Mahlzeit! – Here's What the German Language Can Reveal about Attitudes to Work

© Devanath / Pixabay
© Devanath / Pixabay
Photo of Evelyn Smallwood
15 November 2017

Germans: rigid, humourless worker bees working their fingers to the bone to produce the finest quality precision engineering in the world, right? Sort of. Since language both creates culture and reflects it, let’s have a look at six common phrases you’d hear in a German workplace and see what we learn.


Literally, bridge days. The average German worker has 30 days of holiday plus 10 public holidays – more if they live in the Catholic states of North-Rhine Westphalia or Bavaria. Many of the public holidays fall on Tuesday or Thursday, in which case it is common to use a vacation day as a bridge to a bank holiday.

Steel factory | © 12019/Pixabay

‘Erst die Arbeit, dann das Vergnügen!’

‘First work, then pleasure’ – less a dour rejection of all the delights life has to offer and more the idea of getting what must be done over with as soon as possible, so the good part can start.


One of those gloriously long German compound nouns that, in this case consists of Arbeit (work), Unfähigkeit (impossibility) and Bescheinigung (certificate). All together, it’s the German equivalent of a sick note, which are given out freely and never questioned by your employer. German workers take twice as many sick days as their British counterparts but are significantly more productive.

A man welding | © thekurupi/Pixabay

Der Mittelstand

Business and manufacturing in Germany is dominated by middle-sized, family-owned companies that provide enormous stability to the economy. Nearly 80% of all businesses here qualify as Mittelstand, that is less than 500 employees or €50 million a year in revenue. For employees, it means they retain a lot of power and have a chance negotiate satisfactory conditions for themselves.


Literally ‘meal time’, the phrase Mahlzeit is only ever used at work. Strange looks would abound if you began a Sunday dinner this way. It has a definite working-class solidarity connotation and while not actively thought of in this way, is really about the strict division between company time and personal time. In practice, Mahlzeit can be used to express disgust, or annoyance, as a substitute for ‘Excuse you’ after someone burps or any number of other situations.

Spaghetti | © Divify/Pixabay

Schönen Feierabend

Following on from Mahlzeit is Schönen Feierabend, or have a lovely free evening. Feier literally means ‘party’, and it is common to wish your colleagues a Schönen Feierabend on your way out of the office. It is also normal to wish the same to the cashier at the grocery store or post office if it is near the end of the working day. This reinforcing of company and personal time is often even more strongly demarcated with the help of a Feierabendbier. Men drinking a beer on the train on the way home is by no means common, but it is also not at all unusual.

beerCraft beer at Ruzanuvol, Valencia | Courtesy of Ruzanuvol

A full 25% of Germans report being unhappy with their job, but it is also true that Germans enjoy some of the highest levels of life satisfaction worldwide. A conundrum it seems, that could best be solved with a Feierabendbier or two.

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