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I recently heard that it can be considered offensive to ask, “Wie geht’s?” to a person who cannot walk. Furthermore, it becomes less offensive if you add “dir” or “Ihnen” at the end.

  1. Is this true, and why? It says, “es geht”, not “du gehst”. Further, what is the logic why adding “dir” changes the tone or meaning?

  2. Related issue. What is the most appropriate way to refer to traveling over the streets and sidewalks for a person in a wheelchair? In English, “go” is completely generic, but “gehen” in German means walking. And how does one properly replace “zum Fuß”?

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    "I recently heard" [citation needed] Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 18:14

3 Answers 3

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  1. "Wie geht's" ist keine Beleidigung gegenüber Gehbehinderten, denn die Frage bedeutet nicht "Wie steht es um Dein Laufvermögen", sondern "Wie ergeht es Dir".

Nichtdestotrotz können Kommödianten Scherze machen, die das "wie geht's" behandeln, als könne es beleidigend aufgefasst werden, weil der Zuhörer nicht die Zeit hat, die Phrase in Ruhe zu analysieren. Er muss durch Überlegungen erst auf die Idee kommen, dass hier etwas Beleidigendes sein soll und verspürt aber doch deutlich, dass diese Fehlinterpretation von "gehen" absichtsvoll und unpassend ist.

  1. Wenn man etwas ausdrücken möchte, bei dem die Form der Fortbewegung nicht im Fokus steht, kann man "gehen" sagen, so wie man auch sagt "Wir gehen heute abend ins Konzert", selbst wenn die Anreise mit dem Auto stattfindet.

Soll die Fortbewegungsart genauer ausgedrückt werden kann man sagen "Du musst schneller fahren (rollen), wenn wir pünktlich da sein wollen." Wenn sich eine Gruppe zum Konzert bewegt, von der ein Teil zu Fuss geht, ein Teil per Rollstuhl fährt, könnte man verallgemeinern zu "Wir bewegen/begeben uns zum Konzert".

"Wir gehen zum Konzert" würde aber auch von jedem, der es nicht drauf anlegt, richtig verstanden werden.

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  • Beleidigungen geschehen nicht, weil der/die SprecherIn sie beabsichtigt, sondern weil der/die HörerIn sie wahrnimmt. Respekt besteht darin, dies ernst zu nehmen.
    – ccprog
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 16:52
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    Respekt beruht auf Gegenseitigkeit und besteht somit auch darin, ernstzunehmen dass der Sprecher keine Beleidigung beabsichtigte. Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 17:38
  • @TilmanSchmidt: Wenn Du Respekt empirisch untersuchst wirst Du wahrscheinlich finden, dass Respekt selten symmetrisch verteilt ist. Dennoch ist es natürlich abwegig, von einer Beleidigung zu sprechen, wenn sie gar nicht intendiert ist. "Beleidigungen geschehen, weil der Hörer sie wahrnimmt" klingt mehr nach einem Glaubensdogma, als nach einer durchdachten Idee. Wenn ich im Verkehr jmd. beleidige, der mir die Vorfahrt nimmt, dann ist es eine Beleidigung ganz unabhängig davon, ob der andere sie hört, geschweige wie er sie interpretiert. Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 18:05
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Conversational Premises

The question has premises which do not lie in the German language, but rather in a general model of communication:

The term offensive is vague, and the question of what is considered offensive is part of political debates, which get heated at times. For clarifying your question, it is important to differentiate between the speaker's intent on the one hand and the message that the audience receives on the other hand. The source of truth of what is being perceived as offense is in the audience's mind. The source of truth of what is being meant to be offensive is in the speaker's mind. It's simple. Nonetheless, a lot of arguments on this topic get quite heated because they fail to make this differentiation.

I recently heard that it can be considered offensive to ask

That is correct, it can be considered offensive. And of course, it is also possible that it is meant as an offense. The potential offensiveness lies in the possibility, that this might be a pun, making a joke about the person's inability to walk.

I would assume that most people do not mean to be offensive, when they use phrases with gehen ("Wie geht's", "Gehen wir!", etc.) in a conversation with a person who can't walk or sehen ("Auf Wiedersehen", "wir werden sehen", "mal schauen", "sieh da", "da schau her", etc.) with a person who is blind.

If the term is not meant to be offensive by the sender, but offense is taken by the receiver, the problem at hand is ambiguity: The audience interprets the statement in a different way than it is meant.

Unfortunately, people who cannot walk face discrimination sometimes. These experiences can partially shape their understanding and interpretation of social interactions:

When you talk for the first time with a person who has a lot of bad experiences from getting mocked for sitting in a wheel-chair, they might not be sure whether you have discriminatory perspectives on them. This is one potential source for speakers coming across as offensive despite their best intent. If this happens, it is a misunderstanding, based on diverging perceptions of the social world, due to different subjective experience.

If you do not just intend to not offend someone, but also want to decrease the risk of being perceived as offensive, you could take a more sensitive approach to communication with strangers and pay special heed to avoiding phrases which remind of people with discrimination experiences. That way, you contribute to reducing the risk of the above misunderstanding.

That does not mean that you have to assume that people who cannot walk will in fact be offended. It is just a risk. I am sure there are a lot of people who cannot walk who do not take offense and not feel excluded if you use gehen as a general verb of movement. Every partner and every conversation is different. You can never be safe not to hurt the feelings of your partner. The risk is higher, the less you know and trust each other.

Conversely, it is also possible that an approach which is perceived as overly sensitive can be considered offensive. The best you can do is to be personally respectful and pay heed to the reactions of your partner.

Why does Wie geht's dir? has a better chance in being perceived as non-offensive than Wie geht's?

Wie geht's? is a fixed, idiomatic phrase. The verb gehen does not have the meaning "to walk" in this phrase. Nonetheless, it could be used as a pun, as described above. In Wie geht's dir?, the marker of idiomaticity is even stronger. Hence it makes it more probable (from the perspective of the audience) that the phrase is actually not meant as an offensive pun.

Alternatives

gehen

In German gehen does not just mean walking by foot, but can, similarly to English, also denotate a general movement. For instance, ins Kino gehen, ins Theater gehen, etc. do not refer to the physical act of walking somewhere, and can be used regardless of the means of transportation that is used.

The following verbs are alternatives. None of them is as general and common as gehen. You might pick one based on what fits best in the particular context:

  • fahren is limited to moving with a vehicle: Heute musst du nicht ins Büro fahren.
  • sich begeben is rather formal. Example: Begeben Sie sich in den Sicherheitsbereich!
  • sich bemühen is even more formal, and stresses that the movement is an effort. You could use this in a very polite question: Darf ich Sie bitten, sich noch einmal in unser Geschäft zu bemühen?. It is that formal that it is a candidate for irony.
  • in Saxon dialect, the verb machen is used as a generic verb for any movement. The most famous example is rüber machen ("go over") from the times of the GDR, where it would refer to leaving the country and going to western Germany. Mach hin! means "hurry up" (literally it would mean "go there!")

zu Fuß

zu Fuß can easily be replaced by the actual means of transportation:

  • Willst du mit dem Rollstuhl fahren oder sollen wir ein Taxi nehmen?
  • Wollen wir zu Fuß und mit dem Rollstuhl dort hin, oder fahren wir mit dem Auto?

Wie geht's

Wie geht's or Wie geht's dir? can easily be replaced by Wie fühlst du dich?, Wie ist die Stimmung?, or by colloquial phrases such as Wie stehen die Aktien? and Was macht die Kunst?.

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  • #-Überschriften sind arg sperrig und stören den Lesefluss. Ich würde nur ## und ### benutzen. Commented Nov 8, 2022 at 16:29
  • @leftaroundabout Danke für den Hinweis - hat mich überzeugt. Beim nächsten Mal gern einfach editieren.
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Commented Nov 8, 2022 at 16:44
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To answer your first question with a counter-question: if i ask someone what a "prime number" is and he explains that to me and i understand and, to anounce that, I say "I see" - shouldn't he be offended in case he is blind? Does he have an obligation to be offended? Or, in case I am blind and he is not, shouldn't he be offended by me using this phrase?

Language has set phrases and most of them do not mean what their verbatim meaning is. (In fact this is the very definition of a "set phrase".) We don't answer "how are you?" with "how couldn't i be?" because we know what its intended meaning is. It is, of course, possible to take a phrase, reduce it to its verbatim meaning, ignore the (obvious) intended meaning completely and then take offense by the intended misunderstanding. If one wants to be offended this makes for a very rewarding pastime.

The phrase might be "wie geht es?" but the intended meaning is "how are are you feeling/doing?" or "what is your situation in life right now?". The addressed german-speaking person, regardless of being able to walk or not, is certainly aware of this. It is possible to "play dumb" and then be offended because of being dumb, but, honestly: isn't life too short for that? (And, yes, all the undead people have reason to be offended by me now for being not included. To all the zombies out there: i don't care.)

Which leads us to the second question. In German there is a similarly generic verb like the english "to go": "fahren". It means basically "to go", but excluding walking (and flying).

Ich fahre nach Hause.

would mean i go home - by bicycle, car, bus, train, even ship, just not by walking or using an airplane. One could use that. A person in a wheelchair in German is even called a "Rollstuhlfahrer" ("wheelchair driver", although "fahren" is, unlike "to drive", unspecific about doing the steering). Or - see above - use "gehen" anyways and just decide not to be offended because of being able to decipher the intended meaning. After all, if you want to switch sides, you might have to use a "Fußgängerübergang" (pedestrians crossing) and not a Personen, die nicht motorgetriebene Fahrzeuge (mit Ausnahme von Fahrrädern) benutzen oder nicht benutzen-Übergang.

Btw.: it is "zu Fuß", not "zum Fuß", which would mean "to/towards the foot".

And, by the way: some will be offended by this. I may be blind, but i saw that coming.

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