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I've seen this form of addressing twice:

  • Once I was watching a reality show and a policeman was trying to get a person to tell them their name and, exasperated after multiple tries, he said something like "Guter Mann, bitte sagen Sie mir Ihren Namen."
  • Today I was listening to a colleague talking on the phone with a client and asking the client about the name of a colleague of theirs. And he used the phrase "und wie heißt der gute Mann?"

After I heard it the first time, it kind of stuck with me as a term on the pejorative side and I was surprised by hearing my colleague today.

My question is: What is this construct? How can I use it correctly or should I use it at all? Is there a feminine counterpart?

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    As a non-native speaker, I would recommend you stay away from this expression. Depending on the situation, it can be considered pejorative or impolite (as it can be understood as "you're annoying me") – tofro Oct 15 at 7:41
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    I am a native speaker and I have never used this. You will find this expression in literature but not in real life. It is old-fashioned and impolite. It was used in the past when people lost their composure because the other party was extremely frustrating. – Roland Oct 15 at 9:19
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    @tofro: Bist Du der Meinung, alle Sprachlerner sollten ewig auf Anfängerniveau verbleiben und Ironie gänzlich meiden und dass sie sich niemals abwertend oder unhöflich äußern sollten, auch nicht in fiktionalen Texten? – user unknown Oct 15 at 9:47
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    @userunknown nein. – tofro Oct 15 at 9:53
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    @Roland The OP just heard his co-worker using this expression, and now you are telling him it does not exist "in real life". Hardly helpful. There are some native speakers who think they know the whole language, and everything they wouldn't say or haven't heard must be wrong or obsolete; it's a recipe for being wrong. – Sebastian Koppehel Oct 15 at 12:47
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When used to address someone directly (vocative usage)

German has no distinct grammatical case for addresses, but other languages (like Latin) have a vocative case. In German and most other languages (like English too) we just use a name, role or title (which is a noun) and put an adjective in front of it. In written texts we add a comma, and then we add the first full sentence of our text:

Lieber Otto, wie geht es dir?
Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren, ich darf sie hier recht herzlich begrüßen.
Geliebte Hilde, oh, wie verzehre ich mich nach dir!
Gnädiger Herr, erlauben Sie mir bitte, Ihnen mein Anliegen vorzutragen.

The adjective used in such vocative phrases almost always honors the addressed person, but also a possessive pronoun is common:

Mein Freund, ich habe schon lange nichts mehr von dir gehört.

The phrase »guter Mann« perfectly fits into this scheme, but still it is different, but not because of the adjective, but because of the noun.

To address a male adult person you usually use the noun »Herr«. You can compare it with English "Mister". (In past centuries the noun "Herr" only was used to address superior male persons, for example aristocrats, like the English "Sir".)

But »Mann« normally refers to a biological entity, like the English word "man". So, there is no superior or aristocratic connotation in the word »Mann«, and this is, why you normally don't use it in a vocative phrase. But still you can, and among good friends, this even is ok (like "hi, man" in English), but only among good friends. But a police officer usually is not the best friend of a suspicious person.

And this adds this ironical and also pejorative touch to the phrase »guter Mann« when you use it in a vocative phrase. But this is alleviated by the revaluating adjective »gut«, so it is not really an insult.


When used to talk about an absent person

In this case you also have a demonstrative pronoun in front of the adjective, so the phrase consists of three words (»der gute Mann«, »dieser gute Mann«). This is just a phrase that can be translated into »this/that guy«.

Other ways to say this in German are

der Typ, dieser Kerl

But they also are at least as pejorative as der gute Mann. If you don't want to have this disparaging connotation, you just could use a personal pronoun instead (»Wie heißt er), or the person's name or a more complex phrase which describes this person.


Female versions

The female counterpart to »der Mann« is »die Frau«, so the female versions of your sentences are:

  1. Gute Frau, bitte sagen Sie mir Ihren Namen.
  2. Und wie heißt die gute Frau?
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    I somewhat disagree with the negative connotation if you use it to Address a stranger. I think the situation where you´s be most likely to use that phrase in modern, spoken German would be in a situation where you want to enter into a polite, brief interaction with a stranger Like: "Guter mann, würden sie mir bitte den Aschenbecher reichen?" or "Gute Frau, können sie mich kurz vorbei lassen?" – Daniel Oct 16 at 9:23
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    It sounds like the vocative usage is pretty close in meaning to "my good man" in English. What you say also fits with the literal translation to Hungarian. – Szabolcs Oct 17 at 12:13
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The meaning of "guter Mann" depends on the context - it may have a positive or a negative connotation.

If you talk about somebody and say "er ist ein guter Mann", then it has the obvious positive meaning.

In the phrase "guter Mann, bitte sagen Sie mir Ihren Namen" it is directly addressed to somebody and it has a negative connotation. There are several nuances, for example it may be sarcastic, disrespectful or condescending. At least it is not very polite.

In the phrase "und wie heißt der gute Mann?" it is in my opinion fairly neutral - just a silly idiom. If you do not know a person (as indicated by the question), you do not have any reason to be disrespectful.

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    I think der Ton macht die Musik in both cases. Because your argument for the second phrase used on the first implies - the name of the other one in unknown. So it is simply the question "Wie heißen Sie?" in a different wording. Which - using appropriate tone - makes it friendly or not. At least the "bitte" is a hint for friendly tone. Just because "bitte" is quite often only nonverbal ;-) – Shegit Brahm Oct 15 at 8:34
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    @ShegitBrahm I absolutely agree, "der Ton macht die Musik". Nevertheless I believe that adressing a person face-to-face as "guter Mann" is not often used as a friendly greeting. In the context of the question the policeman certainly was a bit grumpy because he didn't receive an answer before. – Paul Frost Oct 15 at 11:02
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    @ShegitBrahm One situation in which it could have a friendly connotation is when somebody aks for help: "Ach, guter Mann, können Sie mir bitte helfen?" – Paul Frost Oct 15 at 22:58
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    Gut Mann, bitte sagen Sie mir Ihren Namen. Has a negative connotation to you? I would interpret it as polite but old fashioned. – Daniel Oct 16 at 8:54
  • @Daniel Perhaps it was polite long ago, but today it is very unusual to address somebody as "Guter Mann" seriously. There may still be situations where I wouldn't regard as it impolite (see one of my above comments), but in general it has a touch of impatience or, perhaps subliminally, agression. – Paul Frost Oct 16 at 15:46
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This is usually used in a somewhat sarcastic way — mostly if you are annoyed — to address or refer to a male person. The policemen is sure to be annoyed because this man won't tell him his name. Your colleague might have been annoyed too, but it really depends on the context and situation.

Note that "guter Mann" would not be considered pejorative or offending most of the time, just impolite maybe.

"Gute Frau" can be used in the same manner – as with most expressions like these nowadays.

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    A lot depends on the intonation I think. The literal meaning is quite clear, and in a normal tone of voice it might be considered overly formal and dated but still polite. But used in an annoyed, sarcastic tone of voice then it might say you're trying to be polite despite the fact that other person is making you angry. Gene Wilder uses the formal expression "Good day sir" in the same way here. *Gnädige Frau/Gnädiger Herr could be used the same way. I imagine there are similar sarcastic dated formalisms in any language. – RDBury Oct 14 at 22:53
  • I would bet it was an older film and the the Policeman felt this was a perfectly friendly request to enter into a conversation. – Daniel Oct 16 at 9:03
  • @Daniel The question says "exasperated after multiple tries, he said". – idmean Oct 16 at 13:24
  • @RDBury in principle you're right, but the phrase is so seldom used non-sarcastically (as a direct address, at least) that even when said with a completely straight expression it would probably be understood as light criticism. Whereas “good day” in English is still perfectly possible to use literally. – leftaroundabout Oct 16 at 16:40
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Great answers so far, one meaning I heard is as a compliment:

Guter Mann!

I think the english equivalent is:

Attaboy!

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I would like to add the perspective of a native speaker with a few examples.

The key part of the confusing nature of "Guter Mann" is the adjective "gut". In general, obviously, "gut" is a positive adjective. However, when this positive adjective would not really be required in a sentence, choosing to use it anyway puts a spotlight on this particular part of the sentence. This might be used for only a mild comical effect, but it can also be used to clearly point out that you actually mean the exact opposite. In (admittedly rare) cases where using the adjective is not out of place, it can be unambiguously positive, but in other cases it can range from mildly ironic to downright hostile.

Fun fact: This general aspect of German is not limited to "Mann" or even "gut". For example:

Dann hatte ich noch ein bisschen von dem guten Salat aus der Kantine.

Then I had a little of that totally not terrible cantine salad.

There is practically no way to voice this phrase in my mind that can make the salad from the cantine sound actually good. However, I would like to note that the comments below showcase how other native speakers feel completely different about this. It is quite possible that the way these nuances are interpreted also depend strongly on your peer group, certainly tone of voice, and the context.

Another example where the connotation is more comical than sarcastic:

Wir können uns noch ein paar von den guten Backwerk-Brötchen gönnen.

We could treat ourselves to some of those world class rolls from Backwerk.
(a fast food bakery)

Now those rolls may actually be something that the speaker is craving, but it's a little comical because, well, those rolls are not really world class.

Now, back to the phrase "Guter Mann". I want to briefly explain that the phrase can actually be used without being negative at all, and that is in cases where the adjective "good" isn't out of place, but justified. For example, if I am being asked an opinion about someone:

Coworker: Was hälst du von Markus?
Me: Guter Mann.

Coworker: What do you think about Markus?
Me: Good man.

This would be a very solid compliment. The fact that the evaluation is an unfettered "gut" might even be considered highly positive.

I'd say that in most cases when the word is used with a negative connotation, there is already some tangible tension in the conversation, and I would usually expect this to happen in a conversation between people who are not close. For example, we are at the airport and an annoyed customer is being asked to check in a bag that they consider small enough to be hand luggage:

Steward: Sie müssen diesen Koffer leider am Schalter aufgeben.
Annoyed Customer: Guter Mann, der entspricht doch genau den Abmessungen hier.

Steward: I am afraid you'll have to check in this bag.
Annoyed Customer: Kind sir, if you have a look you'll see that it precisely matches the dimensions given here.

In this case, the customer is clearly annoyed and it is equally clear that "Guter Mann" is used in a derogatory way. However, the less tension there is in the given context, the less strong the irony of the phrase becomes. For example, you mentioned:

Und wie heißt der gute Mann?

This could be an almost neutral statement, possibly slightly ironic, with the "gut" added in there just for comical effect. For example, imagine you are with a friend who suddenly mentions that you will be joined by a third guy and proceeds to explain what a wonderful person that is, how much you will like him, and never mentions his name. Your friend is obviously anxious to make sure that his two buddies will get along. You might then ask the above question, and there'd be nothing particularly negative about the interaction. It's just a little comical that you now know what a fantastic person you are about to meet, but you haven't heard their name yet. You might even be relaxing the situation a bit if you say it with a friendly wink.

To summarize, the more out of place the adjective "gut" in "Guter Mann" seems to be considering the general tone of the conversation, the more likely it is to be irony. As in any case, irony can imply sarcasm.

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    Can´t really agree with the Salad example. Depends on context. If I talk to someone who knows the salad selection and agrees with me that one is particularly good, it could for example be used to specify which salad I got. – Daniel Oct 16 at 9:09
  • I agree with Daniel. The salad example also only works well if you put a sarcastic emphasis on „der guute Salat“ (obviously only works in a spoken conversation). +1 for the rest. – Michael Oct 17 at 6:39
  • The salad example first made me think of "gute Butter" (with a totally non-sarcastic meaning) as a key ingredient in cooking and baking :) – Hagen von Eitzen Oct 17 at 9:46
  • I don't even want to defend this too much, language is complicated, possibly even depends on your peer group. – Jesko Hüttenhain Oct 17 at 11:40

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