Learning to say sorry is a fundamental skill that everyone should learn and practice. Learn to say sorry and you will save yourself from a lot of embarrassment and awkward situations.
If you don’t know the right German words to crawl your way out of situations that require small apologies, expressions of sympathy, and other German equivalents to how we might use the English word “sorry,” it can lead to some pretty annoying moments.
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When to use ‘sorry’
English-speaking countries, such as the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, are known for their overuse of the word “sorry.” You cross paths with someone coming the other way—sorry. You and a stranger both reach for the door at the same time—sorry. Have you ever accidentally touched someone at a grocery store? Sorry!
Sorry is an unavoidable part of life, even if no one truly believes what they say. The older generation in German is guilty of conforming to the rude German stereotype of going about their business without a care in the world. They had this unapologetic attitude.
Understanding when it is necessary to apologize, excuse yourself, or even ask for forgiveness is a good place to start when preparing for a trip to Germany or learning how to say the German equivalent of “sorry.”
Consider the following scenarios and their differences:
1. Capturing someone’s attention
2. Requesting someone repeat what they said
3. Conveying the sympathy
4. Knocking into someone
5. Requesting something
Observing the buzzing Germans around you is the best way to pick up on cultural nuances in these situations.
When cramming into the U-Bahn in Berlin, for example, very few locals will bother saying sorry for stepping on your toes.
So, it is very important for you to increase your cultural understanding while learning how and when to say sorry in German.
How politely you should apologize
If you’ve spent any time learning German phrases, you’re probably aware of the varying degrees of politeness in the German language.
Keeping your manners necessitates taking into account what is actually going on in a situation. Did you run into someone, or are you consoling a coworker for the loss of a loved one? Condolences deserve more than just an “I’m sorry” and a pat on the back.
You must also respond to the reactions of those involved. You don’t need to be fluent in German to develop basic emotional intelligence. It may seem like the end of the world if you open the door in someone’s face, but if Hans shrugs and walks away without even acknowledging what happened, it’s probably not worth running after him with an apology.
5 Ways to Say “Sorry” in German
Even if Germans are sorry for their overly complicated apology system, you would still need to learn it to understand them! That leaves only one option: study. The following are very useful “sorry” or apology words in German that you will almost certainly hear and have to say if you visit a German-speaking country.
For getting someone’s attention – Entschuldigung!
Entschuldigung is one of the most difficult words to sound out for anyone unfamiliar with German pronunciation. Despite its spelling, Entschuldigung is pronounced more like en•shool•dee•gung, with the “t” nearly inaudible.
When broken down, Entschuldigung literally means “un-guilt,” with die Schuld (guilt) at its root. The prefix ent- means “reverse” or “undo,” and the suffix -gung is simply a noun ending. Because the word is a noun, always capitalize the first letter.
Of course, yelling “Unguilt!” to get someone’s attention makes no sense, but when used correctly, the word indicates that you’re politely requesting something. It may appear too short to be used politely, but approaching strangers with this one-word attention-getter is perfectly acceptable.
Here’s a situation in which Entschuldigung is appropriate to use:
Entschuldigung! Können Sie mir bitte helfen? (Formal) — Excuse me! Can you help me, please?
What did you say? – Wie bitte?
“How may I assist you?” This “sorry” is more of a request for clarification or repetition than a genuine apology. If you’re speaking to a security guard at a concert and can’t hear anything, you can ask, “I’m sorry?” It would be absurd to assume you’re apologizing for your inability to hear!
In German, this type of “sorry” is used when you didn’t quite catch something and need the speaker to repeat it. Another common usage is to omit the wie entirely and simply say bitte.
Bitte? Ich habe das nicht mitbekommen. (Informal and formal) — Sorry? I didn’t get that.
Wie bitte? Würden Sie das bitte wiederholen? (Formal) — I beg your pardon? Would you please repeat that?
This is a great phrase for any beginner to use if someone is speaking too quickly for you to understand or if you want to double-check that you actually understood.
Expressing sympathy – Das tut mir leid
When someone is hurt or has something bad happen to them, you can use this phrase to express your sympathy and heartfelt feelings. In general, it’s an expression to use when you’re sorry (for someone), even if it’s your fault. However, you would not use this phrase to beg forgiveness.
[Someone’s dog passes] Das tut mir leid… dein Hund war so lieb. (more formal) — I’m sorry… your dog was lovely.
Es tut mir sehr leid, aber ich kann Ihre Perspektive einfach nicht akzeptieren. (formal) — I’m very sorry, but I simply cannot accept your perspective.
Tut mir leid, dass ich so spät ankomme! (informal) — Sorry that I’m arriving so late!
Hitting into someone or other minor disturbances: Entschuldigung/Verzeihung/Sorry
Entschuldigung/Verzeihung/Sorry are instinctive, out-of-the-blue words that are hard-wired into people, the kind that you don’t think about. If you step on someone’s toes, the words just come out of your mouth before you realize what’s going on.
Verzeihung has become more old and outdated in recent years and is considered old. However, you may still hear this word thrown around from time to time, though not to the extent of Entschuldigung and sorry. Consider the English phrase “pardon me.”
On the other end of the spectrum is the trendy, English-derived sorry, which is being casually dropped all over the place and is becoming increasingly popular.
Sorry, can be heard all around, whether it’s because it’s shorter than Entschuldigung or because young Germans insist on using English. Remember, just because someone apologizes to you doesn’t mean they have a foreigner tracking sense and know how to use English.
It’s worth noting that this Entschuldigung is the same word used to draw someone’s attention, as previously explained and you should memorize the spelling.
Asking for something: Entschuldigen Sie bitte
And the difficult word is here again. But this word is different from the previous one. Entschuldigung and entschuldigen look nearly identical and have very similar meanings. However, the former is a noun and the latter is a verb, implying that they serve different functions.
When directly addressing a person to ask for something, such as directions, entschuldigen can be used. Although the noun form we learned twice above could technically be used for the same purpose, it’s a bit more indirect and informal if you’re asking a stranger for a favor.
Entschuldigen’s exact English translation varies depending on context. When a noun follows the entschuldigen, as in the following example, forgiveness is requested:
Bitte entschuldigen Sie die Störung. (Formal) — Please forgive the disturbance.
In the following example, the phrase is used before asking a question:
Entschuldigen Sie bitte! Können Sie mir bitte sagen, wo ich die Toilette finde? (Formal) — Pardon me! Can you please tell me where the restroom is?
Now you are ready to console your loved ones, get strangers’ attention, and plan a trip to Germany. These phrases of saying sorry in German will help you to avoid any embarrassing situation.
Apologize to people when you feel that you have made a mistake. Learn basic German etiquette. Observe the natives and how they apologize in certain situations. It will help you to learn about their cultural patterns.