It's just a yes/no-question with real content. Politeness has already been done with "Hallo, einen Kaffee bitte" or whatever before. – phipsgabler Jun 18 at 14:23
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    It's still politer to ask about the default than to quietly assume as per your option one. Isn't that pretty much off-topic? – vectory Jun 18 at 18:07
  • Is it possible they only put lids on the cups when the order is to go? – Tom Mozdzen Jun 18 at 20:58
  • Germans talk less verbose than Americans. – Bernhard Döbler Jun 18 at 21:20
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    @TomMozdzen: While this is one possibility, you might also get a china cup instead of a paper/plastic variant in the not to go case. – guidot Jun 19 at 9:56
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It is polite or at least not impolite because they don't ask out of personal interest. In Germany it makes a difference if you eat/drink in a cafe or take it to go, because both options come with different taxes for the cafe. That means the cashier will need to enter this information while handling the register. Take it as German efficiency, if you like, that they sometimes just cut straight to the question. I personally never give it much thought and just answer

Nein, zum Hieressen.

or

Ja, bitte.

depending on my intentions.

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  • ... which also explains why the cashier cannot quietly assume a default in this particular question: if they assume low tax rate the tax office gets upset, if they assume high tax rate, the employer gets upset... – cbeleites unhappy with SX Jun 25 at 20:54
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The content of the question is perfectly polite. That is, whether they ask for the "stay" or the "leave" option does not imply a difference in politeness (or even hospitality) at all, in my opinion.

In fast food places (like McDonald's, as you suggested) or downtown cafés, I would indeed expect the cashier to ask immediately whether it is "to go" - simply because that's probably what most customers want to choose, especially if all they're buying is a drink. Sure, a few will eat in place, but why assume the unlikely?

Asking for confirmation about the most likely outcome is fastest in most cases. What is more, taking something away may imply some additional preparations, such as taking a bag or a new plastic cup.

The impression that the statement does not imply any impoliteness may be related to the fact that I see

imagine you are visiting someone's house as a guest

as a very different situation. You're not a "guest" in the sense of a personal, invited guest. You're "just" a customer. You go there to buy something. In most cases, the person at the check-out desk does not own the place, so they usually couldn't care less whether or not you stay.1

Now, the tone of the question can indeed border on the impolite - but in that case, "Zum Mitnehmen?" and "Zum hier Essen?" are absolutely the same again, both can (due to their brevity) come across as rather rude if spoken without a smile and in a grumpy way.


1: And if they were the owner, they would probably prefer you to leave, because the number of customers staying is limited by the available space, while the number of customers getting "to go" products is only limited by the (much higher!) check-out desk throughput.

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5

Given, that there are only two possibilities and a simple yes/no answer is everything required, I find the question neither impolite nor unusual - you are free to order with all details.

I also hear für hier/ zum hier essen (in case of a cake) and don't recognize zum Mitnehmen? as a proposal, that the cashier prefers to see you leaving.

Similarly, when ordering a bread: Geschnitten? is pretty equivalent to im Stück? and I see no connection to a dislike of slicing the bread for you.

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1

No, the entire behaviour is not perfectly polite.

As you elaborated yourself, people are people. And having an "abruptly saying without smile" also indicates that the cashier is currently not perfectly polite.

Nonetheless:

Asking only "Zum mitnehmen?" is quite enough as this mirrors the expectations of the cashier – that the majority wants the coffee to go thus the question is shortened. So he is doing his full job.

And the cashier usually has to enter a different tax depending on the answer, so assuming the majority wish speeds up the process - people with "to go" want to leave asap.

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