When you’re learning German, getting acquainted with people is one of the most important things you can do.
After all, if you don’t talk to people, you’ll never learn the language.
I’ve already gone over the many ways in which you can greet people in German, and in this article I’ll show you how to introduce yourself.
This includes telling people who you are, that you’re happy to meet them, and talking a little about what you do for a living.
Let’s get started.
How to ask somebody’s name in German
Asking somebody’s name in German is very easy as there’s really only one way to ask, using a verb we have no proper equivalent of in English, heissen.
It translates to “to be called” but it’s an active verb, not passive.
In use it looks like this:
Wie heisst du?
Note that this is the informal way to ask, if you’re asking an older person or somebody in a position of authority, you use the formal:
Wie heissen Sie?
Telling somebody your name in German
As straightforward as it is to ask somebody’s name in German, there are several ways to answer the question.
Let’s go over the most common ones.
My favorite way to answer is to use heissen right back at them.
I figure if there’s a word that has such a clearly outlined function, why not use it?
In an informal setting, I’ll only use my first name, while in a formal one I add my surname, too.
Ich heisse Fergus.
This one works much like heissen does, only you use sein (“to be”) instead.
It’s a perfectly legitimate way to answer the question, and it works exactly the same way.
Ich bin Fergus.
However, note that asking somebody’s name using sein is a bit rude, especially if you use the informal.
Wer bist du?
That’s almost interrogatory, and you really should never use it.
If you ask people this, you can expect a brusque reply, at best.
Mein Name ist…
The final common reply is to simply state what your name is.
In German, der Name often means somebody’s full name, so use that when saying this.
Mein Name ist Fergus O’Sullivan
For ears attuned to English this may sound overly formal, but it’s fairly normal in German-speaking countries.
Pleased to meet you
Now that you know how to ask and answer about names, let’s see how to tell people you’re happy to meet them.
This is actually pretty simple, as there’s a standard sentence you can use. In the formal it’s:
Es freut mich, Sie kennenzulernen!
Literally it means “it gladdens me to get to know you,” and it’s quite the mouthful.
Over the past few years, it’s become more and more common to simply say just freut mich, instead.
The nice thing about freut mich is that it works in informal situations, too, though you can also say something along the following lines:
Schön, dich kennenzulernen!
Schön actually means “beautiful,” but in this context it’s more like “nice.”
This is a pretty common way to tell somebody you’re happy to have met them.
Exchanging names in German
Let’s go over a few examples of what asking somebody’s name is like in German.
The first example is two girls of let’s say around 20 meeting each other.
Wie heisst du?
Ich heisse Sarah, schön, dich kennenzulernen! Und wie heisst du?
Ich bin Veronika.
For a formal situation, let’s imagine two stuffy businessmen at a cocktail party.
Wie heissen Sie?
Mein Name ist Torsten Schmidt; wie heissen Sie?
Ich heisse Sven Müller. Freut mich!
Freut mich auch!
As you can imagine, there are a lot of different ways these conversations can go, but this should give you an idea.
Asking where people are from
With initial pleasantries out of the way, let’s ask where your new friend is from and also learn to answer the same question.
Woher kommst du?
That’s the informal, the formal is like this:
Woher kommen Sie?
Make sure to not confuse wo, which means “where” and “woher” which means “from where” or, if you’re feeling Victorian, “whence.”
There is an alternative, namely:
Aus welchem Land kommen Sie?
In all honesty, though, I haven’t heard this one much, so it may be best not to use it.
Answering where you’re from is pretty easy, just use kommen aus (“come from”) and add the country:
Ich komme aus Frankreich.
You don’t use the country’s article in this construction, with a few important exceptions, like the United States, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
Ich komme aus die Schweiz.
This has to do with the fact that these countries’ names are plurals (Switzerland is a confederation, so it gets a plural), so the article sticks to the name.
Below are some country names in German to get you going.
|America (U.S.)||die Vereinigte Staaten|
|The Netherlands||die Niederlande|
Asking somebody about their job in German
Finally, let’s go to another great topic of conversation, what people do for a living.
In English-speaking countries, it’s normal that you start conversations like this, but generally speaking in Germany and the surrounding countries you want to wait a bit before asking.
It’s probably best that you already have a bit of a click before you ask what people do for a living; after all, maybe they don’t want to talk about their job in their free time.
There are a few ways to ask somebody about their job (der Job) or occupation (der Beruf), and there’s a distinct difference in word choice when it comes to formal and informal.
Let’s take a look at the formal version, first.
Was sind Sie von Beruf?
In German (and Dutch, for that matter), you ask somebody what they are “of” occupation, which I know is weird.
It’s also becoming a tiny bit old-fashioned, especially since so few of us have actual occupations or callings and usually just have jobs.
Instead, you could consider asking the following:
Was machen Sie beruflich?
If you translate that literally, it actually means “what do you do occupationally?”
In English that just doesn’t work, but I like it in German because you’re drawing a line between the person you’re talking to and what they do for a living.
This is something you see a lot in more informal versions of this question. One example is:
Was ist dein Job?
This is more common among twenty-somethings hanging out together than a professional meet-and-greet at a cocktail party, but it has a direct charm.
If you want something that’s informal but not too chummy, you can try this one:
Wo arbeitest du?
Although you may think you just get the name of the company when you ask this, the subtext of “what do you do?” is understood and people will answer with their job.
I am a…
Answering the above questions and telling somebody what you do for a living is easy in German.
You just say ich bin… and that’s it.
So, for example, I’d say something like:
Ich heisse Fergus und ich bin Schriftsteller.
If I wanted to be really fancy, I could say Schriftsteller von Beruf, but that’s a mouthful and kind of redundant information.
However, it is what I’d say if I was talking about a third person, for example:
Das ist Jürgen, er ist Architekt von Beruf.
If you don’t want to be too specific, usually because you don’t feel like explaining the intricacies of your job, you can also say something like:
Ich arbeite bei einer Bank.
Though in this case you need to make sure you use the right case as bei can only go with the dative, something I explain in the article about German prepositions.
Though it’s vague, it will do nicely in most social situations.
German formal vs informal (what to pick and when)
German is a fairly formal language, still: it’s not like English or the infamous informality of the Dutch.
As a rule of thumb, anybody who you don’t know over the age of about 35 should always be addressed with the formal Sie (note that capital “S”!), as should anybody acting in an official capacity. That includes policemen, judges, city workers, you name it.
Anybody younger than you or your own age (if you’re under 35) you can address as du.
However, when in doubt, always default to the formal: it’s better to be too formal rather than too informal, no matter what language you’re speaking.
Of course, if you want to be polite, you should make sure to make a bit of small talk with people before asking their name; even just greeting them first should be enough to break the ice a little.
I hope this guide is enough to get you started with getting to know German people and speaking their language.
There are a lot of variations of the examples I’ve given you, and a good next stop would be our list of German courses (free and paid) to go deeper.
Good luck, and have fun.