Why You Should Stop Asking “Wie geht’s?” All the Time
Es war einmal…that I called my German Landlord to ask to get something fixed in the apartment. Although I was in a fantastic mood that day, it only took about 20 seconds for that phone call to change my German speaking habits forever…here’s why:
Nicole: Hallo, Herr Müller!
Herr Müller: Hallo, Frau Warner!
Nicole: Wie geht’s Ihnen denn?
Herr Müller: Ach ja, wissen Sie, nicht so gut. Am Wochenende habe ich im Garten gearbeitet und etwas hat mich am Fuß gestochen! Die Stelle ist angeschwollen—es war riesig! Und mit Eiter gefüllt* war’s auch. Aber jetzt war ich beim Arzt, ich habe eine Spritze bekommen und es wird schon besser!*
Nicole: (inner reaction): Oh Gott, oh Gott! Warum hat er mir das erzählt! Das wollte ich alles gar nicht wissen!
(slow realization dawns on Nicole) Oh nein! Ich habe ihn gefragt!
Nicole: (spoken) Gut, daß es besser wird. Ich wollte Sie mal fragen ...
*TRANSLATION: Well, you know, not so good. This weekend I was out working in the garden and something stung me on the foot! It got all swollen--it was huge! And it was all filled with puss. But now I've seen the doctor and I got a shot and I feel a lot better.
There are some hard realizations that you need to make when you go to Germany in order to work with their culture. One of them is the difference between the straight-forward German greeting, which usually exceeds no more than two words: Guten Tag! and the longer, American greeting, which means nothing more than the German one:
“Hi! How are you?”
You see, the last three words form a question: How are you? The only socially acceptable responses are “Fine, thanks,” or “Good, thanks.” (Unfortunately terrible, thanks for asking, isn’t socially acceptable, although maybe someday we’ll get there.)
To a German, here is a short list of the acceptable responses:
Es war schon mal besser.
Mir geht’s gar nicht gut.
How is that even possible?
We have two culturally acceptable responses and the Germans have a staggering list of them from very positive to very negative. How is that even possible?
The difference between the two answers lies in the timing: when you ask the question. In the US we ask this question ALL THE TIME. It’s actually part of the greeting, not a part of the conversation. Anybody who answers “I’m doing horribly. I am behind in my German class and my boyfriend just broke up with me!” is breaking the social convention, which makes the questioner feel really uncomfortable. Germans don’t ask this during the greeting.
So when DO Germans ask "Wie geht's?"
Germans ask the question “Wie geht’s dir?” when they really want to know. They ask their friends, their family, their close work associates. They ask when the question will be heard and the other person will give them an honest response.
That means that when a German comes to the US, if s/he hasn’t learned this yet and hears “Hi, how are you?” 20 times a day, realizing that the person asking doesn’t actually want to hear the answer is at the least mildly confusing and can sometimes be quite hurtful.
So put yourself in a German’s shoes: Paula arrives for her 12-month work exchange program, fresh off the plane from Regensburg and the first person says “Hi, how are you?” But all the first person wants to know is what Paula wants to eat from the deli selection in front of her. She gets in a cab and the driver says “How you doin’ today?” but all that taxi driver wants to know is where she’s headed. And on and on this process goes, all day long…everybody asking, but no one caring.
So back in Germany...
At work or in a professional setting, the question “Wie geht’s Ihnen?” will arise. At the Goethe-Institut in Düsseldorf, for example, the Leiter asked me this after a meeting he led on the Goethe-Institut proficiency exams. We had already spoken a bit in the meeting and ran into each other later. Because it was obviously a formal relationship, I went with a fairly normal response: Gut, danke. Und selbst?
The rule of thumb here is when it’s a professional setting and someone asks, Wie geht es Ihnen?, is to answer the question in an honest-ish way and then to move on to the topic at hand. Even if your response is “Ich bin ziemlich gestresst,” it’s unlikely your Gesprächspartner won’t dwell on it, and neither should you.
Here's HOW to stop asking "Wie geht's?" all the time:
When you’re used to “Hallo! Wie geht’s?” being a part of your daily life, it’s hard to stop doing it. You need to create a new habit when you’re speaking German so you don’t accidentally ask someone and then end up with a yucky story like I did. (Seriously, it was disgusting.) Try one of these after Guten Tag or Hallo:
- Haben Sie den Weg gut gefunden?
- Was gibt’s neues?
- Da schau her! Wann haben wir uns zum letzten Mal gesehen?
- Schön, Sie/dich wieder zu sehen!
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