The first step to learning German - or any language, really - is to learn how to say hello.
It’s the gateway to conversation.
To make sure that you get every interaction off on the right foot, I’m going to give you a little tour of the most common greetings in German, both formal and informal.
As with all things German, it’s a lot easier than you might think, so let’s get started.
Formal German greetings
First up are what we’ll call the formal greetings, things you say when you’re meeting with somebody you don’t know or whom you should be formal with.
In Germany, Austria and Switzerland people are still pretty formal, along the lines of countries like Spain, France or in Eastern Europe.
If you’re from an English-speaking country or are used to the informality of the Dutch, this can be a little discombobulating, so let me give you some simple rules of thumb to help you decide when to be formal.
When to speak formally in German
The first rule is that when in doubt, use the formal.
If you’re not sure what the situation calls for, just err on the side of caution and use formal greetings.
If you don’t know somebody, or at least not know them well and they’re older than you, use the formal.
If people are operating in a formal capacity (city worker, policeman, judge), be as polite as you can be.
Walking into a shop, you’re best off being formal, as well, though your local pub, not so much.
If somebody is your age and you’re under 30 or so and they’re not in an official capacity, you can go with being informal.
Same goes for people younger than you and children.
So a 40-year-old policeman gets the formal treatment, while your 24-year-old buddy gets the informal.
What the German formal looks like
In German, you can tell somebody is being formal by their choice of words, their tone, but also the personal pronouns used.
Informal uses the second person singular and the second person plural.
The formal uses the third person plural, which takes a second to get used to.
This is what it looks like in a table:
|they (formal you)||Sie||Ihnen||Sie|
Note that in the formal, Sie and Ihnen are capitalized!
Greetings based on the time of day
The first group of formal greetings are those based on the time of day.
While they can be used in informal settings, too, but like in English it’s a bit odd to wish a friend of 20 years “good day”.
These greetings are very common throughout the German-speaking world and they’re used all the time: when meeting people you see every day to people you sit across from in the train.
Whatever the occasion, you’re good to go.
Besides wishing somebody a good day, you can also simply say Hallo, though I feel that one is teetering on the edge of informality, so you may want to be a bit careful with that one.
Like in almost all cultures, from Germany to China, it’s perfectly normal and expected to wish people a good morning, guten Morgen, where gut means “good” and Morgen “morning”.
In German, morning starts at 4 or 5 in the morning and goes up all the way till noon, so you can use it at any time during that period.
Like English, it’s two words, not one, which may take some getting used to if you’ve been learning Dutch, it’s just yet another small difference between German and Dutch.
Also, Morgen is capitalized because in German we capitalize the first letter of all nouns.
For the afternoon, so from noon till 18:00, you should use guten Tag.
Though Tag means “day,” in this case it stands in for “afternoon,” or Mittag.
This greeting can be used any time it’s daylight according to some, but much like its English equivalent it is really only used for the afternoon.
Last is guten Abend, “good evening,” which is used from 18:00 till midnight.
If you’re going clubbing or something after midnight, I guess you could still say it, though as these are informal settings just saying the equivalent of “hi” is also fine.
Just like in English, “good night” or guten Nacht is only used as a way to say goodbye or to wish that somebody will sleep well, not as a greeting.
Formal greetings in southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland
Though all the above applies equally well across the German-speaking world, it’s most common in Northern Germany; other parts have different customs.
A common greeting in parts of Bavaria in Southern Germany and Austria is grüss Gott which means “God greets you.” I know that sounds ridiculously formal to our ears, but it’s still fairly common, especially in Austria.
Alternatively, you can also use grüss Sie (formal) or grüss dich (informal) instead, which sounds a little more relaxed to me.
In Switzerland, which speaks a very different dialect of German, the most common greeting is gruezi (which is a contraction of grüss Sie and sounds a bit like “grootsy”) which works in both formal and informal situations.
Of course, your life in Germany won’t be filled with policemen and judges — or at least I hope not — so let’s go over the ways you can greet people you already know.
Generally speaking, your best bets here are either opening with guten Morgen, guten Tag and the like, though you can always say hallo or hi.
However, I’ve found that in Germany, if you already know somebody you’re more likely to simply ask them how they’re doing, so let’s take a look at that.
Asking how people are (formal and informal)
There are a few ways to ask people how they are, the most common of which is wie geht es dir? which literally means “how goes it you?”
Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed two things: I used the informal and I also used a dative, which if you know your German cases a little is an odd choice.
This is because there’s a hidden word in that sentence, it should actually be wie geht es mit dir?
As mit is one of the German prepositions that goes with the dative, we get dir rather than dich.
At some point in time, the mit disappeared, but the dative stayed, so hence that odd-looking sentence.
From that follows, that, if you want to be formal, you say wie geht es Ihnen? as that is the dative of Sie.
For example, say you’re meeting the father of a friend of yours: you’ve met him once or twice before, but you still don’t know his first name. You’d say something like:
Guten Tag, Herr Schmidt, wie geht es Ihnen?
His answer would be something along the lines of:
Mir geht es gut, danke, und mit Ihnen?
Notice that in the reply mit pops back up when he asks how you are! Had he left it out and just asked und Ihnen that would have made no sense grammatically.
However, if you took this formal approach with a friend or even an acquaintance when you’re both under 30 or so, it would be a little odd.
In these cases, you just drop the hello entirely and simply as wie geht’s? In this example, the dir is just gone and the es disappears into geht. It’s a pretty loose way to greet somebody.
Sven, wie geht’s?
To which Sven would likely say something like:
Na, geht’s gut, und dir?
This is what it would look like for two people in their mid-20s, say. If you’re a bit older and meeting a friendly couple, it would be more like:
Lange nicht mehr gesehen! Wie geht es euch?
They would reply uns geht es gut and the conversation would go from there.
In case you’re curious why lange looks a bit weird, it’s because the word Zeit (“time”) should be there, but is left out.
A final example of a relaxed greeting would be alles gut? Which just means “all good?” and is used the same way as wie geht’s?
If you know a little Dutch or even some Greek greetings, it probably doesn’t sound too foreign.
End of the beginning
That’s pretty much it for our little crash course on German greetings.
Though there are some other ways to say hello, these examples should be more than enough for almost all the situations you’ll likely find yourself in as a learner.
The only things missing are some more of the informal/slang ways to say hi, but I doubt anybody could supply a comprehensive overview of those as they’re always in flux.
There are also more Austrian and Swiss greetings than the ones I mentioned, usually ones that simply use the local pronunciation of existing greetings, but the few you have now should be enough to keep you going.
Have fun saying hi to people in Germany!