• Germany's news in English

How to understand the north Germans

The Local · 20 Jun 2014, 12:05

Published: 20 Jun 2014 12:05 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Way back when, when SG was but a brand new flickering flame of romance, my flatmate said to me upon meeting him, "he is a typical north German."

I didn’t quite know what that meant because I didn’t know any other north Germans, just a lot of Westphalins. I simply thought, "if by typically north German you mean wonderfully handsome, then how marvellous."

When talk of visiting Kiel sprung up among my Westphalin friends, they spoke of the famous aloofness the northerners possess, the arm’s length they hold you at. Once or twice, I seem to recall, the word "cold" popped up.

At the time, I was struggling with the Münsteranian arm’s length, the lack of hellos to passersby – I had visions of arriving in Kiel and being frozen to an ice chip by averted gazes, being cowed by a whole new level of German directness, gasping for air in conversational vacuums.

Falsch my friends. Falsch.

Over the years, due to moving around the country a bit, and cohabiting with a typisch Norddeutsche, I have come to appreciate what being a ‘typical north German’ means - direct, self deprecating, funny, and cheery.

Yes, cheery. Schleswig-Holsteiners are happy people, they ranked as the most content Germans last year – I suspect it is the sea air.

They are energized by innovation and by projects that focus on communities. And they love the north, protecting their borders with the same vigour all Germans protect their regions and all they contain. They also love holidaying in Denmark, but that’s a different story for a different day.

One thing about northern Germans that became very clear very early on is that they don’t waste words. Perhaps this tendency to say things as succinctly as possible, or indeed in as few words as possible, could account for their reputation of über-directness.

Most Germans are, when push comes to shove, direct, but some regions are chattier than others, padding out conversations and interactions with the type of conversational fat I am more used to. The Oberpfälzers, for example, could talk under wet cement.

The northerners, however, have no interest in conversational padding. They have their own brand of directness that seems to spring from a desire to make themselves understood as quickly and effectively as possible.

Indeed, you can have an entire conversation by simply employing three key words - Moin, jo!, mmmm. The latter isn’t even a word – this is the level of conversational efficiency we are dealing with.


"Moin" is the only greeting you need in the northern parts of Germany – Northern Friesland, Schleswig-Holstein, Bremen, Hamburg, and MeckPomm - and you will have it bounced at you by all and sundry regardless of time of day and the formality (or informality) of the situation.

Often, when one is greeting friends or family, "moin" is followed up with "naaaa?" which roughly translates to "how’s it going" and can be responded to with a counter "naaaa?".

North Germans enjoy a good handshake, so the classic greeting will encompass a firm handshake while the "moin" is being passed back and forth. One has the choice of responding to a "moin" with a "moin moin" although only if you really feel the situation calls for it.

A little research reveals that "moin" also pops up in the east and north of the Netherlands, in Denmark’s Southern Jutland and despite its apparent connection to "morgen", it actually more than likely springs from the East Frisian word mōi, which means good or lovely.

SEE ALSO: Ten English words only Germans use


Often, I will write SG a text containing some detailed information, not lacking in verbosity, and he will respond with a merry, "jo!" (pronounced, naturally, "yo!"). Just one word.

Or, a transaction in a shop will begin with a crisp "moin" and end with a rally of "jo!" being volleyed back and forth between the guy slipping the purchase into a bag and the customer tucking his wallet back into his pocket.

This peppery little syllable is most often used as confirmation, but can also make an appearance as a greeting, particularly when answering the phone to a pal, and also to wrap up a conversation.

Where we might get trapped in the endless cycles of, "okay then, alrighty, good, yep, okay then, sounds great, stay in touch, I will too, take care, yes I will too, okay I’ll pass it on, yep, good, chat soon, yep, yep, byeeeeeee", the northern Germans snap out a fizzy "jo! Tschüss" and end the conversation there and then.


This is a key one to master, because if left misunderstood, the "mmmm" can wound an English speaker, crippling their confidence in the hitherto-believed affectionate friendship. I first encountered the "mmmm" with SG’s mum and left the house certain she despised me.

Story continues below…

What else could account for a conversation ending with an "mmmm"? And an "mmmm" uttered, no less, with a slight chin-led nod with nothing following.

Say "mmmm" to an English speaker and we think you’re deep in thought and will soon deliver your opinion on the given conversational topic. We’ll wait for you to say something, to weigh in.

But here, the "mmmm" isn’t an indication the person you’re having coffee with is thinking about what you’ve just said, it’s more likely they’re bringing that chapter of the conversation to a close. "Mmmm" very often means "right. Okay then. What’s next on the agenda?" It isn’t a filler while you ponder, it is a punctuation mark.

"Mmmm" can also be used to signal a world of disapproval, in which case there is a slight tonal difference to the "mmmm" that signals a subject change. The disapproving "mmmm" hangs in the air, it withers nearby plants.

Sometimes an additional syllable is added to the "mmmm" and it becomes "mmhmm" and that generally signals simple comprehension and may precede some questions on the matter. This is the least terrifying of the "mmmms."

Liv Hambrett is an Australian blogger and writer living in Kiel. You can read more from her blog here or check out Liv’s book, ‘What I know about Germans’. If you would like your blog to feature on Expat Dispatches email news@thelocal.de.

SEE ALSO: Ten untranslatable German words

For more news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Student fined for spying on women via their webcams
Photo: DPA

Student from Munich fined €1,000 for spying on 32 different computers, using their webcams to take photographs, or record their keyboard history.

This is how much startup geeks earn in Germany
Photo: DPA

A comprehensive new survey of 143 startup founders shows how much you are likely to be earning at a German startup, from entry level all the way up to sitting on the board.

Man dies after beating for peeing near Freiburg church
The Johannes Church in Freiburg. Photo Jörgens Mi/Wikipedia

A middle-aged man from southern Germany has died after being attacked by a group of men who took umbrage with the fact he was urinating in the vicinity of a church.

The Local List
Seven German celebrities with uncanny doppelgängers
Former Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit and actor Alec Baldwin. Photo: DPA; Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

Check out these seven look-a-likes of well known German figures - we admit that some are more tenuous than others...

Israel seeks to buy three new German submarines: report
A Dolphin class submarine. Photo: DPA

Israel is seeking to buy three more advanced submarines from Germany at a combined price of €1.2 billion, an Israeli newspaper reported Friday.

Here’s where people live the longest in Germany
Photo: DPA

Germans down south seem to know the secret to a long life.

More Germans identify as LGBT than in rest of Europe
Photo: DPA

The percentage of the German population which identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is higher than anywhere else in Europe, according to a new study.

'Reichsbürger' pair attack police in Saxony-Anhalt
File photo: DPA.

A "Reichsbürger" and his wife attacked police officers on Thursday, just a day after another Reichsbürger fatally shot an officer in Bavaria.

Five things not to miss at the Frankfurt Book Fair
Photo: DPA

From consulting a book doctor to immersing yourself in an author's world with the help of virtual reality, here are five things not to miss at this week's Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest publishing event.

Parents who don't get nursery spot for kid entitled to pay
Photo: DPA

The Federal Court of Justice (BGH) ruled on Thursday that parents whose children don't receive placements in nursery care are entitled to compensation.

Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
10 things you never knew about socialist East Germany
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
How Germans fell in love with America's favourite squash
How I ditched London for Berlin and became a published author
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
12 clever German idioms that'll make you sound like a pro
23 fascinating facts you never knew about Berlin
9 unmissable events to check out in Germany this October
10 things you never knew about German reunification
10 things you're sure to notice after an Oktoberfest visit
Germany's 10 most Instagram-able places
15 pics that prove Germany is absolutely enchanting in autumn
10 German films you have to watch before you die
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
The best ways to get a visa as an American in Germany
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd