Saying “No” in a foreign language may seem like an easy thing to do. When learning German, we all learn the basic words “Ja” and “Nein” sometime during the first few lessons, if not the very first one. So you may think it a little odd to write a whole article on the word "Nein", but in fact it isn’t actually often the case that you’d only need this one little word to say no, in any given context.
For example, imagine this: you are baking a cake, and your (German-speaking) niece skips over to ask if she can help you. You reply: “Nein”. That’s it. Your face is slack.. Or maybe you’re smiling, but it doesn’t really matter, because either way, your single word answer may come across as rude, cold and - with that smile - potentially a little creepy.
Of course, cultural norms and values play a factor in what is considered rude or polite in conversation. Whilst perhaps not in the cake baking situation, a simple “Nein” may be seen, in German culture, as totally acceptable in many other circumstances, and arguably more than, let’s say, in British culture.
For example, when asking someone if they’d like sugar in their hot drink, you’re more likely to get a “Nein” back, in Germany, than a “No” in Britain, where it’s more common to hear a “No, thank you”. That isn’t to say that you don’t often hear “Nein, danke” in Germany; just that it’s not surprising to hear a simple “Nein”, too, and isn’t perceived to be rude as it could be in Britain.
In this article, we aim to provide a list of useful phrases that you could use to say no, in several different contexts. Additionally, we’ll include some ways to disagree in both a diplomatic and confrontational manner, when a simple “Nein” may not be gentle or dramatic enough.
How to Say No in German
When can I simply say “Nein”, “Nö” or “Nee”
To start off with, let’s consider the situations in which a simple no would be perfectly fine to use in conversation. A simple “Nein” could be used to respond to somebody busy and looking for a quick answer. For example, somebody quickly serving you lunch at the canteen may ask you if you’d like anything else. In such a situation, you may say “Nein”, without it seeming rude. Alternatively, you may choose to say “Nee, danke”. The word “Nee” is an informal way of saying no, that could come across as disrespectfully casual if used alone, in such a context. “Nein”, on the other hand, is more formal and appropriate for an interaction between people that aren’t particularly close, and so a “danke” at the end is less necessary.
That isn’t to say that “Nein, danke” wouldn’t be appropriate in this context. Only that a simple “Nein” is acceptable.
The word “Nee”, as previously mentioned, is more informal (unless you’re in Bavaria, where it’s commonly used in both formal and informal situations), and can be casually used with friends and family. It’s most similar to the English “Nah”, although perhaps not as casually received in every context. For example, if someone asked if you went to the rugby match yesterday, and you responded with “Nee”, that could come across as an unbothered “Nah” on it’s own, or turn into a neutral “No” if accompanied with an empathetic reason, such as “Nee, ich war Gestern krank”.
The word “Nö” can easily come across as rude, because it’s often intentionally used in this way. It’s a very casual way to say no, and can be used in contexts intended to be taken seriously, to rudely suggest that the speaker is unbothered. For example, if your parent asks you seriously if you’ve been taking your medicine, only to receive the response: “Nö”, the subtext here could be that you’re annoyed by the question, and perhaps also that you don’t appreciate the concern your parent believes is appropriate in this context, dismissing it with a cold shift in tone, from serious to light. In English, the equivalent to “Nö” in this situation would possibly be something like: “lol, nope”.
Bist du gestern ins Fitness Studio gegangen?
Nee, das habe ich nicht geschafft.
A: “Willst du Sam nicht beim putzen helfen?” B: “Nö.” A: “Du bist so Scheiße”