German Politeness: How to Say Thank You, Please, and Sorry

Navigating the German speaking world is a lot easier if you respect others and if others respect you.

Politeness is a difficult “art” to master, but in the following paragraphs I will be guiding you through the language peculiarities built into the German language providing the opportunity to be more or less polite depending on context. Additionally, I will indicate the influence of culture on the use of language, and how that will change the way that you speak, and the way that you are spoken to.

Thank You: Danke

Danke is the German word for thank you. The addition of the “suffix” -schön provides a strengthening of danke. So, dankeschön. 


  1. Danke für die Idee! (Thanks for the idea!)
  1. Bitte sag “danke” zum Busfahrer. (Please say “thank you” to the bus driver.)

Please and You’re Welcome: Bitte

Bitte is the German word for please and can be used within or at the end of a sentence. Bitte is a very common and easy way to make your sentence more polite. Bitte can also be used to say you’re welcome. In the case of “bitte”, the suffix -schön can only be used as a form of “you’re welcome”. You would not say “bitte schön” as “please”.


  1. Bitte einsteigen! (Please get on board!) This is the most common way for subway conductors in Vienna to inform passengers that the doors are about to close and that they should get on board
  1. Danke, dass Sie die Tür für mich offen gehalten haben! Bitte schön! (Thanks for holding the door open for me! You’re welcome!)

Excuse Me and Sorry: Entschuldigung

Entschuldigung is the word used to ask for someone’s attention. Additionally, this word is used to ask for forgiveness. 


  1. Entschuldigung, könnten Sie mir bitte helfen? (Excuse me, could you please help me?)
  1. Entschuldigung. Ich wusste nicht, dass dein Vater von uns gegangen ist. (Sorry. I didn’t realize that your father passed away.)

Duzen oder Siezen? 

In English, there is no pronoun separation for “you” based on respect. However, in German, there are two forms of “you”, namely “du” and “Sie”. The former is the familiar variant, to be used after a connection is made, and the relationship is judged as one of mutual friendliness and closeness. The latter is the formal variant, to be used in the case of less connection, or a relationship marked by respect or hierarchy. “Duzen” and “siezen” are the German verbs employed to describe the process of “using du” or “using Sie”.

How can you know if it is appropriate to duzen or siezen? Most often, the answer to this question is fairly evident. 

A good rule of thumb is to use “Sie” in the case of a first encounter (meeting a new colleague for the first time), an official encounter (speaking to an official, landlord, police officer, etc.), or someone who is in a higher social position than yourself either by status or age (for example, an esteemed researcher or a grandparent). Additionally, “Sie” will never be seen as impolite, but rather will merely be smiled at and declined, with the request to duzen moving forward, if the receiver thinks “Sie” is too formal for the situation; thus, it would be advisable to use “Sie” in any situation in which you are in doubt. 

There are many situations, however, where duzen is quite appropriate, even upon a first encounter. If you are speaking with a child, a band mate, a football teammate, or are in any sort of non-formal free-time situation, duzen is the norm. On the internet, most conversations take the “du” form, for example on chat rooms and forums, with the exception of emails. Additionally, the longer you know someone, the more likely you are to switch from siezen to duzen.


  1. He, Oida, kannst du mir eine Soda rüberwerfen? (Hey bro, can you throw me a soda?)
  1. Sehr geehrte Frau Wurmbrand, ich möchte Sie über den Zahlungseingang für Ihre Mitgliedschaft im Fitnessstudio informieren. (Dear Mrs. Wurmbrand, I would like to inform you of your incoming monthly payment for your gym membership.) Note: that when you siezen, you will also use the formal articles (in this case “Ihre”)

Modifying Your Phrasing to Sound More Polite

In English, there is the possibility of speaking or requesting in a lighter phrasing. The official terminology behind this lighter phrasing is the subjunctive II. In essence, instead of saying “Can you do (something)?” or “Do you have (something)?”, you would rephrase the sentences to “Could you do (something)?” and “Would you have (something)?”. In German, two useful words are “könnten” (could) and “hätten” (would have), which are used in place of the standard verb variants of “können” (can) and “haben” (have). Here are a few examples, with the more direct example followed by the more polite example.


  1. Können Sie mir bitte helfen? (Can you please help me?)
  1. Könnten Sie mir bitte helfen? (Could you please help me?)
  1. Haben Sie eine Gabel? (Do you have a fork?)
  1. Hätten Sie eine Gabel? (Would you have a fork?)

German Directness

In German culture, directness is of high value. Germans are on average more direct than both their European counterparts and most English-speaking countries’ inhabitants. The idea of indirect requests or small talk is often seen as a hindrance to effective communication, and as such, Germans will often opt to get straight to the point in meetings or conversations, avoid small talk (for example in supermarkets or on the street), and occasionally switch to English when speaking with a non-native speaker if they think there will be a faster and clearer route of communication.

This does not, however, mean that Germans are rude. In fact, respect is quite highly valued in German culture. It is simply a culture marked by punctuality, accuracy, and efficiency, and as such, any perceived gruffness should not be taken personally.

Herr and Frau

In German, “Herr” and “Frau” are used before a name as an honorific, or a way of expressing respect and status. 

When addressing a stranger, “Herr” and “Frau” are used like the English “Mr.” and “Mrs.”, with the difference that in German there is no distinction between a married and unmarried woman. The title Fräulein was formerly used for the unmarried woman but is now considered quite obsolete and even condescending. 

The title is placed before the family name, so Rudolf Fink will become Herr Fink, and Anna Kurz will become Frau Kurz. Alternatively, the full name can be used, in which case you could say Herr Rudolf Fink or Frau Anna Kurz. The full name is often used in written language, like in emails or documents. 

They are always accompanied by a name, so saying Herr or Frau to get someone’s attention would be quite awkward. In this case, you can use the expressions “mein Herr” (my gentleman) or “meine Dame” (my lady), but even this is often seen as a bit over-the-top. Generally, the polite form of “Sie” will accompany a request, for example “Entschuldigen Sie… wie kann ich Ihnen helfen?” (Excuse me, how can I help you?).

Written Politeness

Especially in written language, honorifics are quite valued. Titles such as Magister/Magistra (indicates Master’s degree) and Doktor (Dr.) are placed between “Herr/Dame” and the name. So if Anna Kurz is a Master’s graduate, she will be addressed as “Frau Magistra Kurz”. 

To begin an email formally, two scenarios can be faced: 

  1. You know who you are addressing
  1. You are addressing a group, or are unsure who will read the email

In the first case, “sehr geehrter Herr…” or “sehr geehrte Frau…” will be used. In the second case, a generic “Sehr geehrte Damen und Heeren” (in English, similar to “to whom this may concern” or “ladies and gentlemen”) should be used.

Note: that once a relationship has become closer, “Lieber” (masculine) or “Liebe” (feminine) can be used in place of “Sehr geehrte(r)”. It conveys a closeness, whereas “sehr geehrte(r)” might imply a distance or relationship marked by increased formality.


  1. Sehr geehrter Herr Barack Obama… (Dear Mr. Barack Obama…)
  1. Lieber Barack… (Dear Barack…)
  1. Sehr geehrte Frau Angela Merkel… (Dear Mrs. Angela Merkel…)
  1. Liebe Angela… (Dear Angela…)