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Why sorry seems to be the hardest (German) word

BOLSHY BERLINERS: The capital is home to the rudest Germans, says columnist Tanit Koch - Credit: Corbis via Getty Images

How, even when speaking clearly, true meaning can get lost when different nationalities communicate

“Hello Tanit, hope you don’t have a hangover”, I read, nodding. “Are you able to file soon?” I wasn’t. Not soon, anyway. But I felt extremely lucky to have a English editor.

Even when I miss a deadline he writes friendly emails. A German email to the same purpose would have read: “You’re running late. Again. Everyone’s waiting just for you.”

There is a possibility, however, that as a non-native I may have entirely missed the point and an English person schooled in reading between the lines would have translated it into a fully justified: “You’re running late. Again. Everyone’s waiting just for you.”

But because it wasn’t spelled out to me that way, my German self is still dwelling in the assumption that I’m getting away with being late because British people are more patient, more forgiving and genuinely more polite. And it’s quite a treat – although I probably shouldn’t write this here, he may change tactics – to have someone inquire after your wellbeing and care about you, after too much wine and limoncello, of which I had dutifully informed him in advance.

As islanders who master the artful combination of ‘please’, ‘sorry’, subjunctive and understatement gracefully, you must find us and our matter-of-fact bluntness rather uncivil. But we are not, really. At least not by Teutonic standards. Among Germans, only Berliners are generally considered rude. And that is, because they are. Some advice: When you are in the German capital and are snubbed at, just snub back. It will earn you respect (or a black eye), and Berliners can turn into an almost charming species, once you pass the test.

We have prejudices, too. US citizens (“Amis”) are often seen as superficial and their friendliness as insincere. Would sincere unfriendliness be more to our taste? I think not. But compared to the UK, there isn’t half as much Bitte und Danke in public space here. Least of all “sorry” (maybe due to the four syllables in Ent-schul-di-gung). According to Royer Boyes’ book How to be a Kraut, the English language has a minimum of ten usages for the word “sorry” (all of which apparently qualify as passive-aggressive). Ours: maybe three, and only if you’re a woman.

A colleague, senior in rank and age, asked me years ago: “Why do you apologise all the time?” I was taken aback: “What gives you that idea, why would I?” “You say ‘sorry’ all the time!” I hadn’t realised the risk of it being taken literally, as a genuine apology – whereas I was probably only being polite. But there isn’t much second guessing in German. English, on the other hand, puts on that extra layer for us to decipher. For proof please google “Anglo-EU translation guide”. Here’s an example: 

What the British say: That is a brave proposal. 

What the British mean: You are insane.

What Germans will understand: They think I have courage.

Or…

You say: Very interesting.

You mean: That is clearly nonsense.

We will understand: They are impressed.

So when in conversation with a German, just remember: We don’t speak code. We will call you up on that “let’s have a drink sometime” invitation. White wine or limoncello. You decide.

What do you think? Have your say on this and more by emailing letters@theneweuropean.co.uk

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