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German language For Members

10 phrases that explain the German approach to life

Sarah Magill
Sarah Magill - [email protected]
10 phrases that explain the German approach to life
A squirrel eats a nut in the forest. The phrase “the squirrel feeds itself laboriously” is a popular saying in German. Photo: Der Gigguri/Pexels

Spanning punctuality to strong work ethics, these German phrases will give you an insight into how the Germans tick.

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Mühsam ernährt sich das Eichhörnchen

This German proverb about small, fluffy creatures tells us something about the German approach to achieving success.

Translated to "the squirrel feeds itself laboriously," it carries a valuable message about patience and perseverance in the face of long-term goals.

Just like squirrels laboriously collect nuts for winter sustenance, as Germans see it, success often requires time and effort: be that a project that demands prolonged supervision, lengthy educational endeavours, or even losing weight.

Pünktlichkeit ist die Höflichkeit der Könige

If there's one thing everyone knows about living in Germany, it's that punctuality is a big deal (except for when it comes to the trains).

The original meaning of this phrase, meaning "punctuality is the courtesy of kings," expresses how punctuality is a way for those high up in society can show appreciation to others, for example, by not being late.

The origin of the saying can be traced back to King Louis XVIII of France, who wanted to express that even kings should observe punctuality to show respect for their fellow citizens.

The phrase eventually made its way into German and in contemporary usage, the proverb is used to highlight the general importance of punctuality - regardless of a person's rank.

Ordnung muss sein

Along with punctuality, another well-known feature of Germanness is a love for order and predictability. Hence this phrase, which means "order must prevail".

A desk accessory keeps things neat and tidy.

A desk accessory keeps things neat and tidy. Photo: Jeff Sheldon/Unsplash

Germans tend to value order, structure, and efficiency in their personal and professional lives and appreciate well-organised systems and processes, whether it's in public spaces, workplaces or at home.

Erst die Arbeit, dann das Vergnügen

Work is an essential aspect of life for Germans, and they often prioritise their careers and professional development. But Germans also value the importance of a good work-life balance - hence the popularity of another German word - Feierabend.

READ ALSO: Six German words I now use in English

So that's where this phrase comes in - meaning "First the work, then the pleasure" in English. It's a reminder to focus on the tasks at hand and then reward yourself afterwards with some well-deserved rest or enjoyment.

Ehrlichkeit währt am längsten

Germans value honesty and straightforwardness in communication and relationships, and this proverb, meaning "honesty lasts the longest," encapsulates this perfectly.

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It can be used to stress the importance of being earnest on several levels, meaning that honest people endure for the longest time and that one can get further in life by being honest.

It also conveys the idea that the truth always holds the highest position; while a lie may lead to quick success, it won't last.

Wissen ist Macht

Education and learning are highly valued in German culture, and knowledge is seen as a source of empowerment, hence the phrase "Knowledge is power."

Though the phrase can be traced back to the 16th-century English philosopher Francis Bacon, it was soon being widely used in German and is still very popular today.

Humor ist, wenn man trotzdem lacht

Germans may not be best known for their sense of humour, but this phrase shows that that may just be an issue of perspective.

Meaning "humour is when you laugh anyways", the phrase shows that having a sense of humour is about being able to laugh even when things are going wrong. It tells you something about Germans' unique sense of humour, which often includes a touch of sarcasm and irony. 

Ein Bierchen in Ehren kann niemand verwehren

Punctuality and order aside, Germans do occasionally let their hair down.

Most often they do this by sipping a cold, frothy beer: an integral part of German culture.

A mug of beer on a beer garden table.

A mug of beer on a beer garden table. Photo: Engin Akyurt/Pexels

This phrase, which literally translates as "nobody can deny the honour of a beer" is a way of saying that it's okay to enjoy a beer or two responsibly, that it's a harmless pleasure.

In der Kürze liegt die Würze

If you've been living in Germany for a while, you may have noticed that German people don't tend to beat around the bush in conversation.

READ ALSO: REVEALED: The German versions of famous English sayings

Though this approach can sometimes be mistaken for rudeness, it's often just about getting to the point. Because, as this phrase explains: "In brevity lies the spice" i.e. keep things short and simple for greater impact.

In der Ruhe liegt die Kraft 

Similarly, Germans are not always the most outgoing and talkative people you'll meet. But that doesn't mean that there's not more going on beneath the surface.

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This proverb which means "in tranquility lies strength" or "there is strength in calmness", conveys the idea that staying calm, composed, and patient can lead to better outcomes and inner strength.

It emphasises the value of self-control, resilience, and the ability to find inner strength in moments of calmness and serenity.

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