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When I studied German in the early 90s, we were taught that an unmarried woman is a Fräulein, but I recently learned that Fräulein is offensive. We aren't all ugly Americans, and I don't want to fall in that category even accidentally!

What are other words or phrases that seem to have straightforward, innocent meanings but that may be off-putting to native German speakers?

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    How would you envision a situation where you mistakenly use "Fräulein"? If a young woman says to you "Ich heiße Anna Huber.", would you just guess that she is not married? – Phira Jun 4 '11 at 14:44
  • @thei: Maybe a relevant question is, is there a German equivalent of "Ms?" Some Americans would be offended as being addressed as "Miss." – Tom Au Jun 14 '11 at 19:35
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    @Tom In any situation where Ms. is applicable, you should use "Frau". – Phira Jun 14 '11 at 19:38
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    There actually are some very good (and also funny) videos on YouTube by Americans living in Germany that show some of the pitfalls you might encounter when in contact with Germans. Also, we very well understand that foreigners who don't speak German as their first language will struggle with idiomatic expressions, just like an American wouldn't expect a German to speak English perfectly. So most of the time you'll be forgiven :-) As for Fräulein: If you want to get around this when calling for a waitress, instead of "Fräulein!" just raise your hand or say "Entschuldigung?". – Thorsten Dittmar Jun 28 '16 at 8:31
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    In everyday communication, when you talk to a woman you don't call by her first name, you will almost always address her as "Frau", no matter whether she's married or not. The thing that probably most Germans find strange about Americans is their tendency to be overly polite while they try not to be offensive. Germans on the other hand tend to be considered rude because they just say what they mean - but then they mean it, too. – Thorsten Dittmar Jun 28 '16 at 8:35
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Basically, if you are an obvious foreigner, most women will assume that you call them Fräulein because you are using the conventions of your own country and not take offense. This might change if you insist on it after correction.

The same thing applies to many other faux-pas in social etiquette as long as they are honest mistakes. It is not the same thing as calling someone the German version of a**hole since I won't believe you that this is polite in the US.

It is a bit hard to answer your question because it is actually an English question as well: What polite English phrases are impolite/unused/misunderstood in German?

Something that you should look out for is that Americans can actually be "too friendly" for German speakers, as in superficially friendly and not meaning it. Your "polite" may be someone else's "hypocritical" and someone else's "honesty" can be "rudeness" for you. (But take this with a grain of salt because my knowledge of US norms is spotty.)

E.g. I will certainly not tell you that you are welcome to visit me if you come to my city if I don't mean it.

This is a great problem because people will perceive it as your character (and vice versa) and so they will not explain it to you.

I remember that language schools like Berlitz actually have courses on cultural interaction (so that US people can negotiate with Chinese, say).

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    Differences in polite behaviour are nicely discussed here. – Carsten S Aug 7 '13 at 14:46
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    There's differences in what constitutes polite behavior even between different parts of the German-speaking world - lots of opportunities for misunderstandings between Austrians and North Germans, for example. So it's hard to talk about "correct" behavior towards some random German speaker. – Sebastian Redl Jun 25 '16 at 22:25
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More than the phrases themselves, I think that it is important that Anglo-Americans and Germans understand each other's "different mind sets." Using the guidelines below (and similar ones) will prevent many misunderstandings.

The first thing is that any statement made by a German is "heavier," more serious and more definite than a similar statement made by an American (a Britisher is probably an intermediate case).

For instance, if an American says, "he is a good friend of mine," it means this is someone I know "pretty well" (ganz gut). If a German makes this same statement, he's saying "This is one of my top five (or so) best friends, (someone I could count on to take care of my children if anything happens to me)."

If an American says, "what don't you drop by on me the next time you're in town," it's not "insincere," but it means "why don't we try to get together?" (But there's no tragedy if we don't.) If a German says that, he means, "I definitely want us to get together because I have something I want to show you (a new house, spouse, or child, etc.) Meaning that it would be said only to a "good friend."

  • And in Japan you have to say "no" to an invitation at least twice, or so I am told. It would be considered very rude not to invite you at least twice, and even more rude to accept one of the first two invitations. If you are invited the third time, then you can and should accept. – gnasher729 Jun 29 '16 at 22:11
  • Last example is exaggerated, I'd think. An invitation to meet at the next visit in town is, in my experience, usually meant as stated. I'd say it is often offered to anyone you'd like to spend a few hours with, no need to be good friends. Not necessarily any deeper motives than just having a nice chat from time to time. – Lykanion Feb 19 '18 at 21:59
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In general: Germans mean what they say, and the polite white lie is - if the lie is identified at all in the first place - seen as insincere.

Example: An invitation is an invitation the first time around. If you get an invitation, it is fully meant the first time, so if you turn it down to be polite, be prepared to be taken by your word and not be invited again - and you may even come across as impolite.

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Any list is bound to be both incomplete and too broad.

Approach people in a friendly manner, be nice. Mention casually that you are a foreigner (not necessary if your German has an accent of some sorts). If you accidentally said something wrong, a quick apology should do the job. Remember the trap you just fell in and don’t fall into it again.

Continue like that and you will have a pleasant experience.

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I am also a non-native speaker of German. One time, I have said human race (Menschenrasse) and a German friend of mine told me that I should not use this word because of its bad reputation from Hitler's time, even if this word is totally acceptable in English and other languages.

I think there are couple of words, sentences, which you should avoid using them.

  • Well, it's also just wrong, as Menschenrasse is a race of mankind, not the human race. – Carsten S Jun 28 '16 at 15:04
  • Very well then, menschliche Rasse (human race) is not much better to the average native German, is it? The whole concept of race, it must be said, when applied to humans is largely considered (at least slightly) offensive. – Ingmar Jun 28 '16 at 15:06
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    @Ingmar menschliche Rasse is much better. It just means human race. It only becomes problematic if you imply that there are different human races. – adhominem Jun 28 '16 at 15:40
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    I think for a non-native speaker of German, who cannot differentiates these words, it is the best option not to use word Rasse. – Ad Infinitum Jun 28 '16 at 16:40
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    Gets complicated once you start talking about dogs. – Jan Jun 29 '16 at 12:36
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Grammatically "Fräulein" is totally fine. But this is more about history and current culture. For us Germans (and Austrians) the word "Fräulein" is more a link to the years around 1900 and second world war. Also for the times of the upcoming bourgeoisie.

Therefore this is far in the past for us and not modern at all. This is why we avoid such "old" words.

Today being polite is more a matter of the German translation of the English "You". For instance you would never say "Du" to a person you do not know as a friend or who offered the usage of that word to you. Under such circumstances you would rather use version of "Ihnen, Ihr, Ihre", which is more polite. For instance:

German [polite]: Guten Morgen Frau Meier. Wie geht es Ihnen heute?

German [friendly, but impolite to non-friends]: Guten Morgen (Frau Meier). Wie geht es Dir heute?

English: Hello Ms Meier. How are you today?

Update: Another explanation is emancipation. Today we think as women and men being equal. But formerly a women was treated as part of her husband. Also in title. For example "Frau Magister Meier". Even though she had no academic title she was greet with her husband's title.

  • So some "old" words such as Sie are still in, but others are out. Got it! – Greg Bacon Jul 4 '16 at 21:51
  • Old words is maybe true for nouns but "Sie" is not a noun. I added another explanation above. – Matthias Jul 5 '16 at 8:43
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    In deinem regionalen und sozialen mag man vielleicht nicht duzen, aber der deutsche Sprachraum ist groß. – Carsten S Jul 5 '16 at 9:48
  • We also "Duzen" each other. What I wanted to say is, that the usage of "Du" und "Sie/Ihnen" is a good indicator for politeness. – Matthias Jul 5 '16 at 12:29
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Anderswo auf german.stackexchange gab es die Frage, wie man "grammar nazi" übersetzt. "Grammatiknazi" gibt Ärger. "Leader" mit "Führer" übersetzen ist auch problematisch aus historischen Gründen ("Anführer" ist in Ordnung).

  • Mit Leader ist meist keine Assoziation mit Adolf Hitler intendiert. Was mit grammer nazi gemeint sein soll, wenn nicht ein Grammatiknazi, ist bis heute unbeantwortet. – user unknown Oct 22 '16 at 21:58

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