With approximately 121 million speakers, mainly in the European countries of Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Luxembourg, German is one of the world's major languages. As it belongs to the same family of languages as English, German is relatively easy to learn for native English speakers, and beginners will notice much vocabulary and grammar that is similar between the two languages. However, there are aspects of German verbal and non-verbal communication styles that may be surprising to those communicating in a German-speaking environment for the first time.
Gestures are one type of non-verbal communication in which German usage differs from that common in the United States. Germans use their little finger to point, for example, whereas in the U.S. it is usual to point with the index finger. When counting items on their fingers, Germans customarily start by numbering their thumb as "one." This can cause confusion for foreigners when ordering drinks in German bars, as in many other countries it is usual to discard the thumb and count from the index finger.
Germans value direct eye contact, particularly during face-to-face conversations, seeing it as a sign of honesty and interest in the discussion. A person who does not look you in the eye is regarded as untrustworthy and of weak character. Smiles are used with discretion, typically being reserved for close friends and family only. Germans do not normally smile to express politeness as is common in the United States.
Verbal communication in Germany tends to be more formal than in the United States. It is usual to show respect to people with academic qualifications, so someone with a Ph.D. should be addressed as "Herr Doktor" or "Frau Doktor," literally "Mr. Dr." and "Mrs. Dr." respectively. Addressing business partners by their first names is not usually appropriate, and German employees tend to refer to all colleagues as either "Herr" or "Frau," followed by their surname. When you speak in German, it is important to remember that the language has two different words for "you." As "du" is reserved for addressing children, animals and close personal friends, "Sie" should normally be used when initiating conversations with colleagues and acquaintances, unless the other person specifically suggests that you use "du."
Verbal communication in Germany tends to be clear and to the point. Germans value language that is frank and direct and may be suspicious of indirect, ambiguous comments. When Germans answer the telephone, for example, it is common to simply give their last names rather than a greeting such as "hello," which might be expected in the United States. This directness is sometimes difficult for foreigners to deal with, and misunderstandings may occur if a typically blunt German statement is mistakenly interpreted as an insult.
Rachel Turner has been writing professionally since 2007. She has been published in a variety of local and regional publications such as "Redbrick" and "Window Magazine." Turner holds a Bachelor of Science in mathematical sciences from the University of Birmingham and is a Chartered Accountant.