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I was wondering if somebody could help me understand the difference and correct usage of the words "selbstständig" and "eigenständig". Looking in the dictionary, it seems they often give the same definition of "independent(ly)", but the examples given suggest that there may be some difference. I was wondering if I could offer my guess as to the difference, as well as some examples:

  1. selbstständig - unassisted: without outside help
  2. eigenständig - independently.

Some examples highlighting these ideas:

1.1) Es ist Pflicht, dass die Studenten die Hausaufgabe selbstständig schreiben.

It's required that the students do the homework unassisted.

1.2) Das kleine Kind hatte seine Schuhe selbstständig gebunden.

The small child tied his shoes unassisted.

2.1) Der Junge ist zu einem eigenständigen Mann herangewachsen.

The boy has grown into an independent man.

2.2) Wir haben eine Gruppenreise geplant, aber ihre Familie wollte eigenständig fahren (nicht mit den Anderen).

We planned a group trip, but their family wanted to travel independently (not with the others).

2.3) Die Stämme in dieser Region haben sich immer eigenständig versorgt.

The tribes in this region have alway provided for themselves independently.

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Your examples gave me this distinction, I try to point it out with addressing why the opposite would not fit:

  • If someone has to achieve a goal on its own decisions, the person needs to do it selbstständig - and maybe even the goal was self-created
    • 1.1) = you got the task and have to ask no one else how to do it, so you research and write selbstständig
      • you can do the homework only eigenständig, if it was meant to be a group activity - in that case you abandon the group and do all output on your own
    • 1.2) you tie your shoes selbstständig, because noone else usually does it as group activity
      • if someone else ties your show, you are just unselbststänndig
      • to tie your shoes eigenständig it would usually require 2+ people to do it and you abandon their part
  • If it would be common for a task/goal to achieve it as a group, you do it eigenständig or together as group
    • 2.1) to grow up is not the question here
      • the eigenständige man decided and did some things regardless the usual groups you rely on for these things
      • the selbstständige man on the other hand comes up with his own ideas about what to do in live and completes them alone
      • (it is a bit difficult to clearly differentiate)
    • 2.2) this is about how the traveling happens
      • if a family travels eigenständig then all families decided together about destination and route - and this particular family abandons the shared route/vehicle yet not the destination and time
      • if a family travels selbstständig, the did not even asked the others for the destination, it just happened accidentially they ended up on the same destination
    • 2.3) this is about how one tribe comes to their food
      • if a tribe "versorgt sich eigenständig", then the assumption is that in this region have to cooperate to gather food, hence these tribes are Selbstversorger. So the greater society of the country where the region is part of relies on external food (in exchange of other goods)
      • if a tribe "versorgt sich selbstständig" it sounds like it is a new idea to care for your food. Or it is a new idea to go out shopping.

There is also this noun describing that a company owner while running his company is called Selbstständige or Chef. That is usually the case while you are the only "employer" or in a smaller company.

If you are a "true CEO" in terms of leading a company with a group of managers with the need to check and balance the dependencies & duties - in that case you can do eigenständige decisions and surprise the others.

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    A CEO is selbständig iff he is also owner (at least of a majority) of the company. Otherwise, the CEO is an employee of the company. I'll write an answer about the professional aspect of selbständig. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Aug 11 '20 at 17:32
  • I'm keen on your answer. As far as I understand en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chief_executive_officer and the german entry, a CEO with this title is not the owner of a company. While a Eigentümer/Inhaber which activly leads a company is usally called Chef and would be the Selbstständige - and might have a "helping hand" called Geschäftsführer. That's why a "true" CEO is for me not the owner of a business and has to act in group responsibility. – Shegit Brahm Aug 11 '20 at 17:47
  • It's a bit difficult to align the terms across languages, but I'll try to sort them out. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Aug 11 '20 at 17:50
  • Thanks! I think I understand now. So, suppose we have the sentences: 1. Der Autor hatte das Buch selbstständig geschrieben. 2. Der Autor hatte das Buch eigenständig geschrieben. Then, is sentence 1. equivalent to "Der Autor hatte das Buch ohne Hilfe von Anderen geschrieben", and sentence 2. "Der Autor hatte das Buch auf eigene Initiative, und ohne Aufsicht, geschrieben" ? – Mark Aug 11 '20 at 18:01
  • @Mark: well, mostly. maybe I should refine my wording in my answer, because I pointed so much on the impossible opposite that you got it the otherway round. in your comment, 1. selbstständig = it was never a group task and he did it alone on his own initiative, doing drafts and research alone. 2. eigenständig = it could have be done as a group but he decided to go on his own. so initiative to write the book comes from somewhere else and he did all tasks to get it written without asking anyone which he could/should have. In both cases there is no aid, the question is if there was some possible. – Shegit Brahm Aug 11 '20 at 18:11
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In addition to @ShegitBrahm's aspect of group work, selbständig to me has a connotoation of not only doing things without assistance (eigenständig), but in addition to take the "surrounding decisions" on one's own. E.g.:

  • the students do their homework selbständig vs. eigenständig: selbständig has a connotation of not only doing the homework by themselves and unassisted (eigenständig), but it also has a connotation there was no need to remind them to do their homework.
  • The same for the shoe-tying child. Selbständig has a connotation of the child having the bright idea on its own to tie their shoes (and then successfully doing so).

But these are only connotations, and you could mostly use both in both occasions.

In my everyday usage, selbständig is far more fequent, eigenständig sounds slightly unusual to me.

  • For the tribes in 2.3, I'd also use eigenständig rather than selbständig - but I couldn't say why.

  • If the family 2.2 wants to travel independently, I'd either put "unabhängig" or "einzeln" or "allein" - eigenständig sounds rather elaborate here (?)

  • For the young man, there may be a bit of confusion with the professional meaning of selbständig:

professional/legal meaning: selbständig

Selbständig has a special meaning when describing the professional legal standing. This is the one meaning of selbständig where you cannot get away with using eigenständig.

The employer can tell their employee (direct them) what, when and where to work (of course within the legal limits like maximum number of working hours per week, etc.). If you work, but noone can direct you, you are free to decide on your own what you'll do, where you do that and when you do that, then you are selbständig according to labor/social insurance law. If you do your work on your own account and on your own risk and with a long-term aim of financial gains, then your are selbständig according to tax law.

The textbook examples are

  • Freiberufler (≈ freelancers) which is a particular group of self-employed whose work is not gewerblich (≈ commercial) such as lawyers, medical doctors, engineers, ... who are not employees.
  • Gewerbetreibende Einzelunternehmer (someone running a commercial business) such as salesmen, craftsmen, ... who run their own business.

(All these professions you can also do as employee.)

The CEO = Geschäftsführer in @ShegitBrahm's answer is a bit more difficult: I'll explain with the Geschäftsführer of a GmbH. A GmbH always has (by law) a Geschäftsführer. The Geschäftsführer (CEO) of the GmbH is the one/are the ones who direct/manage the every-day work.
Knowing that someone is Geschäftsführer, however, does not tell you whether they are employed as Geschäftsführer or whether they are selbständig. The Gesellschafter (owners, shareholders) of the GmbH can hire (employ) someone else as Geschäftsführer (who is then not selbständig*), or they can to that work themselves (selbständig), this is sometimes emphasized by saying they are Gesellschafter-Geschäftsführer or by saying they are selbständig and Geschäftsführer or their own GmbH.
Just like a lawyer may run their own office (selbständig) or be employed by someone else.

*The Geschäftsführer is also employer for the "normal" employees of the GmbH, but that's a different story: the Geschäftsführer (rather than the Gesellschafter) is the one to direct the employees.

  • thanks for your better description of the legal aspect. Do you think it would be useful to add some links for further reading? Because you point out that there is no direct transfer of titles driven by law in different countries. – Shegit Brahm Aug 11 '20 at 19:28
  • @ShegitBrahm: done :-) – cbeleites unhappy with SX Aug 11 '20 at 19:37
  • Great explanation of the legal aspects. When I wrote "eigenständigen Mann" I meant, "er kann sich selbst versorgen".... would eigenständig be correct here? – Mark Aug 11 '20 at 19:39
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    @Mark: thanky you. Yes, eigenständig would work. Colloquially (where there is no danger of confusion with the professional/legal aspect) you could also use selbständig. E.g. parents may say "unser Sohn ist inzwischen ganz selbständig geworden: er ist ausgezogen und hat seinen Mietvertrag ganz alleine abgeschlossen." Should they want to express the professional standing, it would be "Unser Sohn hat sich selbständig gemacht.": "selbständig werden" always means becoming independent whereas "sich selbständig machen" = start their own business – cbeleites unhappy with SX Aug 11 '20 at 19:42

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