The German saying, “Der Ton macht die Musik” (the tone makes the music) states an important fact of everyday communication: it is not just what you say that’s important, but also how you say it. It might seem ironic to some that German has a proverb on the importance of considerate communication, given the language and its speakers’ reputation for being direct and sometimes slightly blunt. However, it might be that preference for efficient and precise communication that makes German all the more nuanced and complex.
Striking the right tone when we communicate can be challenging in every language. In a verbal conversation, we usually use a variety of additional nonverbal cues to convey our intended messages more clearly. From facial expressions, to speaking in a higher or softer voice — there are many different techniques that we use to convince or win over the person we are talking to. Although audio and video content are becoming increasingly popular online, the main form of online communication is still written text, which is arguably more restricted when it comes to the finer nuances of communication — try being sarcastic or ironic in a written exchange without adding emojis.
It is therefore crucially important to strike the right tone when we communicate online. We all know that online copy should be clear, creative and compelling for potential customers. But how can we make sure that our intended message reaches our target audience? This is an important consideration for efficient online communication in every language, but as you might have already guessed, this blog post will focus on getting the tone right in German. So, without further ado, here are some key things to consider:
Tonality and Tone of Voice:
The tone of your website and copy says a lot about your company and/or brand identity. Are you targeting a younger demographic with a fun and forward-thinking image? Or are you aiming for something more serious and professional, targeting other businesses or a more mature audience? German is a language with a variety of different registers. Do you prefer active or passive voice? Is it okay to use anglicisms, or colloquialisms? It can be helpful to create a style guide for your online communication that covers the most important points and therefore ensures consistency, especially if you localise your website in a variety of languages and potentially work with freelance copywriters. For German, one of the most important decisions in terms of tonality is how you choose to address your customers. Much like the French “Tu” and “Vous”, German distinguishes between formal and informal personal pronouns. The difference between an amicable “Du” and a polite “Sie” conveys a lot of meaning and can define what sort of relationship you are trying to establish with your customers or clients. Another point worth keeping in mind is that the DACH market is not entirely homogeneous, and that there are differences between Swiss, Austrian, and standard high German.
Keeping It Short and Sweet:
TLDR? German is infamous for its long compound nouns and even longer sentences. This can pose quite a challenge online, where German copy sometimes easily exceeds the maximum character count and long words can mess up precise web formatting. However, nifty German copywriters should find a way to keep it precise and succinct, unless they’re dealing with motor insurance. An increasingly popular and easy solution is the use of aforementioned anglicisms (you will see “Sale” instead of “Schlussverkauf” in most cases). Before you opt for a potential English term, you should again consider your tonality, target audience, and ideally conduct relevant local keyword research.
Gender Neutral Language?
Much to the delight of everyone trying to learn German as a second language, it has three different genders that are pretty much arbitrarily assigned to its nouns. Jewellery is masculine (der Schmuck), trousers are feminine (die Hose), dresses are neutral (das Kleid) and everyone is confused. Substantives that don’t refer to objects exist in a feminine and masculine form. For doctor there is “der Arzt” or “die Ärztin”, for student “der Student” and “die Studentin”. However, German is a language that uses the “generic masculine”, which means that it usually defaults to the masculine version of a noun or pronoun. When you go to see a doctor, you would say: “zum Arzt” – even when your doctor is female. The issue of language, gender, and representation has caused quite a few controversial debates in recent years. However, if your brand or company caters specifically or to a mostly female audience, it would be worth considering using feminine nouns instead of the generic masculine. If you know your customer is “die Kundin” why address her as a male “Kunde”.
Keeping these points in mind should help you to successfully present your business or brand to your German audience online. Language and tone matter, and we can guarantee that getting both right will be music to your customers’ ears.